NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Big 6: 2009 Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 Presented by Pennzoil at Phoenix

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Sure, I called him to win this week, but hey, I was close! Jeff Burton finished a solid and hard-raced second at Phoenix, his best run of the year. Burton has suffered through the mysterious malady that has plagued all four Richard Childress Racing teams this year, but Phoenix is Burton’s third top-10 finish in the last three races – a sign that things are turning around?

What… was THAT?

During the pre-race show I caught a piece of a blurb about the No. 2 team that, if I heard correctly, makes Kurt Busch’s Texas win and great run at Phoenix even more impressive. If I heard correctly, Pat Tryson is no longer welcome in the Penske Racing shop, not even to work on his team’s own cars. I’ve heard of outgoing drivers and crew chiefs being excluded from team meetings and strategy sessions, but not being allowed to work on their own cars? If that’s the case, double the props for Busch’s Chase this year and the five top-10 finishes in those nine races-it can’t be easy to call the shots on a car you haven’t seen before it arrives at the racetrack!

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Though outclassed in equipment at the end, Martin Truex Jr. still pulled off Chip Ganassi’s best finish as a car owner at PIR this week with a sold fifth at the end. It was the first top-five run of the year for Truex, who will depart Earnhardt Ganassi Racing for Michael Waltrip Racing after the season finale at Homestead-Miami

When… will I be loved?

Both of the day’s biggest incidents happened when the field was in restart mode. In the first, a driver (it looked like Greg Biffle on the replay) didn’t take off, and on the second, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got loose and slid into Marcos Ambrose when oil from an internal leak got on his tires, and the ensuing stack-up got messy. Most of the drivers were on their best behavior all day-but several drivers weren’t feeling the love for quirky and fun Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday, so the track herself takes the fall this week-though it’s hardly deserved.

Why… no media hype when Kevin Harvick had the chance at a weekend trifecta?

Last week at Texas, when Kyle Busch was trying to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win the Camping World Truck, Nationwide, and Sprint Cup series races at the same track in a single weekend, it was all over the airwaves, especially after Busch won the truck race and was contending in the Nationwide Series race. This week, Kevin Harvick won the truck race and was in contention very late in the Nationwide race, yet barely received a passing comment as the talk surrounded Busch’s title run – a title which he did not clinch, but is a certainty as long as he starts at Homestead. So why no love for Harvick, who is very, very good at Phoenix?

How… far out of the points lead is too far with one race to go?

Mathematically speaking, two drivers will head to Homestead with a chance to win the Sprint Cup championship: Points leader Jimmie Johnson, who rebounded after finishing 39th in Texas to win in Phoenix, and Mark Martin, who has shown that at 50 he still has what it takes to run with drivers in their prime. Jeff Gordon, who probably occasionally wishes he had hired a different driver in 2001, will be mathematically eliminated as soon as Johnson (who is locked into the race via his Top-35 points position) takes the green flag. Johnson holds a 108-point advantage and will win the title if he finishes 25th or better, no matter what Martin does. But Johnson historically isn’t very good at Homestead, and his 13th-place average finish includes only 43 laps led and the DNF that ultimately ended his title hopes in 2005. Martin’s stats are nearly identical to Johnson’s, with a slightly better average of 12th. The numbers say it’s Johnson’s title to lose, but as Johnson pointed out after Phoenix, he finished 39th just a week ago – a finish that would almost hand Martin the title should it happen in Homestead. Bottom line, the fat lady is warming up, but she’s not singing just yet.

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