Whatever that means.
The two weeks spent in Daytona and this year’s unprecedented extra day due to the 500’s first rainout in history took its toll on teams and drivers. While everyone understands the magnitude of opening the year with the biggest race of the season, there’s an audible sigh of relief throughout the garage area when the nuts and bolts of the schedule kicks in the following week.
Now that Phoenix has been positioned as the Daytona follow-up, the one mile oval has filled the spot admirably.
Even in its brand new incarnation after last year’s massive reconfiguration, Phoenix has retained its reputation as an entertaining track that creates more of a short track vibe than other tracks its size in New Hampshire and Dover.
It’s the perfect contrast to the restrictor plate racing and aerodynamic display of Daytona’s superspeedway.
NASCAR had to have been pleased with the full grandstands for Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500, the second straight sellout for the track after last November’s success. A bigger question will be answered in a day or two when television ratings are released in the wake of the 36 million who viewed into at least some portion of Monday’s rain-delayed Daytona 500.
Just a small percentage of those viewers sneaking a peek at Sunday’s Phoenix race would bump the ratings and based on what they saw in race number two, that could persuade them to join in again for next Sunday’s Las Vegas race.
The late race drama of Denny Hamlin trying to fend off a hard-charging Kevin Hamlin, who had to give up the challenge when he ran out of fuel wasn’t the side-by-side run to the checkered flag finish most fans hoped for on Sunday. But overall it was still a decent way to begin the grind of the year after the Daytona season-opening hype.
Greg Biffle – Two races and two third place finishes for Biffle as he starts the year off on a solid note. Came out of nowhere late in the race on Sunday and appears to have found some of that good luck the team had disappear last season.
Jimmie Johnson – Whether or not the controversy of the week’s penalties and appeals served as motivation or not doesn’t matter. The fact is Johnson was a strong contender on Sunday and put the off track issues as well as last week’s Daytona disaster far behind.
Joey Logano – The pressure to perform in his final contract year with Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t seemed to bother Logano. He followed up a solid Daytona 500 win with a Top 10 in Phoenix. To his credit Logano seems very relaxed these days and his relationship with new crew chief Jason Ratcliff is off to a very positive start.
Kasey Kahne – Last November’s Phoenix winner was a pre-race favorite to follow that up with another trip to victory lane, which would have been his first for Hendrick Motorsports. But those hopes quickly went out of the window when he slapped the wall early and severely damaged his Chevrolet. After his Daytona disappointment, 2012 has not gone anywhere near what Kahne had planned.
A.J. Allmendinger – Another guy who has gotten off to a bad start with his new team, Allmendinger was swept up in a multi-car accident on the frontstretch with Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray also involved. After his less than successful Speedweeks debut, Allmendinger is suddenly under pressure to perform in week number three of the season.
Tony Stewart – Kenny Wallace was the first victim of an EFI problem at Daytona but Stewart’s issues Sunday will get a whole lot more attention. The defending champ found out the hard way shutting down the engine to save fuel doesn’t work as well with the new system when he could not get his power plant to re-fire late in the race.
(Choice comments and communications from drivers and crew chiefs)
"What fender is rubbing?! I ain't hit nobody!" – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Boys, we are making this way, way harder than it needs to be. Like way f----- harder." – Crew Chief Steve Letarte
"You can't fix stupid." – Jeff Gordon’s spotter on Juan Pablo Montoya
"I think we need to run it out here and hope for a caution." – Martin Truex Jr.
“We can here and ran 30th last year & didn’t even contend. I'm so proud of everyone on this team!" – Second place finisher Kevin Harvick
On a scale of one to five "Pistone Pistons" I'll give Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 a three. The race got off to a bit of a slow start but gained some momentum as it rolled on and in addition to some good hard racing a dose or two of drama didn’t hurt any. Denny Hamlin gets the monkey off his back and Darian Grubb shows he is indeed a championship-caliber crew chief. Kevin Harvick’s late run to turn in another “Closer” performance comes up just short and Tony Stewart shows the word that Electronic Fuel Injection has indeed changed the Sprint Cup Series landscape. An entertaining afternoon in the desert to get keep the season headed in the right direction.
DOWN THE ROAD
The west coast swing continues for NASCAR with next Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The first race on a 1.5-mile track should give an indication of which teams have their intermediate track programs in order, a an important element of the Sprint Cup campaign since a bulk of the schedule is made up of similar-sized speedways. The weekend will also include the unveiling of the new 2013 Dodge Charger in an event that has been planned for some time. We’ll see the car but it will be some time before drivers or a team will be known.
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