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Cup driver updates entering Phoenix race

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Take an inside look at the top drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ahead of this weekend's Subway Fresh Fit 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford

STP 400

Prerace coverage from Kansas begins June 5 at 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

 

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Where he stands: By finishing second in the season-opening Daytona 500, Edwards is the points leader because of NASCAR's new rule that drivers can earn points in only one series. Daytona champion Trevor Bayne is running for the Nationwide Series title for Roush Fenway Racing. And with NASCAR's "simplified" scoring system where points are awarded in increments of one in inverse order to positions, Edwards has a one-point lead in the standings.

Phoenix record: Edwards drove to victory at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) last November and is a great pick to back that up on Sunday. He has five top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 13 starts there. "I'm going to go to Phoenix next week and look at the points and think this was OK," Edwards said after finishing second at Daytona. "We'll race Daytona 500 again next year. There is a very bright side to our day today. We are going to have bad days. It's nice to get out of this one, considering the chaos that was going on -- it is nice to get out of here with a great points run." … Edwards won the last race at Phoenix in November after leading 93 laps. He broke a 70-race winless streak for his first Sprint Cup win there. But he's not thrilled about the fact that the track will be repaved after this race. "I've always loved racing there and I will be out there lying in front of the excavating equipment trying to get them to leave it after the race," he said. "I really like that surface a lot. I don't think you can mess that track up, though. It's the right size, the sun beats down and it gets slippery. It will be neat after the new pavement as well."

Looking ahead: Edwards will be driving a new car at Phoenix -- chassis No. RK-726. "It would be great to repeat our performance from last fall and get another win at Phoenix," crew chief Bob Osborne said. "We are taking a brand new car that should be even better than the car we won with there last year. It was a relief to come out of Daytona with a good finish and the points lead. It's nice when you don't start the season in a points deficit and spend the first several races trying to fight your way back into the top 10."

Looking back: Edwards was able to finish second at Daytona because he got between the leader, Trevor Bayne, and Bobby Labonte on the final charge to the checkered flag. Labonte helped push Bayne out front, and when the cars started to jockey for position to get by the leader, that allowed Edwards to get up to second. "I was doing the best I could to not wreck," Edwards said. "Congratulations to Trevor. I did the very best I could there at the end. Man, Trevor's car was really fast. That is a fast Ford Fusion. I got under Bobby and I got to Trevor's bumper and he did such a good job of blocking down low. I started to go low and then I didn't know if I should go high or not. He won that race. He did an amazing job."

Etc.: Edwards hopes that the higher television ratings for the Daytona 500 will continue in the next few races on the schedule at Phoenix, Las Vegas and Bristol. "We really do have the most competitive racing that I have been a part of," he said. "Races like (Daytona) with a new winner, an up-and-coming guy in a sport who is tied to so much history, this is as good as it gets, guys. If people aren't watching, that is their problem because we have great stuff going on here."

34 DAVID GILLILAND, Ford

Team: TRG

Where he stands: After finishing third in the Daytona 500, Gilliland is tied for second with Bobby Labonte. Both are one point behind Carl Edwards heading to Phoenix.

Phoenix record: Gilliland has struggled at the 1.0-mile oval -- no top-fives or top-10s in nine starts. In fact, he has led just one lap in Cup competition at PIR. He finished 32nd in this race last year and 38th in November. His last five finishes there have been 35th, 33rd, 30th, 32nd and 38th. He did win a race at Phoenix in the K&N Pro Series West when he started on the pole and won in 2005.

Looking ahead: Gilliland is another driver who finds himself high in the standings following a wild Daytona 500. The key is to find a way to stay there now that the series heads to the more traditional tracks where restrictor-plates are not used. "It's going to be hard, and we're going to have things go right. But we've got momentum, and I just feel we have the parts and pieces to really make it work. My road to a win began at Phoenix before and hopefully it can again."

Looking back: Gilliland was part of the wild finish in the Daytona 500 and was third behind race-winner Trevor Bayne and second-place Carl Edwards. "I am really proud of Ford and what they have been able to accomplish -- to finish 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 is amazing," Gilliland said. "I have to thank (team owner) Bob Jenkins. He does this out of his pocket. It is a great day for Front Row Motorsports. This tops up as one of my best days ever, for sure. Three Fords up there top three is incredible. That is awesome. I got to thank Carl Edwards. We really hooked up and made some moves there at the end. He made some good moves and we were just going."

Etc.: Ironically, it was a crash at Phoenix that helped pave Gilliland's way to his future success in NASCAR. Gilliland crashed out of the Nationwide race in 2006 while racing into the top 10 in the closing laps for a new team. That gave Gilliland the confidence that he could win in NASCAR. He did just that two races after the wreck, and that win helped propel him into the Sprint Cup Series. "I remember back in 2006 racing for Clay Andrews Racing, I felt really good heading into Phoenix because we were going to a track that I had experience on and had won at in the NASCAR West Series," Gilliland recalled. "I just had a lot of confidence at the track, but the Nationwide Series was still new and we were a new team. It was a big hill to climb. Still, we just did everything right and at the end we were racing for a top-10. We had made a pit stop for new tires and changed the air pressure for a short run. We blew a tire and it ended our night. We were really disappointed. But I think that race really put things in perspective for us. We knew if we just did the right things, didn't make any mistakes, that we could win. We were a small team -- I don't think anyone gave us a chance -- but we won a few weeks later. It was a great moment. Now, with this team at Front Row Motorsports, we're just light years ahead of that situation. There is no reason we can't have a chance of running up front again this weekend."

47 BOBBY LABONTE, Toyota

Team: JTG Daugherty Motorsports

Where he stands: Labonte is only one point behind Edwards and is tied with David Gilliland for second in the standings. Both Gilliland and Labonte have 41 points. Labonte got one bonus point for leading a lap in Sunday's Daytona 500.

Phoenix record: Labonte has no wins, three top-five finishes and nine top-10s in 24 starts. He was 27th in this race last year and 20th in November. He has finished out of the top 10 in his last seven PIR starts.

Looking ahead: Preparing for his second race with a new team, Labonte said it is important to get off to a fast start. He has taken over the car that was driven by Marcos Ambrose last year. "It's real important in the points and the way the points are and everything," Labonte said. "Attitude is everything, and these guys have great attitudes."

Looking back: Labonte played a key role in the finish of the Daytona 500 as he helped push eventual winner Trevor Bayne out to a lead on the final round of overtime before finishing fourth. "It means a lot," Labonte said. "People are going to criticize me for not laughing or smiling enough or whatever, but I was still disappointed we didn't win this Daytona 500. That's going to bother me probably for a little bit. ... These guys did a great job today. We battled back from a near spin over there and we got a top-five out of it. Today was such a wild day. It was just a little bit too wild at times, so to survive, I think, was a big thing. It was eventful at times. We got kind of spun there one time and I hit Martin Truex (Jr.) there one time too hard off of (turn) four and got him on pit road and I hate that. In one way we thought it was going to be a good day -- as far as a good day, solid day with not many yellows and then it turned out to be all kinds of stuff going on out there. The push deal was good but, man, you can get some guys out there that are just a little too aggressive on it. My car wasn't fast enough at times. There at the end, it was a great day for us. Thank God for a great day and we just survived this thing and finished fourth. I wish we could've won, but it looked like the 99 (Carl Edwards) and 34 (David Gilliland) were coming with a full head of steam and we couldn't really keep up with them. Frankie (Kerr, his crew chief) did a great job today calling pit strategy -- four tires, no tires sometimes. We had track position, we didn't have track position -- it was just pretty wild out there, obviously. Trevor (Bayne) had a fast car, and we saw that all weekend long."

Etc.: The 2000 Cup champion and 21-time Sprint Cup Series winner remembers his glory days of racing but believes there is plenty of fight left in his career. Labonte made sure his new team, JTG Daugherty Racing, understood that it is not just about winning races and a championship but the journey itself to get to that point. "You have to remember to enjoy the journey," Labonte told his team. "That's something that I wish I would have done a better job of when I won the championship in 2000 with Joe Gibbs Racing. I remember coming home after winning the championship and calling people to go celebrate, but everything was back to normal. Not long after, Mr. Gibbs told me that it's not just about winning a championship, but it's about the journey that gets you there. The same thing applies to winning our first race together. We have to have communication, focus and passion. The performance will come with that. We need to remember to enjoy it each step of the way."
 

 

22 KURT BUSCH, Dodge

Team: Penske Racing

Where he stands: Busch is fourth in the standings with 40 points, leaving him just two points out of first. He was another driver who got a bonus point for leading the Daytona 500.

Phoenix record: Busch has one win (April 2005), four top-five finishes and nine top-10s in 16 starts, including four top-10s in the last five races there. He was 35th in this race last year and ninth in November.

Looking ahead: With a new sponsor, Busch is off to a fast start, and now that "real racing" returns on a track where car, driver and crew determine the outcome more than finding the right partner in a "two-car tandem," Busch is confident of continuing that forward progress. "We've had a lot of success and fun at Daytona this time around, but like I told them, 'The real season starts right now,'" Busch said. "It's kind of like a football team starting off with two wins and a tie going into a new season. We've tasted success, but there could have been even more. The important thing is that we didn't leave Daytona in a hole like we have several times before."

Looking back: Busch finished fifth in the Daytona 500 after leading 10 times for 19 laps. Busch had a great SpeedWeeks -- he won the Budweiser Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duel at Daytona qualifying races. "I'm real happy with this fifth-place finish," Busch said. "To make a mistake on the last lap, I'm going to be the one that has the sour feeling in my stomach." Busch drew high praise from team owner Roger Penske. "I think Kurt drove a masterful race today," Penske said. "It was just one of those days at the end where we needed the right partner. With all the green-white-checkered flags (two), you want to be careful because we're running for the championship. Two wins (Bud Shootout and Gatorade Duel) and a fifth-place today in the 500, this month at Daytona is a great finish for us."

Etc.: Crew chief Steve Addington hopes a good finish at Daytona can provide momentum heading to Phoenix. "Daytona was a great two weeks for us, but our focus has turned totally on getting ready for Phoenix this week, Vegas the next and all the races on down the line," Addington said. "The big-picture situation is already our primary focus now. We're excited about starting off the year like we have and look to build on the success week after week. We have a great group of guys on our 'Double-Deuce' Dodge team and -- just like Kurt -- we are all dedicated to do what it takes to be right there challenging for the championship at the end of the season."

42 JUAN PABLO MONTOYA, Chevrolet

Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing

Where he stands: Montoya is fifth in the standings with 39 points, three out of the Cup lead.

Phoenix record: Montoya has no wins, one top-five finish and two top-10s in eight starts. His lone top-five came in this race last year. He was 16th last November, but Montoya has two top-10s in his last three Phoenix starts -- he was eighth in November 2009.

Looking ahead: Montoya has improved on the oval tracks since he joined the series from Formula One, and he enjoys the challenge Phoenix presents. "Phoenix is a cool place," he said. "It is really tricky. Both ends are very different. It's one of those tracks you look forward to going to because it's so different. From what I heard they're going to change it up a bit when we go back there in the fall, so that's a little disappointing. I haven't seen the proposed plan, but they are probably looking for better racing or something different. The racing has always been pretty exciting there, I thought."

Looking back: Montoya finished sixth at Daytona after leading twice for five laps. "It was an eventful race," he said. "It was hard -- the plan was just to be with Jamie (McMurray) all day and at the end of the day, he had a problem with the motor or the car and he couldn't keep up and he got kind of screwed there. We were lucky to get those cautions; I thought we had a shot at it coming down the back straight. It was a great points day ... it is points, points and points. We made really good points, and I think we have really good cars. If you would have told me with 15 laps to go I was going to finish where I finished, I would have said no. It was OK, though. A lot of the day was working with Jamie. I was lucky -- he spun me and I felt really bad when I spun out there. But it was one of those deals. You just don't have a lot of room to go anywhere. When Jamie had the problem with the car, it was bad; we had no one to work with. There were a couple of guys that were a lap down with damaged cars. We were lucky to get that caution at the end. A couple of good moves and we were there at the end. That is all you can do is give yourself a chance at the end."

Etc.: After Sunday's race, the track configuration at Phoenix will change with a wider surface and banking in the turns. Some racers, such as Tony Stewart, believe that is going to ruin the unique character of Phoenix. Montoya agrees. "I haven't seen the proposal, but I have heard they are going to change the two corners, turns three and four," Montoya said. "I don't know how much banking they are going to put in it. Hopefully they don't screw it up. I drive wherever they take us. I'm a big fan of some tracks, not a big fan of others. Right now Phoenix is a cool place. It is really tricky. Both ends are very different. They are probably looking for better racing or something different."

78 REGAN SMITH, Chevrolet

Team: Furniture Row Racing

Where he stands: Smith is off to a great start in 2011 and enters Phoenix sixth in points with 38. He is four points out of the Cup points lead, aided by one bonus point for leading a lap in the Daytona 500.

Phoenix record: Smith has no top-fives or top-10s in five starts. He was 26th in this race last year and 23rd in November. That tied his best finish there -- he also finished 23rd in November 2008.

Looking ahead: Smith is one of the many drivers grateful the series is heading to a more normal track after two wild weeks in Daytona. "After the Daytona 500 I found time to take a few deep breaths, and for a short time, rehashed what could have been," Smith said. "But then it was all about Phoenix and thinking about how important it is to maintain the momentum we gained during SpeedWeeks. While in Daytona, Phoenix's one-mile oval was on our mind, and we went to Disney World Speedway to conduct a test session. We were pleased with what we learned in the test and feel that Phoenix and the following races should be good for our Furniture Row Chevrolet. We're looking for big things and know that we have the potential to produce positive results on a weekly basis."

Looking back: Smith was another key player in the Daytona 500, leading twice for seven laps before finishing seventh. He was also vital as a "pusher," working with Kurt Busch for much of the race to keep the two-car tandem in the lead. Running in the top three with fewer than three laps remaining in Sunday's race, Smith found himself sideways with a snarling pack of cars bearing down on him. If that wasn't bad enough, his chance to win sailed right on past as well. ... Smith and Busch had drafted their way to the front and led lap 194. As the cars sorted themselves out, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into the rear of Tony Stewart, who in turn tapped the rear of Busch's car. The force was enough to turn Smith's Furniture Row Chevrolet sideways and into Ryan Newman, and the rest of the race was a battle to get as many points as possible. "I'm not really sure what happened," Smith said upon climbing out of his battered Chevrolet. "I saw Kurt (Busch] get off me a little bit there, and the product of what we're doing is, you have to check up to let your partner get back to you. I think he got pushed, too, and I just got hammered really hard there and turned sideways. I couldn't do anything about it." ... Despite earning his first top-10 finish and the first for Furniture Row Racing, it was still a comedown from leading the biggest race of the season within sight of the white flag. "When you can see the lead with five to go and then you're in the lead and then in the wall, it's a disappointing day," Smith said. "It's life and we go on to Phoenix and focus on the rest of the season."

Etc.: Smith believes his pit crew is better this season, and that should help him attain higher finishes. "Yes, I think we made some big gains there," Smith said. "Our whole team flew in the day before Daytona opened and did pit practice. ... They were spot-on. We threw some stuff at them and I was driving the car and I would slide through the box or do stuff that will happen in a race situation and they didn't miss a beat."

18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Where he stands: Busch has 37 points, including one point for leading a lap at Daytona. He is five out of first place.

Phoenix record: Busch has one win (November 2005), no other top-five finishes and seven top-10s in 12 starts at Phoenix. He was eighth in this race last year and 13th in November. That eighth-place finish is his only top-10 in the last four starts at PIR.

Looking ahead: Busch speaks for a large majority of drivers who are glad that the series is heading to a "racer's race track" following two weeks where drafting and getting help from another driver determine the outcome of the race. "I'm glad to go back to a race track that drivers matter and car handling matters," Busch said. "You always want to win at Daytona, so don't get me wrong. But taking everything into account, I'm pleased to get a top-10 finish and start off the season on the right foot as far as the points go. I ran really well at Phoenix in both races last year, but circumstances kept us from winning there last year. The late caution in the spring race hurt us, and not being able to stretch out fuel mileage in the fall race obviously hurt us as well. I'm looking forward to getting back there, for sure, and hoping we can get into Victory Lane again as well. You've got to have a good car, but you've got to have good brakes. 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. There's a lot involved at Phoenix, but being a day race and being hot and slick, it makes it that much more interesting."

Looking back: Busch battled back from an early spin on lap 6 to finish eighth in the Daytona 500. He led three times for three laps. "Everything was just all over the place and pretty nuts," Busch said. "I'm glad we were able to come out of this with a pretty good finish for our Toyota. It felt good that we had a really fast race car. We just needed to get some help there and we got a lot of help with teammates and then trying to find some other guys that would help us -- and there weren't many of them. We kind of did it on the end on the 78 (Regan Smith) car, just pushing him. To come home with an eighth-place finish -- that's not bad. That's something that we can take and just get the heck out of here with. There isn't a car out here that doesn't have damage on it, so I don't know that damage was a real factor. Even the 21 (Trevor Bayne) car has got damage, and he won the race. It was nuts. It was wild, just as wild as we all expected it."

Etc.: Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers are quickly becoming a potent combination since first joining forces in November 2009 at Texas Motor Speedway, where they led the most laps and narrowly missed a win in their first race together. So far, the Busch-Rogers combo has worked well and has grown stronger despite working together in just 40 Sprint Cup points-paying races. It proved to be one of the top driver/crew chief tandems in the sport last year as it found Victory Lane three times and put the No. 18 team back in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after missing it in 2009. "We both did learn an awful lot last year and we've both talked a lot this winter," Busch said. "We spent some time together and we've had some good talks and some good opportunities to think about what we want to do and kind of develop our plan and our strategy for moving forward into this year. We've gone over most of that, and hopefully we can put it all into effect here at the beginning of the year and get our momentum rolling and stay strong all throughout the year. I think the biggest thing that's different with us is just having a full year under my belt with Dave and, now, going into the season with that year's worth of experience of working with Dave and to trying to reach our potential and little bit more this year. Unfortunately, we've kind of fallen shy of that the past few years. This is the year we'd like to change that around and make it to where we get through the regular season okay and get to the Chase and then, once we get into the Chase, we stay consistent with what we're doing. Then, if we can make it through without motors blowing up or getting involved in wrecks or something like that, we can have a shot come Homestead."
 

27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

Where he stands: Menard is another driver off to a great start -- he has 36 points, six out of the lead. He also scored a bonus point for leading at Daytona.

Phoenix record: Menard has no top-fives or top-10s in eight starts. He has finished 29th in each of his last three races there.

Looking ahead: Although he has never finished higher than 21st at Phoenix, Menard still enjoys racing there. "PIR is a great track, a lot of fun to drive," he said. "It's a short track, but in a lot of ways it drives like an intermediate-style track. Brakes will be important, but mostly just keeping the car turning without giving up the drive off. The last few times there that has seemed to be the key -- keeping the rear tires from spinning."

Looking back: Menard had his best SpeedWeeks yet, leading four times for 11 laps before finishing ninth in the Daytona 500. "Slugger (Labbe, the crew chief) has assembled a great race team," Menard said. "I was very proud of the way my guys worked together and with our team cars. Unfortunately, Daytona and Phoenix are completely different style tracks so there won't be any translation there, but it gives me the confidence that we'll have another fast Chevy and have the ability to make it better throughout the weekend."

Etc.: Menard is another driver who is not in favor of seeing the track configuration change at Phoenix. "I've never been a fan of repaving race tracks unless it is absolutely needed, which in Daytona's case it was because it was literally falling apart," Menard said. "As far as Phoenix is concerned, the jury is still out. I'll have to let you know when we go back in November."

5 MARK MARTIN, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Where he stands: Martin is ninth in the standings with 34 points, eight behind the leader. He did not get a bonus point because he was unable to lead a lap at Daytona.

Phoenix record: Martin has two wins (1993 and April 2009), 12 top-five finishes and 19 top-10s in 28 starts. He was fourth last April and eighth in November. He has five straight top-10 finishes, including three in the top five.

Looking ahead: This is Martin's kind of track. "I love racing at Phoenix," he said. "I'm a big fan of short-track racing. I grew up racing on short tracks, and it's just always been something I've enjoyed. I've had a lot of success at Phoenix, too, so that gets me pretty geared up when I get out there. There comes a time when you really aren't sure you'll ever get a win again. I was at that point (when he won Phoenix with Hendrick Motorsports in 2009). I knew our team was capable, but I hadn't won in so long. That night was incredible. I was just so happy. Beyond happy. And to see the guys, Alan (Gustafson) and the crew guys, to see their faces. I'll never forget it. Then to have as many of the other drivers and owners in this sport come to see me, it will be one of the most memorable wins of my career, for sure."

Looking back: Martin was part of the 14-car crash on lap 30 in turns 3 and 4 that took out many of the leading contenders in the Daytona 500. Martin was able to battle back to finish 10th.

Etc.: Martin was recently asked how much safer the sport has become. "The statistics show a lot, but I am not convinced that the stats are just not in one of those coincidental phases where it looks really, really good," Martin said. "When you say safety, you think comfort. I don't think that there is a huge amount more of comfort with what we do, but certainly the HANS device is an incredible, light-years move forward along with all the other little things that go along with that, and then maybe the SAFER barrier is No. 2 to the HANS device. But we didn't give safety a second thought when we didn't have those things, to be honest with you, and we don't give them a second thought, really, today. So it hasn't changed the driver's thought process, you know -- most of the guys out there don't know any better. And let me put it this way because that is not fair to say. What is fair to say is that they don't know any different whereas Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, and even Jeff Gordon, we know, we have been there and we have lived it when there was a tire war, and we didn't have SAFER barriers or HANS, and that was brutal, and as long as I live I will feel the effects from those days."

43 A.J. ALLMENDINGER, Ford

Team: Richard Petty Motorsports

Where he stands: Allmendinger is another driver with 34 points, benefitting from leading a lap at Daytona. He is eight points out of first place.

Phoenix record: Yet another driver with no top-fives or top-10s, Allmendinger will be making his sixth start at PIR. He was 15th last April and 18th in November. His best finish is 13th in November 2009. Allmendinger does have a pole there -- he started in the front in last April's contest. "Winning the pole last year was incredible," he recalled. "It was my first Cup Series pole, and I felt like it was a turning point in our qualifying program. Since I've been with my crew chief Mike Shiplett and the guys on my team I've always qualified well at Phoenix, and I knew it was only a matter of time before we got our first pole. We have a great qualifying package there, and it's a place we've always been really fast. It's a track where it is easy to miss your marks during qualifying, so to hear Shiplett come on the radio and say we were on the pole last spring was really cool."

Looking ahead: Despite his poor statistics at Phoenix, Allmendinger believes a new season is cause for optimism. "We have a good car for Phoenix and we'll be ready," Allmendinger said. "I'm excited to get back to Phoenix and race on the West Coast, where I grew up. Phoenix is a unique track because it's a race where you depend on driver technique. It's a lot flatter than most of the tracks we go to and it's slick, but that's what makes it challenging and fun to race on."

Looking back: Allmendinger finished 11th in the Daytona 500 after leading three times for four laps. "That's way better than last year," Allmendinger said. "I said if we had a top 15, I'd be happy to leave here, especially with that race because I should have been in that first wreck. Honestly, I don't know how I wasn't in it. The seas kind of parted and we came out of it with just minor damage, so what I should have been in compared to where we finished was not too bad. It's cool for Ford to get their 600th win at the Daytona 500. I wish I could have done it. You see somebody celebrate their first victory and it makes you kind of sad because you know what you want to do, but I have no complaints."

Etc.: Shiplett offered his keys to getting around PIR. "At Phoenix, both ends of the track are very different, so you have to work really hard to get the car balanced because it's easy to get loose off of the corners," Shiplett said. "Turns one and two are much different than turns three and four, so even if you have your car perfect in one and two, you'll be way too loose off four. Turn two opens up and you have a lot of race track, but four doesn't open up like that and it's pretty easy to hit the wall."

09 BILL ELLIOTT, Ford

Team: Phoenix Racing

Where he stands: 11th, two points out of the top 10. But car owner James Finch is not planning on running the full circuit.

Phoenix record: Has one win and four top-10 finishes in 20 starts. Also has won two poles. Elliott has not raced at Phoenix since the 2008 season, when he finished 31st and 29th in the two events.

Looking ahead: Elliott wasn't sure he was going to race at Phoenix this weekend. But after a good run at Daytona, Finch decided to go out west. Elliott has not fared well at the one-mile track in recent years -- he has no top-10 finishes in his last 14 starts.

Looking back: Finished 12th in the Daytona 500. "We stayed out of trouble for most of the day and was able to get a decent finish," said Elliott. "Would have liked to run a little better, but cannot complain."

Etc.: Chase Elliott, Bill's 15-year-old son, has been signed to a multi-year agreement by Hendrick Motorsports. "The apple hasn't fallen far from the tree with Chase," said Hendrick. "I've always admired Bill's ability in a race car and how he handles himself away from the race track, and I see those same traits in Chase." The teenager made 40 late model starts in 2010, winning 13 races and finishing in the top 10 an amazing 37 times. He also became the youngest driver to win the Blizzard Series event at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla.

14 TONY STEWART, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Where he stands: 12th, just three points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: One win and nine top-10 finishes in 18 starts. Stewart has not fared well at Phoenix in recent years -- he has only one top-10 finish in the last six races. He was 25th and 17th in the two events last year.

Looking ahead: Stewart said he started racing at Phoenix in 1993 when he drove a USAC Silver Crown car. He also has raced USAC Midgets, Indy cars, Supermodifieds, Nationwide Series cars and in the Sprint Cup there. "To think that it all kind of started at Phoenix," he added.

Looking back: Stewart has won 16 races at Daytona, including four straight in the Nationwide Series. But he has never won the Daytona 500. He thought that drought was about to end Sunday when he was second as the green flag was waved for the final time. But Stewart did not get a good start, and then when he tried to go low to pick up some drafting help, he was passed by a faster train of cars. As a result, he ended up 13th.

Etc.: Stewart lost weight during the offseason by eating more. "Believe it or not, I actually wasn't eating enough," said Stewart, who has gone from two big meals a day to five smaller ones. "I have lost quite a bit of weight. I haven't lost a lot pound-wise, but I have lost a lot of fat percentage. It sounds like you're eating more, but you're not, you're eating smaller meals. That was a big key for me, starting to get a handle on just changing the habits. It's changing your lifestyle and getting in that mode of doing your daily routine differently."

CUT-OFF FOR "CHASE FOR THE SPRINT CUP"
 

6 DAVID RAGAN, Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Where he stands: 13th, three points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: Only one top-10 finish in eight starts. He struggled in 2010, finishing 19th in the spring race and 25th in November.

Looking ahead: Ragan said, "We think we've improved our short track stuff from a year ago, so it will be interesting to see how we perform right off the truck with our new short-track program."

Looking back: With Trevor Bayne as his drafting partner, Ragan had moved into the lead as the race headed for a green-white-checkered flag finish. But NASCAR ruled Ragan jumped the start and moved down in front of Bayne before they got to the start-finish line. Ragan was black-flagged to end his hopes of winning the Daytona 500. Naturally, he was upset. "I felt like we fired (started) and I started to move down right before the start-finish line, but I don't think I crossed that invisible line that separates the top and bottom," said Ragan. "I wanted to get to the bottom as soon as possible. It'll take us a long time to forget this one, but the sooner we can win one, the sooner we can forget this one."

Etc.: Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer believes the team can "contend for a Chase spot, win a couple poles and win a race or be in contention for race wins. We need to build on what we had going the last part of last year. We made some additions to the team that should help, and we made some changes to the car over the offseason which will hopefully give us more speed."

32 TERRY LABONTE, Ford

Team: Stoddard Motorsports

Where he stands: 14th, four points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: One win and five top-10 finishes in 18 starts. He made his first start at the one-mile track in six years last November when he started last and finished 41st.

Looking ahead: Labonte wasn't supposed to run the Phoenix race. Team owner Frankie Stoddard had hired Mike Skinner to be the regular driver of the 32 team beginning with the Phoenix race. But after Labonte finished 15th at Daytona, he and Stoddard decided Labonte will remain behind the wheel for at least the next few races.

Looking back: This is a new team that Stoddard put together over the winter, and he asked the two-time champion to drive the car at Daytona because Labonte was eligible for the past champion's provisional. That is how the team qualified for the 500. "We laid back and just tried to make sure we stayed out of trouble because the car was definitely fast enough," said Labonte. "Then there at the end we got a hole knocked in the radiator and we had to put water in it a couple of times. It's a good thing the race wasn't much longer. These guys did a good job. It was fun."

Etc.: Stoddard believes "it's a great time to enter the sport. We'll just have to wait and see where we can go from here. My hope is to take this team to a competitive level and put together some respectable runs with the limited resources we have in place. One never knows -- with our determination and just a little bit of funding we could definitely improve our chances on the track."

7 ROBBY GORDON, Dodge

Team: Robby Gordon Motorsports

Where he stands: 15th, five points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: Only two top-10 finishes in 17 starts. He did finish 14th in the spring race in 2010.

Looking ahead: Gordon said, "We were a top-10 car all day at last year's spring Cup race (at Phoenix), so I feel good about how we will do this weekend. With our great run last weekend in the 500, we have a lot of momentum with this Speed Energy team."

Looking back: Gordon was one of a record 22 drivers to lead the Daytona 500, and he still was among the leaders when he was hit from behind by Travis Kvapil late in the event. Gordon somehow kept control of his car and didn't hit anything, but his chances of contending for the win were gone. He ended up 16th. "The 38 (Kvapil), he's a friend of mine, but he ran me over, and then I ran into Tony (Stewart) and that pinballed me out of there," said Gordon. "It's disappointing. We had a top-five car and ended up 16th."

Etc.: Gordon made his first start in a Dodge in the 500. "I'm very pleased, excited to be working with Dodge, excited about the Penske program (which will supply his engines)," said Gordon. "I think we've solved a few of our problems, so I think we can have a good run at Phoenix."

33 CLINT BOWYER, Chevrolet

b>Team: Richard Childress Racing

Where he stands: 16th, six points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: Four top-10 finishes in 11 starts but two top-10s in the last three races, including a ninth last spring.

Looking ahead: Bowyer believes "Phoenix is an important race track. It gives you that first shot at looking at where you stack up to the competition. Do you have work to do? Are you behind? Are you looking good compared to the competition? We've really put a lot of emphasis on Phoenix in the offseason because I know our package wasn't right. It's where we should run well at."

Looking back: Bowyer had one of the strongest cars in the 500. And even after teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton suffered engine failure, Bowyer didn't back off -- he was out front for 31 laps, a total exceeded only by Ryan Newman's 37. But Bowyer got caught up in an accident on the first of the two attempts at a green-white-checkered flag finish and limped home in 17th place. "We had a great car," said Bowyer. "We just didn't get to the finish in one piece."

Etc.: Bowyer said, "When you have a bad race and you know why, you're OK with it. If you crashed or something happens, you're going to be upset for maybe a day or so and then you'll be over it. But if you have a bad race and you don't know why, and you're going to another mile-and-a-half just like the one you just left, it's miserable. I mean, it's miserable from Monday to Thursday. That's a bad feeling. But we didn't have very many of those last year. If we had a bad day, we knew why. And we are expecting another season like 2010."
 

1 JAMIE MCMURRAY, Chevrolet

Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates

Where he stands: 17th, seven points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: Only two top-10 finishes in 15 starts. But that second one came last November, so McMurray believes he has turned the corner at the one-mile track.

Looking ahead: McMurray said he is "looking forward to Phoenix this weekend. Daytona is always a race that requires some luck and being in the right place at the right time. Moving on to some of the intermediate tracks that we run on more frequently, we can get a better gauge on where our team stands (in comparison to the other teams)."

Looking back: As the defending Daytona champion, a lot was expected of McMurray, and he lived up to the billing early in the race as he led three times for 11 laps. When he wasn't leading, he was pushing teammate Juan Pablo Montoya to the top spot. But McMurray ran into engine problems late in the 500, and he finished 18th.

Etc.: McMurray signed a multi-year agreement with car owner Chip Ganassi in January. "It's kind of a slow process to get all of that ironed out, so we just had to wait until we got it all done," McMurray said. "The 2010 season was certainly a great one. Making the Chase is our main goal this season, but we also want to be competitive every week. We're all really looking forward to this year and continuing the success we had in 2010."

56 MARTIN TRUEX JR., Toyota

Team: Michael Waltrip Racing

Where he stands: 18th, eight points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: One top-five and four top-10 finishes in 10 starts. Won the pole for the fall race in 2009 and finished fifth that same weekend. Finished 17th in the spring race a year ago.

Looking ahead: "In my opinion, the race season starts this weekend in Phoenix," said Truex. "We put a lot of preparation into our short-track program over the winter, and the NAPA Auto Parts Toyota we are taking to PIR this weekend will be a good gauge to see where we actually stack up."

Looking back: Despite being involved in four-car accident on the first of the two attempts at a green-white-checkered-flag finish, Truex was able to finish 19th in the Daytona 500. "We had a decent day there for about the first 80 to 90 percent of the race," said Truex, who led eight times for 17 laps. "We lost our partner, got shuffled back. I don't know what happened (that caused the wreck). I got just totally slammed into the fence off of two, and there was nothing I could do about it. It's pretty frustrating."

Etc.: Truex said he felt "really good" about "what we accomplished last year and what we got done in the offseason. I haven't felt this confident going into a season since 2008. I am definitely looking forward to great things. It's all about getting the season off to a strong start, and we certainly can do that."

11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Where he stands: 19th, 10 points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: Six top-10 finishes in 11 starts. He headed to Phoenix last November with a 33-point lead in the Championship Chase, and he dominated the race as he led 190 of the 312 laps before having to pit for fuel with 10 laps remaining. He ended up 12th on a day when he thought he was going to pad his points lead. Instead, it was trimmed to 15 points.

Looking ahead: Hamlin said the "key to being fast at Phoenix is how you brake getting into the corner. It's a tricky place to get around, but I have found that if I set my car up for getting into the corner good we get so much more speed getting off the corner and down the straightaways. I really like racing at Phoenix, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it reminds me of a lot of the places I raced when I was growing up."

Looking back: "We executed our plan and were right in it with five to go and got caught up in a wreck," said Hamlin, who ended up 21st at Daytona. "Mike (Ford, crew chief) and I decided with about 75 laps to that we would go to the front. We hooked up with Ryan (Newman) and went right up through there. It's frustrating, for sure."

Etc.: Hamlin, who won a series-high eight races and finished second in the Championship Chase in 2010, said he is "as confident as we've ever been" going into 2011. "Every year we've steadily made a progression toward the top and obviously had a career year last year. We know we can do it (win the championship), and we can win at all different kinds of race tracks. I think we have everything in place."

 

39 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

Where he stands: 20th, 10 points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: One win and five top-10 finishes in 17 starts. He also has won four poles. Newman won the spring race a year ago and finished second last November. He made his Cup debut at Phoenix on Nov. 5, 2000.

Looking ahead: Newman said Phoenix is "one of my favorite race tracks because the design of the race track makes it fun and challenging to drive. It's definitely a driver's race track. When your car is not working, it's up to the driver to make up what you can, and that I think separates the men from the boys at Phoenix."

Looking back: Newman led the most laps (37) and was leading on lap 196 of the scheduled 200 laps. But he was passed a lap later by the duo of David Ragan and Trevor Bayne, and moments later Newman got caught up in a multi-car accident on the backstretch. As a result, he ended up 22nd. "We had a plan and the horsepower to win this race," said Newman. "But we were on the wrong end of a typical restrictor-plate finish. Our luck on these tracks is not good."

Etc.: Newman said the win last spring was "a pretty emotional one for all of us. It was my first win with the team. It was our first win for the No. 39 at Stewart-Haas Racing, and it was the first (Cup) win for Tony Gibson as a crew chief. I said at the time that it was probably the most emotional victory I think I've ever had in my entire career."
 

OTHERS

20 JOEY LOGANO, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Where he stands: Tied for 21st with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., 13 points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: Two top-10 finishes, both in 2010, in four starts. He finished third in last November's race.

Looking ahead: "The last race in Phoenix was an example of how far this team has come since my rookie year," said Logano. "We started out in the top 10 but fell back when we got blocked in the pits. My first year and a half we wouldn't have been able to rally back from that, but in November we did and finished third. That shows the strength and confidence this Home Depot team has now."

Looking back: There were a record 16 cautions during this year's Daytona 500, and Logano was part of one of them with only 32 laps left in the race. "We had a good car, but we never really got a chance to show it off," said Logano, who ended up 23rd.

Etc.: Logano "definitely thinks we're Chase caliber now. Now that the points are a little bit different, that will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Winning races will be a huge deal to be able to get in there. We definitely learned a lot last season. The biggest thing was that me and Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) were getting along great. We figured out what makes our wheels turn. We kind of figured each other out and what each other likes. That really shows on the race track."
 

88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Where he stands: Tied for 21st with Joey Logano, 13 points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: Two wins and seven top-10 finishes in 17 starts. But he has only two top-10 finishes in the last eight races.

Looking ahead: Earnhardt believes "it takes something special to make a car work really good there. Turns three and four have been a challenge for me lately. Both ends can be challenging, but three and four create a long corner, and they are just so different from each other."

Looking back: Earnhardt's hopes of making a late race charge ended when he was caught up in a five-car melee on the first of two attempts at a green-white-checkered-flag finish. As a result, Earnhardt ended up 24th. "I was very happy with how fast we got up through there at the start of the race (after having to go to a backup car and starting last)," said Earnhardt, the pole sitter. "We had a really good car. Had as much fun as we could under the circumstances; it just got crazy at the end."

Etc.: Earnhardt said he has a "lot of respect for Steve (Letarte) as a crew chief. I've enjoyed getting to know him better these past couple of months (since Letarte was named his crew chief). I've seen him make some awesome calls and do a lot of great things with Jeff (Gordon). I really enjoy the way the team approaches their jobs and what their goals are. I like the way they go about business, how they conduct themselves. These guys are used to winning. I like that pressure and sense of entitlement to winning."

48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

Where he stands: 25th, 25 points back of leader Carl Edwards.

Phoenix record: Four wins and 13 top-10 finishes in 15 starts. Has finished seventh or better the last 11 races. Finished third in the spring race a year ago after leading 113 laps. Was fifth last November but did not lead a lap.

Looking ahead: Johnson said he is "definitely disappointed" the track is going to be repaved after this race. "We love the tracks that are worn out and on the verge of needing to be resurfaced. I think we put on our best races" on these type of surfaces, he added.

Looking back: Johnson was involved in a 14-car accident on lap 29 of the Daytona 500. After having to go to the garage area for repairs, Johnson was able to return to the track and finished 27th. "Made for a long afternoon, but we made up a couple of spots," said Johnson. "And the way the scale works, every position we picked up there will help (in his bid to qualify for the Chase)."

Etc.: Johnson, who is seeking his sixth straight Sprint Cup championships, said he understands why NASCAR changed the point system during the offseason "to make it a little bit easier to understand. But I think there are some other issues that would help with attendance and viewership. You look at the length of races, frequency of races. In my opinion, I think a lot of fans are just overexposed from race lengths and then so many events."
 

24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports Where he stands: Tied for 25th with teammate Jimmie Johnson.

Phoenix record: One win and 17 top-10 finishes in 24 starts. He also has won three poles. Gordon finished second in the spring race last year. He was 11th in the fall.

Looking ahead: Gordon is looking forward to the new qualifying format where practice speeds determine the order of qualifying. "This should make qualifying very interesting with the fast drivers going out later and later," said Gordon. "We could see the top spot changing after each run. Qualifying well there seems to help on race day. It's not like Daytona where you can go from 10th to the lead in one lap. Sometimes it takes several laps just to gain one position. And the fewer positions needed to get to the front, the better."

Looking back: Gordon's hopes of winning a fourth Daytona 500 ended on lap 29 when he got caught up in a 14-car melee. "What I don't understand is why guys are running three-wide, three-deep running for 28th," said Gordon. "We need to let it thin out a little. As soon as it thins out, then go to it. I was just riding along just waiting for it to thin out." After spending time in the garage area for repairs, Gordon returned to the track and finished 28th. "It is such a bummer. We had such a fast race car."

Etc.: Gordon said he is very impressed with new crew chief Alan Gustafason. "The guy works really hard, he's really smart," said Gordon. "We came down to test (at Daytona) in December, and part of that was to kind of just get acquainted with the team. And we weren't very fast. And we came back and I didn't expect anything any different. But we were fast. And I was like, man, what did you do? And he's like, well, it made me mad."

17 MATT KENSETH, Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

Where he stands: 31st, 24 points out of the top 10.

Phoenix record: One win and eight top-10 finishes in 17 starts. He finished sixth and seventh in the two races in 2010.

Looking ahead: Kenseth said, "Phoenix is a track that I really enjoy racing at. There are a lot of challenges when we race there since it's such a unique track, so we usually focus on handling to make sure our car handles well in all of the track's different corners in race trim. Qualifying is important at Phoenix since it's a track where it can be difficult to pass, so track position is always a focus."

Looking back: It was a long day for Kenseth -- he was involved in two wrecks and ended up 34th in the Daytona 500. "We were pretty beat up (from the first accident), and it was pretty hard to control," Kenseth said of his car. "I should have just stayed in the back and hoped for a lucky dog or a wave around. I was driving up there in traffic where I knew I wasn't capable of doing with a car pushing me. Logano (Joey) put on a big block, so I had to get on the brakes and Greg (Biffle) couldn't quite slow up and just turned me around."

Etc.: Daughter Grace Katherine was born Tuesday at 3:49 a.m., weighing in at seven pounds and eight ounces. Both mother Katie and daughter were doing well as the family welcomes Grace into the household with daughter Kaylin and son Ross.

Tagged: Terry Cook, Brendan Gaughan, Tony Raines, Scott Speed, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Scott Riggs, Reed Sorenson, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott, Chad McCumbee, Greg Biffle, Jason Leffler, Casey Mears, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Juan Pablo Montoya, Bobby Labonte, John Andretti, Martin Truex Jr., David Reutimann, David Ragan, Carl Edwards, David Stremme, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Marcos Ambrose, Ken Schrader, Michael Waltrip, Joe Nemechek, Robby Gordon, Jeff Green, Ron Fellows, Mike Bliss, Boris Said, Jeff Fuller, P.J. Jones, Hermie Sadler, Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers, Regan Smith, Robert Richardson Jr., Brad Keselowski, Scott Speed, Landon Cassill, Patrick Carpentier, Andy Lally, Jacques Villeneuve, Michael McDowell, Joey Logano, Sam Hornish Jr., J.J. Yeley, AJ Allmendinger, Trevor Bayne, Kevin Conway, Dexter Bean, Geoffrey Bodine, Mattias Ekstrom, Jan Magnussen


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