I kept trying to pry my jaw off the floor this entire week after Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the Daytona 500, but I decided it was going to remain there for quite some time. Although I really shouldn't be as surprised as I am, since the Hendrick driver has finished second in 2010, 2012, and 2013. It was bound to happen soon.
Now the series moves on to what many fans consider being the real start of the season: The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR). This track will play host to a couple firsts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It will be the first race that uses the new aero package for 2014, and it will be the first race that uses the new knockout-qualifying format. We did see a teaser of what the new format might look like during Nationwide Series qualifying at Daytona, and it looked much more exciting than single car runs. As for the new aero package, I will be looking for an increase in side by side racing and passing in order to judge the success of the new package.
While the Sprint Cup Series is extremely competitive and winning is never guaranteed, there are still a few drivers who I believe have an advantage over the competition. First off, we have the 6-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Over the past 10 races at PIR, Johnson has scored the most points there, and has tallied one win, eight top-5 finishes, and an average finish of 7.1. Look for Johnson to run up front and most likely end up in victory circle.
Another driver that has shown strength at PIR is Kevin Harvick. The man they call 'Happy' has posted two victories in the past four races at Phoenix, along with finishing 5th or better in four of the past ten races there. The question of whether or not Harvick will be just as competitive with Stewart-Haas Racing remains to be answered, but I suspect he will find himself somewhere towards the top of the leaderboard in the closing stages. But in order to get there, he'll have to fight off a Joe Gibbs Racing driver named Denny Hamlin.
Denny Hamlin won this race in 2012, and that happens to be his only win at Phoenix, but don't let that fool you. His average finish of 10.9 is second only to Jimmie Johnson, and he has posted a very solid eight top-5s in 17 starts at PIR. Couple that with the fact that Hamlin seems to be back with a vengeance in 2014 and he may even beat Johnson on Sunday.
While some familiar faces will probably run up front all day, I'm more curious as to how the new car will race. If I see an increase in close racing and passing, the new aero package will surely receive two thumbs up from me. Let's just hope all of that testing at Charlotte paid off.
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