AVONDALE — After taking a break this past Easter weekend, the Sprint Cup Series returns with the first Saturday night race of the season at Phoenix.
This year’s spring race at the flat one-mile Phoenix track will feature an increase in distance from 312 laps to 375 to ensure the event runs well into the night. Therefore, teams will be faced with a new challenge as far as race strategy is concerned.
“It’s definitely going to make a difference,” Greg Biffle said. “I don’t know how many times in a race I’ve been to the point where it’s like, man, I wish it was over 10 laps earlier or 50 laps earlier and vice versa. I wish I had 30 more or 50 more laps to get back to the front or whatever.”
Phoenix also marks the second race with the new spoiler on the current Sprint Cup cars. NASCAR made the switch from the rear wing to the spoiler last week at Martinsville.
While Martinsville’s short track length of 0.526 miles did not play a significant role on the aerodynamics of the cars, Phoenix could be the first true test of the spoiler’s effect under race conditions. Four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson said teams might learn some things at Phoenix.
“We won’t really know (new spoiler versus old wing) until we get to Texas,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day at Phoenix, we will learn a little bit more about it, but the speeds aren’t high enough there to have an effect.”
Johnson has been dominant at Phoenix lately, winning four of the last five races. He also has completed every lap in all 13 of his Cup starts there. Johnson won three in a row at Phoenix before Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin snapped his streak in last year’s spring race.
Martin ended a 97-race winless streak in the series. He started on the pole and led an event-high 157 laps, but had to drive past Ryan Newman after the final restart with six laps to go and then hold off a hard-charging Tony Stewart for his first win since October 2005 at Kansas. Martin, who was 50 years old at the time, became the third oldest driver to win a Cup race. Harry Gant holds the record at age 52 when he won in August 1992 at Michigan.
“I thought I was going to get a win there in 2008, and of course we did last year which was just awesome,” said Martin, whose first of five wins during the 2009 season came at Phoenix. “We had a great car there last fall, too, so I’m looking forward to getting back out there.”
Denny Hamlin is expected to compete at Phoenix following his successful surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Hamlin had the surgery two days after his win at Martinsville. Joe Gibbs Racing plans to have Casey Mears on standby should Hamlin experience any complications during the race.
“It’s painful – as anyone who has had this surgery or any similar surgery can tell you – but I am working hard to get back my full range of motion and get back to where I need to be,” Hamlin said in a statement. “I have a couple of days yet to see how my knee responds, and that will help me make the right decision when I get to Phoenix this weekend.”
With the victory, Hamlin moved from 19th to 15th in points. Johnson finished ninth at Martinsville and took over the points lead. Johnson, a three-time race winner so far this season, holds a 14-point advantage over Biffle, who is the only driver to finish in the top-10 in each of the first six races.
Carl Edwards will celebrate a career milestone at Phoenix. Edwards is slated to make his 200th career Cup start. He made his series debut in August 2004 at Michigan, where he finished 10th.
“There’s no better place for me to have a milestone start like this than at Phoenix,” Edwards said. “That is where I ran my first-ever pavement race in 2001. That was a big day for me, so to think almost 10 years have passed since I pulled my little trailer in with all my hopes and dreams, and set up my tent down in turn one to work on my USAC Silver Crown car.
“Almost all that stuff has come true, although we still need to win a Cup championship. But 200 starts and a bunch of wins is a good start. It will be fun to strap in the car on Saturday and think about all that.”
Edwards is hoping to snap a 42-race winless streak. His last Cup victory came in the 2008 season-finale at Homestead.
Forty-seven teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Subway Fresh Fit 600.
Nationwide Series – Bashas’ Supermarkets 200
AVONDALE — The Nationwide Series once again will be coupled with the Sprint Cup Series after running its first “stand alone” race of the season last weekend at Nashville.
With five Nationwide races completed, just 61 points separate leader Carl Edwards from fifth-place Kevin Harvick. Brad Keselowski currently is second in points, followed by Justin Allgaier and Kyle Busch.
Harvick has said he’s not interested in running a full-time Nationwide schedule this year, but after winning his second race of the season at Nashville, he might consider changing his mind soon. Harvick is scheduled to compete in the next seven Nationwide races, including Friday’s 200-lap event at Phoenix.
“Phoenix is a place for me that’s a lot of fun just because it’s a place where I grew up racing and the track hasn’t changed a whole lot,” Harvick said. “Obviously the surroundings have changed a little bit on the outside, but it’s a place that I enjoy going.”
Harvick is second on the series’ all-time race winners list with 36. Mark Martin holds the record with 48 wins. Harvick has one victory at Phoenix, which came in April 2006. He also won the Cup race there that same weekend.
Edwards and Greg Biffle lead all drivers with three Nationwide wins each at Phoenix. Biffle, the defending race winner, is running a limited schedule for Baker Curb Racing this season. He did not compete at Nashville.
“Phoenix is one of my favorite places to go, and I enjoy running there every time I get the chance,” Biffle said. “I’ve been very successful in the Nationwide Series in Phoenix, including a win for this team out there in 2005.”
Jason Leffler will begin the first of his three-race probation at Phoenix. NASCAR placed Leffler on probation following his on-track incident with James Buescher at Nashville.
After he slammed Buescher into the wall late in the race, NASCAR parked Leffler for aggressive driving. Last month, NASCAR placed Edwards on probation for three races after he intentionally bumped Keselowski from behind and sent him upside down into the wall during the Sprint Cup race at Atlanta.
Forty-five teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200.