The 2014 NASCAR season has officially begun, as the Daytona 500 is in the past and the Sprint Cup Series action heads west for a weekend in Phoenix.
One big wrinkle leading up to this race was the new knockout-style qualifier that NASCAR implemented. It certainly had fans and even drivers confused and disoriented the first time through.
Brad Keselowski claimed the inaugural pole based on the new group format during Saturday’s event, finishing just ahead of teammate Joey Logano for the fourth qualifying victory of his career.
It wasn’t a cinch, however, as the 30-year-old Keselowski finished behind Logano, his fellow Team Penske member in the initial, longer race and eventually edged him in the second, shorter competition. He broke a track record set by Jimmie Johnson just a year ago during that 10-minute round by completing a lap at 139.384 mph.
Keselowski attempted to describe his feelings on the process after the pole, as per the Associated Press (via ESPN):
It's a lot more nerve-racking. Usually a pretty good rule of thumb is that If it's more nerve-racking for the drivers, it's a lot more fun for our fans and partners and all those things, and that's a good thing. I more interested in feedback from our fans to see if they liked it.
It remains to be seen if NASCAR will continue tinkering with the format or let it play out until it becomes accepted. Regardless, the pole is now in the rearview and it’s time to start looking forward to the upcoming race.
Let’s take a look at where you can catch all the action, note the starting positions for each participating driver, sneak a peek at the latest weather forecast, highlight some drivers to keep an eye on and more in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Phoenix preview.
Race: The Profit on CNBC 500, Presented by Small Business Fueling America
Date: Sunday, March 2
Time: 3 p.m. ET (The national broadcast begins at 2:30 p.m. ET)
Radio: Motor Racing Network and Sirius XM Channel 90
Distance: 312 miles (312 laps)
Track Race Record: Tony Stewart, 118.132 mph, Nov. 7, 1999.
|1||1||2||Brad Keselowski||Alliance Truck Parts Ford||25.828||139.384*|
|2||22||Joey Logano||Shell Pennzoil Ford||25.850||139.265|
|2||3||1||Jamie McMurray||Cessna / Bad Boy Buggies Chevrolet||25.905||138.969|
|4||48||Jimmie Johnson||Lowe's Chevrolet||26.021||138.350|
|3||5||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||National Guard Chevrolet||26.022||138.344|
|6||16||Greg Biffle||3M Ford||26.023||138.339|
|4||7||18||Kyle Busch||Skittles Toyota||26.027||138.318|
|8||42||Kyle Larson||Clorox Chevrolet||26.027||138.318|
|5||9||43||Aric Almirola||Farmland Ford||26.034||138.281|
|10||41||Kurt Busch||Haas Automation Chevrolet||26.078||138.047|
|6||11||5||Kasey Kahne||Farmers Insurance Chevrolet||26.108||137.889|
|12||11||Denny Hamlin||FedEx Office Toyota||26.217||137.315|
|7||13||4||Kevin Harvick||Jimmy John's Chevrolet||26.122||137.815|
|14||15||Clint Bowyer||5-hour Energy Toyota||26.123||137.810|
|8||15||31||Ryan Newman||Quicken Loans Chevrolet||26.126||137.794|
|16||55||Brian Vickers||Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota||26.127||137.788|
|9||17||24||Jeff Gordon||Pepsi MAX Chevrolet||26.136||137.741|
|18||13||Casey Mears||GEICO Chevrolet||26.165||137.588|
|10||19||20||Matt Kenseth||Home Depot / Husky Toyota||26.173||137.546|
|20||14||Tony Stewart||Bass Pro Shops / Mobil 1 Chevrolet||26.185||137.483|
|11||21||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||NOS Ford||26.187||137.473|
|22||27||Paul Menard||Pittsburgh Paints / Menards Chevrolet||26.211||137.347|
|12||23||99||Carl Edwards||SUBWAY Ford||26.236||137.216|
|24||3||Austin Dillon||American Ethanol Chevrolet||26.239||137.200|
|13||25||47||AJ Allmendinger||Clorox Fraganzia Chevrolet||26.243||137.179|
|26||95||Michael McDowell||K Love Ford||26.265||137.065|
|14||27||78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Chevrolet||26.296||136.903|
|28||38||David Gilliland||Love's Travel Stops Ford||26.303||136.867|
|15||29||9||Marcos Ambrose||MAC Tools Ford||26.317||136.794|
|30||34||David Ragan||Farm Rich Ford||26.318||136.789|
|16||31||26||Cole Whitt||GEAR Speed Stick Toyota||26.330||136.726|
|32||33||Brian Scott(i)||Whitetail Chevrolet||26.331||136.721|
|17||33||10||Danica Patrick||GoDaddy Chevrolet||26.365||136.545|
|34||83||Ryan Truex||Borla Exhaust Toyota||26.495||135.875|
|18||35||23||Alex Bowman||Dr Pepper Toyota||26.546||135.614|
|19||37||35||Blake Koch(i)||MDS Transport Ford||Owner Points|
|38||66||Joe Nemechek(i)||Land Castle Title Toyota||Owner Points|
|20||39||36||Reed Sorenson||Chevrolet||Owner Points|
|40||32||Travis Kvapil||Ask More - Get More Ford||Owner Points|
|21||41||7||Michael Annett||Accell Construction Chevrolet||Owner Points|
|42||87||Morgan Shepherd(i)||Morris - Hardwick - Schneider Toyota||Owner Points|
|22||43||51||Justin Allgaier||Brandt Professional Agriculture Chevrolet||Owner Points|
NASCAR Statistics. *Track Record.
Sunday Weather Forecast
The elements played a determining role in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s epic win at the Daytona 500, and they are threatening to once again be a factor early in the NASCAR season.
According to Weather.com, Phoenix is likely to be hit with heavy rains and winds Saturday, which could carry over through Sunday morning. Fortunately, projections call for those early-morning showers to turn to clouds and possibly sunshine by the afternoon.
It is expected to be 66 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds blowing southeasterly at a mere four mph by the time the green flag drops at 3 p.m. ET. Those conditions should allow the race to go off without a hitch and not have any major impact on drivers.
Drivers to Watch
Gordon has to be trying to use Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race as an opportunity to exorcise some of the demons that have haunted him at Phoenix. The longtime NASCAR superstar has never fared too well at this track, but he did get a win after 16 attempts back in 2007. His finishes haven’t been too poor either, as he has a respectable average of 11.5.
His last win came in this event three years ago when he snapped a checkerless streak of 66 races. Gordon was understandably thrilled to finally head back to Victory Lane, telling ESPN at the time: "It feels so amazing. I can't tell you how amazing this feels. It's been a long time, I know, and I'm going to savor this one so much."
Gordon is currently fourth in driver points, and a big win at Phoenix International Raceway would have him sitting pretty early in the season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Not many men have won at Daytona and subsequently carried that momentum to their next race. Earnhardt and his team are hoping to accomplish that feat Sunday, which would be just the third time it's happened since the Daytona 500 became NASCAR’s opening race back in 1982.
Will Earnhardt Jr. win a second-straight race?
Junior has the know-how to pull off a win in Phoenix, as he won this event in back-to-back years in 2003 and 2004. He finished fifth and fourth last year during the two PIR races and seems ready to bust out and finally take another checkered flag at this exciting track.
Perhaps Earnhardt will end up taking another selfie, which is exactly how he celebrated winning at Daytona, as per ESPN:
Stewart is hoping to shake off a poor showing at the Daytona 500 and rebound at a track where he still holds the fastest race time after setting it nearly 15 years ago.
The 42-year-old star finished 35th in Florida last weekend, a disappointing result that stemmed from issues with his vehicle that gave him fits early in the race.
Regardless, Smoke’s steady string of quality performances during the Speedweeks leading up to The Great American Race has him convinced that he’ll bounce back in a big way in Phoenix. The Indiana native shook off the rust after missing the last 15 races of the 2013 campaign and told the Associated Press (via Sports Illustrated) that he is "a lot more confident than I was before we got to Daytona."
If Stewart’s history on this upcoming course (one win, eight top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 23 races) is any indicator, he is in good shape and should make up for his poor start to the season Sunday.