Last week’s Daytona 500 marked the start of the thirty-six race season that makes up the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season, and now NASCAR’s most talented drivers leave the Sunshine state and head west for Arizona, where the drivers will battle on the 1.5 track that is Phoenix International Raceway. Before we break down the race itself, let’s take a look at some of the stories currently surrounding the Cup Series:
Headlines Going into Phoenix
Seeking Six – Jimmie Johnson wasted no time in letting his fellow competitors know that he would not be slowed down in the transition to the Gen 6 car, as the five-time champion took the lead from Brad Keselowski late in the 500 and held on for his second victory in the Great American Race. Johnson goes into the second race of the season with momentum and a five point lead in the points over teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Danica Dazzles – Prior to the belief of many, including myself, Danica Patrick had a solid running in her second Daytona 500, as she ran in the top ten all day and was running third in the closing laps before her along with Greg Biffle were shuffled out of the pack, which led to Patrick finishing 8th. Although many considered last Sunday’s race the ultimate test for Patrick, the truth is Phoenix will be much more important due to the fact that tracks of PIR’s styles and structure are much more common on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Playing From Behind – While the Daytona 500 had its fair share of unknowns having good runs like Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley, several top drivers left the biggest race of the season before the checkered flag flew. The reasons for heading to the garage were either accidents (which befell Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and Carl Edwards) or mechanical woes (like Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch), but the method behind why does not matter; what does matter, however, is responding with a solid run this week.
Drivers to Watch
Jimmie Johnson – Johnson practically runs well at all of the Cup tracks, and Phoenix is no different, as he boasts four wins at the track and has an average finish of 7th in nineteen races at the track. Don’t let Johnson’s 32nd finish in the fall race fool you; he knows what it takes to run up front in Phoenix.
Kyle Busch – Busch’s tough Daytona run will probably not be followed up with a bad race at PIR, as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has accumulated nine top tens at the track in his sixteen races at the track. Last year’s races at Phoenix saw “Rowdy” finish third and sixth, respectively, which leads me to the conclusion that Shrub will be battling for the win out west once again.
Kevin Harvick – One of the prime candidates to win their first Cup championship in 2013, one could argue that Happy Harvick’s best track is Phoenix due to his three wins at the track (more than Harvick has at any other track). Expect the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet to lead a significant number of laps in the race on Sunday.
Underdogs Who Could Make Some Noise
Ryan Newman – It is hard to imagine calling the Rocket Man an underdog, but the Purdue alum is definitely the least talked behind driver at Stewart-Haas Racing behind teammates Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick. Newman will be looking to build off his 5th place finish in the season opener with a good run at Phoenix, the track that gave Newman his first victory in the #39 Chevrolet.
Kurt Busch – As much as people wish to write off Busch and Furniture Row Racing, the truth of the matter is the team is capable of recording some top tens as long as Busch keeps his cool behind the wheel. A turnaround from last week’s 28th place disaster could come at Phoenix, where Busch has eleven top tens, including an eighth place finish with Furniture Row last November.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr – Although the Rookie of the Year candidate has never ran a Cup race at Phoenix, the Mississippi native had a solid amount of success at the track in the Nationwide Series, which included a pair of third-place finishes at the track in his second consecutive Nationwide championship last year. Stenhouse’s performance on Sunday could be a clear indication on whether or not Matt Kenseth’s replacement will have a solid 2013 season.
Winner: Kevin Harvick. You cannot argue with results, and Harvick has them at PIR. Add in the fact that the bad run at Daytona has already put the pressure on Harvick, and the result is a driver that will be ready to make some noise.
Top 10 at Phoenix
1. Kevin Harvick
2. Kyle Busch
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Matt Kenseth
5. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
6. Brad Keselowski
7. Denny Hamlin
8. Tony Stewart
9. Carl Edwards
10. Joey Logano
Stat of the Week: 6. Johnson’s Daytona 500 victory on Sunday came in his 400th career Cup Series start, placing Johnson in an elite group of drivers that won their 400th start. The list is compiled of Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dave Marcis, Dale Earnhardt, and now Johnson.
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