With a memorable and wet Daytona 500 in the rearview mirror, NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series heads west to the Valley of the Sun and a dry Phoenix International Raceway for what is considered to be the real start to the 2014 season.
In stark contrast to the Speedweeks schedule of two weeks of practice, racing, some more practice and then even more practice before the Daytona 500, teams will have a typical three-day NASCAR race weekend schedule in Phoenix.
The weather, which was a critical element on race day in Florida, is expected to play a minor role this time.
It is likely that the highlight of the weekend will be Friday's qualifying sessions, as new rules regarding qualifying will take effect. Gone is the oval-track single-car qualifying that has been a part of the NASCAR rule book since the series began more than 60 years ago. Crew chiefs will face their first opportunity to put into play qualifying strategies that, up to now, have only been theory.
Mistakes made with this new qualifying format could have a significant impact on what happens on race day.
Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. brings his points lead and a moderately successful record at Phoenix (he was the winner in 2003 and ’04, and he finished fifth in 2013) to try and win two in a row.
He does have history working against him, though. Since the Daytona 500 became the season opener in 1982, only two drivers have followed a Daytona 500 victory with a win at the next race: Jeff Gordon in 1997 (when the second race was at Rockingham) and Matt Kenseth in 2009 at Phoenix.
Phoenix International Raceway
The Race: The Profit on CNBC 500 presented by Small Business Fueling America
The Date: Sunday, March 2
The Time: 3 p.m. ET (national broadcast begins at 2:30 p.m. ET)
Radio: Motor Racing Network and Sirius XM, channel 90
Distance: 312 miles (312 laps)
Bits and Pieces
Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The odd-shaped one-mile, flat tri-oval is located west of Phoenix in the town of Avondale. The track was reconfigured in 2011 to make the unique dogleg on the backstretch wider and to convert the track to progressive banking in the turns. Seating capacity is 76,800.
PIR hosts two NASCAR weekends. The second race is the penultimate race of the Chase, and this year is scheduled for Nov. 9. Last year's winner of this race was Carl Edwards. It was his 20th Cup win. Kevin Harvick won the fall race in 2013.
There have been 23 different NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race winners at Phoenix. Eight drivers won more than once, led by Jimmie Johnson, who's won four times (’07 Chase race, ’08 spring race and Chase race, ’09 Chase race). Johnson also leads the series in top-five finishes at PIR with 14.
Alan Kulwicki, on the right.
When NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series (known then at the Winston Cup Series) first came to Phoenix International Raceway in 1988, the race was won by Alan Kulwicki (above right), who later won the championship in 1992. In April 1993, he was killed in a plane crash.
As a side note, Kulwicki was the first to do a reverse victory lap, known as the "Polish Victory Lap," which has become a mainstay of today's post-race ceremonies.
PIR has been an enigma for the teams of the Cup Series because of its odd configuration. It has little banking in the corners, it features a dogleg in the backstretch and both ends of the track are different.
Racing at PIR is a stark contrast to racing at Daytona International Speedway, where aerodynamics play a major role in a driver's success. At PIR, control of the race is put back into the hands and feet of the driver.
"You’ve got to have a good car, but you’ve got to have good brakes," said Kyle Busch, who won this race in 2005. "You’ve got to have a good-turning car, and you’ve got to have a good car that can accelerate off of turn two and go fast down the backstretch."
Teammates Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick (above) will be among several drivers looking to rebound from a disappointing Daytona 500. Stewart finished 35th after his car developed an issue early in the race. Patrick was 40th after she was involved in one of the big wrecks on Lap 145. They sit 32nd and 37th in points, respectively.
Both Patrick and Michael McDowell, driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford, live in the Phoenix area. Rookie Alex Bowman hails from nearby Tucson. He'll be making his second Cup start.
The list of drivers looking for a jump-start to their season after a poor performance in the season opener also includes Clint Bowyer (39th) Kasey Kahne (29th) and Kurt Busch (20th).
Austin Dillon leads all Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders heading into to PIR following a ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500.
As it is at any one of NASCAR's short tracks, tempers often flair, as the racing is usually up close and personal. Look for plenty of contact in Turns 1 and 2, as drivers dive into the turns and typically end up sharing the same piece of real estate.
Two of NASCAR's national touring series race at PIR this weekend. On Saturday afternoon is the Nationwide Series Blue Jeans Go Green 200, presented by Cotton, the Fabric of Our Lives.
In addition, on Thursday night, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series kicks off its 2014 season. And on Friday, for the second year in a row, NASCAR's Mexico Toyota Series, a key part of the sport's international growth, will race under the lights.
Mr. Six-Time's record at PIR is outstanding. Although Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire 48 team are known for their strength in the playoffs, they're just as good when it comes to winning a few races in the regular season. Johnson sits fifth in driver points after Daytona.
The Phoenix track suits Harvick's driving style to a "T." No one enjoys close-quarters racing more than Happy Harvick. He won here last fall to add to a resume at PIR that includes a sweep of both the spring and fall races in 2006 and the fall race in 2012. His transition from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing has gone smoothly so far. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers appear to be on the same page.
The winner of the spring race last year feels right at home on a short track. Edwards also won the spring race here in 2010. Five of his 21 wins have come on tracks of one mile or shorter. Despite finishing 16th at Daytona, Edwards is known for getting his season off to a quick start. He's a favorite to win the pole (he has three at PIR), and he'll be in the top five early and often on Sunday.
Phoenix hasn't always been one of Gordon's better tracks. It took 16 tries before he scored his first Cup win in 2007, when he won from the pole. Still, his average finish at the track is 11.5. Gordon comes to PIR fourth in driver points with a leg up on his competition for the Chase. This cagey veteran knows that momentum is big in Sprint Cup racing and that a top-five finish (or better) will keep the train on the tracks.
Smoke's injured leg came through Daytona in spite of two wrecks. He starts the season with a handicap; he's currently 32nd in driver points. Stewart is another short-track specialist, and Phoenix fits right into his bold and aggressive driving style. He has one Cup win that came in his rookie year (1999). Stewart's roots are in sprint cars and IndyCars, and he's run thousands of laps in an open-wheel car at Phoenix.
Another short-track ace who is on a roll. Hamlin is second in points and has one win (spring 2012) and eight top-fives at Phoenix. He wanted a win at Daytona badly, and he'll bring that fire with him to Phoenix.
Hamlin's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing has one win and five top-fives. After finishing runner-up to Johnson in points in 2013, Kenseth has flown a bit under the radar so far in 2014. Phoenix could change all of that.
Should we expect a slow start for Busch in 2014? He sits 18th in points after Daytona and needs a good showing at Phoenix to kick-start his season. He would hate to go into his hometown (Las Vegas) next week mired in the points.
Older brother Kurt has 12 of his 24 Cup wins on tracks that are one mile or shorter. Phoenix suits his driving style, and he'll drive his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet into Turn 1 as hard or harder than anyone. Expect Kurt to be a player in the closing laps of the race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
History says its tough to follow up a Daytona 500 victory with a win at Phoenix. But this is a team of destiny. Junior and the 88 team are out to prove that their Daytona 500 win was no fluke. He swept the fall races in 2003 and 2004, so he knows how to win here.
Kahne's racing background is in sprint cars, and he is another driver who has logged many laps here in an open-wheel car. He has one Cup win at Phoenix (fall 2011) as well. Often overshadowed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Kahne (who finished a disappointing 29th at Daytona) must have a good race here to build momentum.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There's nothing like winning in NASCAR. And there's nothing like winning the biggest race in NASCAR, the Daytona 500.
Winning makes you feel like you can do anything. Like win some more.
Dale Earnhardt and his team had an incredible season in 2013. While they didn't win the championship, they knew how good it felt to be that close to it.
History isn't on Junior's side going into Phoenix, as the Daytona 500 winner hasn't won there very often. Nonetheless, this is a team destined to make history, and we're sure to see this man's smiling bearded face plastered on every television screen across America.
And what about crew chief Steve Letarte? He is the loosest and coolest guy in what is a very stressful Sprint Cup garage. Why? Because he can't lose his job.
Follow me on Twitter @BobMargolis
Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained firsthand or via official team releases.