Phoenix: Series round seven preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Phoenix Phoenix Provided Martin Jump-Start A Year Ago Hendrick Motorsports has the all-time lead in car owner victories at Phoenix International Raceway. Roush Fenway Racing is second. Mark Martin is...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Phoenix

Phoenix Provided Martin Jump-Start A Year Ago

Hendrick Motorsports has the all-time lead in car owner victories at Phoenix International Raceway. Roush Fenway Racing is second.

Mark Martin is involved in both totals.

Martin (No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet) has won two NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Phoenix, 16 years apart. The first came in 1993, for owner Jack Roush. The second came last year, his first driving for owner Rick Hendrick. Both times, Martin ended the season with five victories. Both times, he was a series championship contender, finishing third in '93 and second last year.

Going into Saturday's "twi-night" event, the Subway Fresh Fit 600 at PIR, Martin is a somewhat surprising 17th in the series standings, 214 behind first-place Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) but only 50 behind the current 12th-place driver, Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota).

That latter separation is especially important.

Even though Phoenix is only the seventh race of the season, drivers already are cognizant of staying in the top 12. Following the season's 26th race at Richmond on Sept. 11, the top 12 drivers in points qualify for NASCAR's "playoffs," known as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

""Phoenix has been a great race track for me since I first started going there," Martin said. "I like the short-track style, and I love night racing, so I look forward to this one for sure.

"I thought I was going to get a win there in 2008, and of course we did last year which was just awesome. We had a great car there last fall, too, so I'm looking forward to getting back out there."

Last year's PIR victory had added significance, as it immediately validated his decision to come out of a "semi-retirement" -- Martin prefers the label "part time" -- to drive for arguably the sport's top organization. It also validated Hendrick's decision to hire Martin, for that matter.

"I remember being nervous for that race," Martin said. "But that's only because I knew how good our car was. We had a winning car from the time we rolled off the truck last year. The guys [on the team] knew it, too, and I was so concerned with not disappointing them.

"We had a great race. ... Perfect pit stops. ... Very few adjustments all night long. ...

"When we finally won it was such a mix of relief and gratitude. It was an amazing night. One of those wins that I'm sure I'll never forget. Absolutely incredible."

Martin followed up that victory with a fourth-place finish in Phoenix's November event. Together, the two 2009 races added to Martin's already impressive history at the one-mile track that is one of the drivers' favorite places to race.

In addition to the two victories, Martin has 11 top fives and 17 top 10s at Phoenix. His average finish there Phoenix of 8.8 is better than all of the current top 12 except for Johnson, who has won four of the last five Phoenix events and averages a series-best 5.1 Phoenix finish.

Martin's Phoenix Driver Rating of 103.8, is third-best in the series and better than all but two drivers in the top 12 -- Johnson (123.0) and Kurt Busch (104.6).

Edwards Set For 200th Start; Earnhardt Savoring Top-10 Status

Coming into Phoenix this week, a number of drivers are on the verge of career milestones.

Carl Edwards (No. 99 Subway Ford) is slated to make his 200th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start. Edwards' first start? Aug. 22, 2004 at Michigan International Speedway. He finished 10th; that's the last time a driver had logged a top 10 in his first debut.

"It is pretty unbelievable that it's my 200th start," Edwards said. "I'm just grateful to have the opportunity to race these cars. Like most racers I just dreamed about being able to compete at this level and win.

"There's no better place for me to have a milestone start like this than at Phoenix. 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 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

"But 200 starts and a bunch of wins is a good start."

Elliott Sadler (No. 19 Stanley Tools Ford) is set to make his 400th series start. Sadler began his career in the series back on May 24, 1998 in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Mark Martin's next pole will be the 50th of his career and will give him sole possession of eighth on the all-time list. Martin currently is tied with Bobby Isaac for eighth. ...

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Office- March of Dimes Toyota) will be back on the race track Friday, only nine days after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee.

Hamlin took "playing hurt" to a new level by winning at Martinsville Speedway on March 29. That was a Monday, due to a March 28 rainout. The delay caused Hamlin to push the surgery back by two days.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/ National Guard Chevrolet) is 10th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings and compared to last season, his many fans must feel like he's on the verge of the championship.

The next two weeks could be key, as both Phoenix International Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway have been good to Earnhardt in the past. Earnhardt was a back-to-back winner at Phoenix in 2003-04 (when the track had only one race yearly) In the spring of 2000, Earnhardt's first NASCAR Sprint Cup win came at Texas. ...

Phoenix International Raceway has been key to Jimmie Johnson winning four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. Johnson has won four of the last five events at PIR -- and three of those have come consecutively in the track's November event, the next-to-last race of the year.

Each time, winning at Phoenix has given Johnson some breathing room heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

* In 2007, he took an 86-point lead into the finale.

* In 2008, he led by 141.

* In 2009, he led by 108.

Last year's November win at PIR was clutch. Johnson had finished a woeful 38th the week before at Texas and there was talk that his reign was in jeopardy, with his lead over secondplace Mark Martin sliced to 73. Another Phoenix win quickly ended that conversation.

Greg Biffle, 14 points behind Johnson going into this weekend, is showing championship- style consistency thus, with top-10 finishes in all six races.

That sort of start last occurred in 2005; Johnson started the year with seven consecutive top 10s.

The longest consecutive top-10 streak to start a season? That would be 11, by Morgan Shepherd, back in 1990.

Loop Data: Who Says Nobody's Perfect?

Of the 186 points races since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, only 10 perfect Driver Ratings of 150.0 have been scored.

Two of those, including the very first one, came at Phoenix International Raceway.

The only other track to see two perfect 150s was Pocono Raceway, both scored by Kurt Busch (2005 and 2007).

In Busch's perfect Phoenix in 2005, the first ever recorded, he had an Average Running Position of 1.9, 219 laps led, 76 Fastest Laps Run and was passed only seven times.

Harvick's perfect 150 was even better. In November of 2006 at Phoenix, Harvick had an Average Running Position of 1.2, 252 laps led and 72 Fastest Laps Run. He was only passed twice.

Considering he has won four of the last five Phoenix races, it's surprising Jimmie Johnson has never scored a perfect Driver Rating at Phoenix (he has elsewhere, at Dover and Auto Club Speedway). But he has come darn close.

He posted a Driver Rating of 149.6 in his victory last November, with an Average Running Position of 1.3, 238 laps led and 71 Fastest Laps Run.

In his Phoenix victory in November of 2008, Johnson was one-tenth off a perfect 150.0. In a 149.9 effort, Johnson had and Average Running Position of 1.5, with 217 laps led an 66 Fastest Laps Run.

Johnson's strength at Phoenix might equal bad news for the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

With an overall Driver Rating of 123.0, Phoenix ranks as Johnson's third-best track in terms of the Loop Data statistic (behind Martinsville's 123.6 and Auto Club Speedway's 124.0).

Johnson swiped the points lead away from Harvick with a ninth-place finish at Martinsville two weeks ago.

In that race, Harvick finished 35th, but his 97.5 Driver Rating suggests his performance wasn't indicative of the results.

Now 61 points behind, Harvick needs to rebound -- in two different ways.

After four consecutive top 10s to start the season, Harvick has finished outside the top 10 in each of the last two races.

He's experiencing a similar slump at Phoenix. Starting with his perfect Driver Rating in 2006, Harvick had five consecutive Phoenix races with a Driver Rating over 85.0.

But last year, he uncharacteristically struggled at Phoenix.

In 2009, with finishes of 30th and 24th, Harvick scored Driver Ratings of 47.2 and 55.2, respectively.

On The Line: Greg Biffle Greg Biffle, currently second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, was the guest on this week's NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference. Biffle goes into Phoenix trailing fourtime defending series champion Jimmie Johnson by merely 14 points. In addition to running Saturday's race, Biffle will be the defending champion in Friday's NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Phoenix.

Several of the questions posed during the teleconference dealt with the long-running dominance of Johnson. Following are some excerpts.

Q: Greg, as good as you've done so far this year as opposed to last year, it's become apparent that the 48's not going to give this thing away. Is someone going to have to be even better than good, are they going to have to be great, to knock them off their pedestal?

Greg Biffle: "I think so. I mean, we've been good so far. And that's not good enough. But you're right: A person's going to have to be great ... flawless at this. We're prepared to work hard and continue to get better and better. And we're going to keep putting pressure on 'em. We definitely feel like we're gaining on them. We've beat them a few times this year. Miraculously, I don't know how."

Q: Can you clarify how you approach things especially at this point being second in points with whether you're looking at the 48 or not?

Greg Biffle: "I'll be as honest as I can with you. I don't care a bit about the 48 car. I would really rather not talk about him. He's done a spectacular job. He's a great driver. Chad Knaus is a great crew chief. And Mr. Hendrick is a world-class guy that provides his team with an unbelievable level of support, confidence and equipment that these guys are able to compete all the time.

"My focus is what can we do to win at Phoenix. And there's a lot of guys I gotta beat. And we don't view it as any one particular guy. We view it as we gotta go there and win.

"And the reason why we end up talking about the 48 is everyone wants to talk about the 48 ... we're questioned a lot about the fact that they're the benchmark, about how are we going to catch them or how are we going to beat them."

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Laila Ali, daughter of former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali who has emerged as the greatest in terms of women's boxing, will serve as Grand Marshall for the Subway Fresh Fit 600 on Sunday. The tie-in: she is the spokesperson for Subway's new "Fresh Fit For Kids" campaign.

Ali has risen to the top of her sport in recent years with several high-profile victories, including a knockout of Christy Martin, once considered the unofficial "pound-for-pound" women's champion. Ali is 24-0, and holds the world Super Middleweight title.

Up Next: Race 8 @ Texas

For the eighth race of the season, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Southwest and Texas Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile oval for the Samsung Mobile 500 on Sunday, April 18. (FOX broadcast starts at 2 p.m. ET; race start 3 p.m.)

Jeff Gordon is defending race champion. His win at TMS in the spring of 2009 was the last time he visited Victory Lane. That marked the first time Gordon has won at TMS; he's winless at only one track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- Homestead-Miami.

Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Texas, in 1997. Carl Edwards has a series-high three TMS victories.

Historically there's big-time parity at TMS, with 15 different winners in 18 previous events. Jack Roush has the most owner wins, with seven, a total that started with Burton's '97 win.

Fast Facts

The Race: Subway Fresh Fit 600
The Place: Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile oval)

The Date: Saturday, April 10
The Time: 7:30 p.m. (ET)

Race Distance: 603 kilometers / 375 miles

TV: FOX, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128. (Local: KGME-AM 910)

2009 Coors Light Pole: Mark Martin
2009 Winner: Mark Martin

Schedule prior to race day: (all times local / PT)
Friday -- Practice, 10:10-11:55 a.m. and 12:35-2 p.m. Qualifying, 4:10.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Morgan Shepherd , Brian Vickers , Carl Edwards , Jack Roush , Elliott Sadler , Denny Hamlin , Chad Knaus , Mark Martin
Teams Hendrick Motorsports , Roush Fenway Racing