After a week for Easter, during which time drivers and team members had time to introduce themselves to something called 'family' the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is on the road again, this time to Phoenix, Arizona and the first Saturday night race of the season.
Unfortunately the week away doesn't change history, so it should come as little surprise that Jimmie Johnson dominates the statistics for Phoenix, which is also one of the ten Chase tracks that decide the title. His average finish is five places better than anyone else (4.3 compared to Jeff Burton's 9.1) and he has outscored anyone else by over 300 points across the most recent ten races.
“It's amazing,” he says, summing up the feeling of returning to competition. “Coming back to the race track and walking though the garage area. You go away for a week to relax and charge your batteries up….and I'm fired up to be back at the race track, back and looking forward to it.”
One man who has needed to do more charging up than others is Denny Hamlin. Following his Monday win at Martinsville Hamlin returned to Charlotte, NC, for surgery on a knee injury he picked up playing basketball before the season began. Normally on a flat track such as Phoenix – the banking only reaches 11 degrees – Hamlin would be a one of the drivers expected to star. However, coming back from an operation even he admitted after which every second was crucial for recovery Hamlin once more becomes an unknown quantity.
“It's about damage control,” admitted a downbeat Hamlin despite expecting to start every race, a role that will see him credited with the race points no matter who finishes the race as Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team have poached Casey Mears from Keyed-Up Motorsports to be a relief driver, the start-and-park no.90 being taken over by Scott Riggs for Phoenix.
Another unknown quantity for the race is Mark Martin. Those of you with long(ish) memories or fast googling fingers will remember (or find out) that the corresponding race last year saw Mark Martin romp to victory, kicking off a season that would end with him second in points. However, the early part of the season has not seen Martin continue this form, only sitting 17th in the points ahead of this weekend's event.
In contrast to Hamlin another driver who thrives on the flat tracks is in confident mood ahead of Phoenix, his Richard Childress team still on the crest of the wave even after Kevin Harvick lost the points lead. “I've always liked Phoenix,” says Clint Bowyer, who made his maiden RCR start at the one-mile tri-oval and has three top-tens in eight starts. “The track's been good to me, I enjoy it. I can't wait to get out there, it's always been a racy little short track.”
But Phoenix is much more than just another one-mile short track, with its corners vary in banking, 11 degrees in turn one and two and nine degrees in three and four further complicated by a kinked back straight with the kind of kerbing you expect on a European road course.
Add in to the mix a narrow front straight flanked by blue walls that are almost surely destined for a role in double file restarts and the 375-lap Subway Fresh Fit 600 should easily fit into the rough tough racing mould beloved of Saturday night events.
And if that's true history won't matter.
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