The 2014 NASCAR season got off to a fast start in Daytona. Rains caused heavy delays at the Great American Race, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his fans another big victory to cheer about, pulling away from the field in the final stages.
Earnhardt recently spoke to Jeff Owens of Sporting News about the great atmosphere during NASCAR's signature race to start the year:
Earnhardt and other drivers called Sunday’s Daytona 500 one of the most intense races they have ever run, and the whole sport is riding a wave of momentum following Earnhardt’s dramatic win.
“It was electric, man,” Earnhardt said. “I don't know what the hell was going on or why it was like that. I wish I knew because that's what NASCAR wants to bottle and sell.”
After a race in which Earnhardt said, “the intensity level was at a max,” what can NASCAR do for an encore?
The drivers will get back to the track Sunday from the sunny site of Phoenix International Raceway, where NASCAR's best will go at it in The Profit on CNBC 500, Presented by Small Business Fueling America.
So, who's going to be cheering in Victory Lane in Phoenix? Here's a look at three top contenders for Sunday.
The Profit on CNBC 500, Presented by Small Business Fueling America
Where: Phoenix International Raceway
When: Sunday, March 2
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Distance: 312 miles (312 laps)
Happy Harvick was the talk of the town Saturday in Phoenix after winning the final tuneup practice before Sunday's main event.
Jerry Bonkowski of NBC MotorSports Talk relayed the speeds and top finishers from Saturday:
In 29 laps around the one-mile flat track at PIR, Harvick recorded a fast lap of 136.960 mph (at 26.285 seconds) to pace the field in the one-hour session.
It was a good tune-up for Harvick, who will start Sunday’s race on the inside of the seventh row. Harvick has been one of the most successful drivers at PIR during his career. In 22 starts, Harvick has four Sprint Cup wins, seven top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.
Rookie Kyle Larson was second-fastest at 136.596 mph, followed by Ryan Newman (136.508), Kurt Busch(136.503) and Jeff Gordon (136.374).
This boost of momentum bodes well for Harvick, who historically been able to drive very well at PIR throughout his career. In fact, it was just about four months ago that he was able to capture a victory in the second-to-last race of the 2013 season in Phoenix.
Not to mention, he finished second at the rain-shortened Nationwide Series race Saturday behind Kyle Busch.
FINAL: Busch, Harvick, Brad, Larson, Matt, Sadler, Trevor, Regan, Chase, Ty, B. Scott, J. Buescher, Dylan K, Sieg, C. Buescher, Brendan.— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) March 2, 2014
In all, Harvick has four wins and seven top-five finishes here, helping him earn a 101.3 driver rating at PIR, second-best only to Jimmie Johnson (116.7). Given his track record of success, Harvick should be considered a favorite to win in Phoenix once again.
The No. 99 car nearly pulled off a sweep at PIR in 2013 but fell short on gas right before the white flag went up at the AdvoCare 500 in November, allowing Harvick to steal the victory on the final lap.
Still, Edwards was able to finish the deed last March in this event, and he has a history of recent success at PIR.
Chris Estrada of NBC MotorSports Talk recently relayed comments Edwards made to Rick Allen on NBC Sports Network about his success in the desert:
The secret is we’ve been building really good race cars. [Crew chief] Jimmy Fennig and those guys, everyone at the shop – you spent a lot of time at Roush and you know how hard those guys work. But they’ve really stepped it up.
I think our cars are better, we’ve worked better as a team, our tests have been better. And Jimmy, last year, he found some stuff – he and Dave McDonald, our shock guy, they worked on a couple of things that really helped out. The track’s great, the car drives great, and I hope nothing’s changed.
While he finished 17th at the Daytona 500, Edwards was a late leader in the Great American Race before he was involved in a last-lap crash that pushed him down the leaderboard.
If recent history is any indication, he will be a major force to reckon with Sunday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It's rare that a driver follows up his victory in the Daytona 500 with a victory the following week, but Junior is a rare driver. After waiting out the rain, Earnhardt was able to outlast the field in a scintillating opening race for NASCAR. And he isn't expecting to have a letdown as the regular season gets under way in the Sprint Cup Series
John Oreovicz of ESPN.com passed along recent comments from Earnhardt about following up on his strong start to the season:
Earnhardt insists that there will be no Daytona hangover and that he and crew chief Steve Letarte won't relax as Junior chases his first Sprint Cup championship. Earnhardt, a two-time Phoenix winner, qualified fifth for Sunday's race.
"I feel like I shouldn't have any problem getting out there on the racetrack and doing the best I can do," he said. "I've been doing this a long time and have had the opportunity to win races and get back the next weekend and do well. It should be no problem."
It's already been an entertaining 2014 for Junior, who also joined the Twitter world recently. Earnhardt has been very active on the social media service and gave his thoughts on his practice run following Saturday's action:
Decent practice. Felt like we made some gains that last run or two. Gonna watch this NW qual and talk setup w/ @SteveLetarte.— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) March 1, 2014
Junior finished in the top five at both of the Phoenix races last year, and he's got the momentum right now, so don't be surprised if he snaps his 10-year victory drought at PIR.