Brad Morgan · Tuesday March 5, 2013
The dust has settled at Phoenix International Raceway as NASCAR’s top drivers now move north towards the bright lights of Las Vegas and part two of the Sprint Cup Series’ West Coast swing.
This post-Phoenix edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that while many top names kept momentum in Gen-6’s non-restrictor plate debut, others were slowed by unusual tire wear and poor strategy.
How could any driver go from a frozen, subzero state to scorching hot over a one-week span?
It’s not easy, just ask Carl Edwards. Only one contest removed from starting the season on an extremely sour note, he delivered on a post-wreck guarantee at Daytona by recording a much needed victory in the Subway Fresh Fit 500k.
A combination of consistently favorable track position and a heady pit strategy outlined by crew chief Jimmy Fennig kept Edwards in a position to do back flips throughout the afternoon. And after 316 circuits under the Arizona sky, he parked at the start/finish line and performed his signature move to the delight of the fans, then joined them for a momentary celebration in the grandstands.
Beforehand, “Cousin Carl” led a race-high 122 laps and dominated the second half of the event, snapping a previously held 70-race winless streak. He also becomes the first driver to guide a Ford Fusion to victory lane during the Gen-6 era.
While mainstays Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski retained their Hot or Not position by staying close behind the No. 99 machine as the checkered flag waved, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has also posted two straight top-five finishes, making him a solid candidate for a HOT-level mention.
Junior is off to a strong start for the second consecutive season thanks to an astounding showing that leaves him only eight points behind Johnson after race 2 of 36. He improved from a 21st place start early and led for a total of 47 laps around the 1-mile venue, before recording his best finish at PIR since the 2005 season.
Finishing just after our residual front runners, several dark horses also managed positive results, including one who has ascended to the warm category like a ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ of substance abuse.
A.J. Allmendinger’s partnership with the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team and owner James Finch seems almost too good to be true for just that reason. Nevertheless, the ‘Dinger made the most of his newfound opportunity by quietly finishing 11th in the Guy Roofing Chevrolet SS, a personal best finish since ending with a ninth place result at Kentucky prior to his Adderall related suspension last season.
The California native is no stranger to success in the desert; with nine starts at PIR, he now has a pair of top-10 finishes to go along with a pole award. But, he wasn’t the only driver who found a nice groove and coasted to the finish line under the radar.
Aric Almirola drove the No. 43 Farmland Ford as high as second place after early cautions and two-tire stops shuffled the field, eventually settling in to the 15th position.
While not a groundbreaking finish, the firm effort moves him into a three-way tie for eighth in points alongside Jeff Gordon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., which is a high-water mark for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver on the Sprint Cup stage.
Finishing just ahead of Almirola in 14th, Casey Mears and the No. 13 GEICO Ford also survived a prolonged green-white-checkered scenario as other less fortunate teams either ran out of fuel or lost the handle on their cars.
Young Joey Logano remains in limbo somewhere between lukewarm and chilly because of his recent inability to close out a race without encountering some sort of misfortune in the final moments.
Last week he was involved in the crash that unfolded while the leaders rounded the backstretch for the final time; and this race was no different for Penske’s newest driver, as a possible top-10 finish slipped away after the Shell Pennzoil car ran out of fuel with only five laps remaining, just before a caution that could have prevented the untimely miscalculation.
The combination of Gen-6’s sharp learning curve, paired with a recently repaved track surface, served as the culprit for many other drivers who struggled on Sunday including the Busch brothers.
Kurt’s woes began when the No. 78 Chevrolet encountered an electrical problem that made it seem as if the car was overheating. Shortly thereafter, Kyle spun in Turn 2, sustaining minimal damage that would eventually land him a lap down. To round things off, the siblings almost wrecked one another when both drivers got extremely loose simultaneously with less than 70 laps to go.
The weekend ended up being a rough experience for the entire family after their mother, Gaye Busch, was involved in a bizarre golf-cart accident in the tunnel underneath the raceway. No one was seriously injured, but several people involved were taken to a Phoenix area hospital.
Many drivers experienced problems with Goodyear’s harder tire compound at Phoenix but few were rocked as hard as Ryan Newman. It took two high speed blowouts and a melted tire bead to knock the “Rocket Man” out. The second, nastier looking incident left the No. 39 Chevrolet pancaked against the Turn 1 safer barrier.
What’s colder is that Newman quickly abandoned the car and avoided NASCAR officials as they swept in to clean up the mess and transport him to the infield care center, choosing instead to hop the inside retaining wall and ignore another truck that was trying to signal him over as he hurdled into the pit area.
His stock in the drivers points standings also took a major hit, dropping 15 positions to 20th place overall.
Martin Truex Jr. probably wishes he was in Newman’s shoes after a broken rear-end gear left the No. 56 Camry temporarily lifeless on pit road during the second stint under caution.
Mechanical malfunctions have been the major story for the NAPA Toyota driver after he lost power to the engine and limped home in the Daytona 500. Back-to-back missteps now leave Truex Jr. in danger of being buried in the standings behind rapid starts from many of last year’s fellow Chaser contenders.
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