NASCAR Driver Capsules, Feb. 26
By Jerry Bonkowski and Bob Moore
88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the Sprint Cup Series standings after one race, heading into Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway. Earnhardt leads second-ranked Denny Hamlin by five points and third-ranked Brad Keselowski by six points.
PHOENIX RECORD: 23 career starts, 2 wins, 6 top-5s, 10 top-10s, 2 poles. Best career finish: First in 2003 and 2004. Finished fifth in this race last year and was fourth in the fall Chase race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Earnhardt comes into Phoenix with a great deal of confidence and momentum. Between his win Sunday at Daytona and his last two finishes at PIR (both top-10 finishes), he arguably has to be considered one of the favorites for this Sunday's race in the Valley of the Sun. Here's his thoughts on the post-Daytona 500 experience: "It's been fun being busy and talking about the win. It's an opportunity to celebrate my team and their effort, give everybody credit. So I'm enjoying it. It's a lifetime opportunity to not only win the race but to be able to celebrate it and go talk to the world about it."
LOOKING BACK: Earnhardt stunned much of the NASCAR world by winning Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, his second career win in that event.
ETC.: Earnhardt has completed 93.3 percent (6,773) of the 7,257 total laps contested in 23 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 17.5 and his average finish is 17.0. He has three DNFs there.
11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Denny Hamlin came close, but not close enough, finishing runner-up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. Hamlin trails Earnhardt by five points, is one point ahead of third-ranked Brad Keselowski and is three points ahead of the fourth-place tie of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
PHOENIX RECORD: 17 career starts, 1 wins, 8 top-5s, 9 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: First in 2012 spring race. Finished third in this race last year and was 28th in the fall Chase race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Hamlin comes into Sunday's race at Phoenix looking to get back on track there. He won the 2012 spring race, finished runner-up in that year's fall event, and was third in last year's spring race, only to falter and finish 28th in last fall's race there. Here's his thoughts: "I'm up to speed, to say the least, within our race team. Where even last year we were a little bit off of our teammates ... The first few races will be tough for us. Other than that I think we'll be fine."
LOOKING BACK: Hamlin gave it all he could, but just didn't quite have enough power to defeat Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday's Daytona 500.
ETC.: Hamlin has completed a near-perfect 99.5 percent (5,356) of the 5,382 total laps contested in 17 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 11.9 and his average finish is 10.9. He has zero DNFs there.
2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Ford
Team: Penske Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Brad Keselowski had one of the strongest runs he's had in a long time in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, finishing third to winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. Keselowski trails second-ranked Denny Hamlin by one point, and leads the fourth-place tie of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson by two points each.
PHOENIX RECORD: 9 career starts, 0 wins, 2 top-5s, 3 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Fourth in 2013 spring race. Finished second in this race last year and was 11th in the fall Chase race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Keselowski needs to continue doing what he did at Daytona. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race at PIR: "Team Penske has traditionally had a great short-track program. We had a strong Ford Fusion at Phoenix last November and since then we have made improvements. Having said that, my Daytona 500 race car was one of the best cars I have ever had there and, as I said after the race, you don't get cars like that all the time. ... I'm confident that our Ford Fusion will be competitive and our team will be as well."
LOOKING BACK: Keselowski said before the season began that he wanted to get off to a good start and prove that last year's disappointing performance - failing to defend his 2012 Sprint Cup championship and not even qualifying for the Chase - was a fluke. He certainly did that Sunday.
ETC.: Keselowski has completed a poor 88.6 percent (2,556) of the 2,885 total laps contested in nine career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 18.2 and his average finish is 17.1. He has one DNF there.
24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Jeff Gordon had a great run in Sunday's Daytona 500, ultimately finishing fourth. Gordon is tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for fourth place in the standings. The duo trails points leader and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. by eight points each, are two points behind third-ranked Brad Keselowski and are two points ahead of sixth-ranked Matt Kenseth.
PHOENIX RECORD: 30 career starts, 2 wins, 10 top-5s, 20 top-10s, 3 poles. Best career finish: First in 2007 spring race and 2011 spring race. Finished ninth in this race last year and was 14th in the fall Chase race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Gordon is off to a good start, exactly what he needed to do if he hopes to win a fifth Sprint Cup championship this year (and if he does so, he's already said he'll retire then). Here's Gordon's thoughts on Sunday's race at Phoenix: "I feel we have made some great improvements with how competitive we are at Phoenix and a lot of that is just confidence in how far you can push the car. And the grip level has improved - it was like a razor's edge when they first repaved and reconfigured the track. It was difficult to judge where that 'edge' was. The last race here I thought we had a car capable of winning or finishing top three, but we had some difficulty on a late-race restart (and finished 14th). Better restarts are something I'm focusing on this year."
LOOKING BACK: Gordon helped teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. late in the race, including giving him a good push forward when he needed it in the closing laps. Earnhardt may have won the race, but Gordon definitely gets an assist.
ETC.: Gordon has completed 98.0 percent (9,201) of the 9,386 total laps contested in 30 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 10.7 and his average finish is 11.5. He has three DNFs there.
48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Jimmie Johnson rallied back from deep in the pack to finish fifth in Sunday's Daytona 500. Johnson is tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for fourth place in the standings. The duo trails points leader and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. by eight points each, are two points behind third-ranked Brad Keselowski and are two points ahead of sixth-ranked Matt Kenseth.
PHOENIX RECORD: 21 career starts, 4 wins, 14 top-5s, 17 top-10s, 2 poles. Best career finish: First in fall 2007, spring and fall 2008 and fall 2009. Finished second in this race last year and was third in the fall Chase race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Phoenix is one of Johnson's strongest tracks, with four career wins there. He came oh so close in the last two races there, finishing second in this race last year and then third in the Chase race in the fall that sent him into the season finale at Homestead in perfect position to clinch his sixth Sprint Cup championship the following week. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "With all the rule changes we have had this year, Phoenix is going to be an interesting race. I think everyone will be in the same boat and it's going to be somewhat of a crap shoot. We have had some good luck and some bad luck there, so we will always be hoping for the best."
LOOKING BACK: Johnson began his quest for a record-tying seventh career Sprint Cup championship with a strong fifth-place finish at Daytona. He had a car that was strong enough to bring him from back in the pack to one that challenged for the win, but just came up a bit short.
ETC.: Johnson has completed 99.4 percent (6,594) of the 6,633 total laps contested in 21 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 12.0 and his average finish is an incredible 6.3. He has zero DNFs there.
20 MATT KENSETH, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Matt Kenseth comes into the second race of the season in sixth place. He trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 10 points, is two points behind the fourth-place tie of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and leads the seventh-ranked tie of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle by one point.
PHOENIX RECORD: 23 career starts, 1 wins, 5 top-5s, 9 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: First in 2002. Finished seventh in this race last year and was 23rd in the fall Chase race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Kenseth would love to have the same kind of season he had last year, including a series-high seven wins and potentially end up with his second career Cup championship this season.
LOOKING BACK: Kenseth was hoping to earn his third career Daytona 500 win, but came up short, finishing sixth. Here's Kenseth's thoughts on how the 500 played out: "No (he's not disappointed with his finish). For the way the whole week went and we finished sixth, it could be a lot worse than that. I'm glad Dale Jr. got the win - he needed that. That was good for him and Denny [Hamlin]. Denny was super-fast all week and it looks like he almost pulled it off too."
ETC.: Kenseth has completed 92.2 percent (6,693) of the 7,257 total laps contested in 23 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 19.9 and his average finish is 17.4. He has four DNFs there.
17 RICKY STENHOUSE JR., Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got off to a great start in his sophomore season on the Sprint Cup circuit, finishing seventh in the Daytona 500. He is tied in the Sprint Cup standings with Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle. The duo trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 11 points, is one point behind sixth-ranked Matt Kenseth and leads ninth-ranked Austin Dillon by one point.
PHOENIX RECORD: 2 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 0 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: 12th in 2013 fall race. Finished 16th in his first career Sprint Cup race at Phoenix last spring and was 12th in the fall Chase race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Now it's a matter of Stenhouse continuing what he did in the season opener at Daytona. He's had a lot of experience at PIR, especially in the Nationwide Series, so look for him to likely have another top-10 day this Sunday.
LOOKING BACK: Stenhouse drove an intelligent race, stayed out of trouble, kept pace with the leaders and came home with a very good seventh-place finish. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's Daytona 500 run: "We came home seventh and that is a good way to start the year. We just needed a little bit more there at the end. We needed a couple cars behind us to be able to get to the 2's bumper and we just didn't quite get it."
ETC.: Stenhouse has completed 100 percent (628) of the 628 total laps contested in two career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 19.5 and his average finish is 14.0. He has zero DNFs there.
16 GREG BIFFLE, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Greg Biffle had a good run in the season-opening Daytona 500, finishing eighth. Biffle had a very strong Ford that challenged for the lead several times and could have pulled an upset with a break or two. He is tied in the Sprint Cup standings with Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The duo trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 11 points, is one point behind sixth-ranked Matt Kenseth and leads ninth-ranked Austin Dillon by one point.
PHOENIX RECORD: 20 career starts, 0 wins, 5 top-5s, 7 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: First in 2012 spring race. Finished 17th in this race last year and was 13th in the fall Chase race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Phoenix is not one of Biffle's best tracks. He's never won there and seems to struggle more often than not. That's kind of surprising given Biffle's extensive short track racing career. He started racing on short tracks in his native Washington state and was quite successful back in his pre-NASCAR days.
LOOKING BACK: Biffle showed lots of promise for the rest of the 2014 season by finishing eighth in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. Here's his thoughts on his finish: "It was a good night. They just have a tick more speed, it seems like. I could kind of hold them off, but it depends on who is pushing you, I guess. You get some fast cars lined up and you're fast, but that last restart killed me. That was it."
ETC.: Biffle has completed 97.6 percent (6,172) of the 6,321 total laps contested in 20 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 14.6 and his average finish is 13.8. He has one DNF there.
3 AUSTIN DILLON, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Austin Dillon comes into the second race of the season in ninth place, after also finishing ninth in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Sunday. Dillon, who started on the pole for that race, trails Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 12 points in the Sprint Cup standings, is one point behind the seventh-place tie of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle and leads 10th-ranked Casey Mears by two points.
PHOENIX RECORD: 0 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 0 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Sunday will mark Dillon's first career Sprint Cup start at Phoenix. However, in five career Nationwide Series races there previously, he had two top-five and four top-10 finishes. And in two career Camping World Trucks Series races, he had one top-five and another top-10 finish at PIR.
LOOKING AHEAD: Dillon started off his Sprint Cup rookie season by finishing ninth in the season-opening Daytona 500. Here are his thoughts heading into Sunday's race at Phoenix: "(PIR) is a track I've been looking forward to for several weeks. I'm a rookie and I have a lot to learn - I know I'll have a lot to learn all season. I feel like I showed my rookie stripes quite a bit during the Daytona 500, but Phoenix is a track where I've made a ton of laps as a driver, so I've been looking forward to entering that race. ... I've raced there in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series so I feel like I have a good feel for the track."
LOOKING BACK: Even though he finished ninth in Sunday's Daytona 500, Dillon had problems during the race, being involved in at least three different wrecks. He is young, enthusiastic and will make mistakes this season, but to work through all those wrecks and still finish ninth is a significant accomplishment.
ETC.: Dillon has never raced in the Sprint Cup Series at Phoenix.
13 CASEY MEARS, Chevrolet
Team: Germain Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Casey Mears had one of the best season-opening finishes he's ever had, winding up 10th in the Daytona 500. Mears is tied for 10th in the Sprint Cup standings with Joey Logano, each with 14 points. Both drivers trail points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 14 points, are two points behind ninth-ranked Austin Dillon and are three points ahead of 12th-ranked Kevin Harvick.
PHOENIX RECORD: 19 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 0 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: 11th in spring 2008 race. Finished 14th in this race last year and was 27th in the fall Chase race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Off to a great start to begin the season, Mears hopes to build upon his Daytona performance with an equally strong run - if not stronger - this Sunday at Phoenix. Here's some of Mears' thoughts: "Everybody is always excited about a season, but we are especially excited at Germain Racing, for sure. We've got a lot of things going on with the partnership with (Richard Childress Racing, which supplies motors and chassis to Germain Racing). ... It's a big step for our organization. Last year was our first full season and now having a full relationship with RCR from the technical side to being able to review data, cars parts and pieces, it's a real big step in the right direction for our program."
LOOKING BACK: Mears literally flew under the radar for most of Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, stayed out of trouble for the most part and came home with a promising 10th-place finish.
ETC.: Mears has completed 91.0 percent (5,408) of the 5,943 total laps contested in 19 career starts at Phoenix. His average start there is 23.5 and his average finish is 26.2. He has four DNFs there.
Driver Capsules for week of Feb. 25
22 JOEY LOGANO, Ford
Team: Team Penske
WHERE HE STANDS: 11th, no points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Finished ninth in the November race for his fourth top-10 finish in 10 starts. Led 33 laps in the November event.
LOOKING AHEAD: Logano is quick to point out that racing at Phoenix is a "totally different style of racing" than Daytona. "At Daytona, you are mentally worn out after the race because you are on edge the whole time. When you get to Phoenix, you can get more into a zone. It's more racing where handling and car prep really comes into play. And you just approach it different from the very beginning. Daytona is Daytona. But you really feel like you start the season when you get to Phoenix."
LOOKING BACK: Logano finished 11th in the Daytona 500. "That was a crazy, crazy race there at the end," said Logano. "It's funny because you line up behind Brad (Keselowski, his teammate) and he gets a hole and I don't, and then you see where he goes and where you're at. We got shuffled all the way to the back with 10 (laps) to go. We worked our way up some. We got sideways at the end, but I was able to save it."
ETC.: Logano feels that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. winning the Daytona 500 "will be good for our sport. It will bring a lot of attention our way in the coming weeks. That's probably our biggest star winning the biggest race. That's got to be good, right? Hopefully, we as a sport can take the extra attention and make it pay off with some big races in the next couple of weeks. And hopefully we can win both of those (Phoenix and Las Vegas)."
4 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 12th, three points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Has won two of the last three races including the November event. Overall has four wins and 11 top-10s including seven top-five's 22 races. Is tied for the most wins with Jimmie Johnson.
LOOKING AHEAD: Harvick feels Phoenix is "similar to the tracks that most of us grew up racing on. Phoenix is a very challenging race track. It has a very unique layout that is different at both ends. I feel like I've been racing at Phoenix my entire career, and I feel that what I've learned there has helped me be successful on the other flat tracks we race on. The race track continues to change as it ages, so you're always tweaking to keep up with the changes every time we head out there."
LOOKING BACK: Harvick seemed headed for a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500 when he became involved in the last-lap accident that left him in 13th place. "My car just went straight. I thought I had a flat tire, but Carl (Edwards) and Reed (Sorenson) said that they about spun out the lap before down there (turn four) with some oil or whatever was on the track," said Harvick. "I clobbered the side of the 18 (Kyle Busch). I hate it for everybody who got their cars torn up. Our Budweiser Chevy was good all night. Even with all that happened on the last lap we finished okay. Good way to start the year with a new team." Harvick left Richard Childress Racing after last season to move to Stewart-Haas Racing.
ETC.: Harvick said he loves "change. As I've learned over the off-season, change is very enthusiastic for not only myself but for all the people around me. I think everybody at SHR would tell you that the enthusiasm is contagious at the shop just because it just bleeds over from one person to the next. It's been a lot of fun. Hopefully, the results will show everything that we think we should be able to achieve."
1 JAMIE MCMURRAY, Chevrolet
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
WHERE HE STANDS: 13th, four points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Only two top-10 finishes in 21 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: McMurray said, "Phoenix is an area and track that I enjoy visiting, so I always look forward to this trip. It is going to be interesting with the new qualifying format for everyone. Our guys have put in a lot of work over the off season to get ready. Once you get past Daytona you will start to get an idea early in the season of where the program is headed. I'm looking forward to getting into the Cessna Chevy this weekend and build some momentum from our top-15 finish at Daytona."
LOOKING BACK: Despite being involved in the last-lap accident, McMurray was able to finish 14th in the Daytona 500. "We had a pretty good McDonald's Chevy tonight," said McMurray. "We were fortunate enough to miss a few wrecks early in the race and put ourselves in position for what we hoped would be a top-10 finish. Unfortunately, we got involved in the last wreck of the day coming to the checkered flag. Not the way we wanted to finish."
ETC.: During the off-season testing, McMurray said "our cars have been significantly faster than what they were last year. I don't know exactly why, but speed-wise it's been better. The mentality in the shop and everyone's attitude in the shop is better that it's ever been. We had our team luncheon (before Daytona) and since I've been in racing, I haven't been involved with a group of people that are as positive and everyone fighting for the same goal as what we have right now."
52 BOBBY LABONTE, Chevrolet
Team: HScott Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 14th, five points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Team will not be racing at Phoenix.
LOOKING AHEAD: James Finch, the former owner of this team, loves restrictor-plate racing, and he decided to rent one of his former cars for the Daytona 500. As for the rest of the season, Finch said he may run the other restrictor-plate events "or I may not. This could be my only race of the year."
LOOKING BACK: Labonte was in position to finish in the top 10 when he and Kurt Busch got together with 10 laps to go. The contact damaged Labonte's car enough where he couldn't "race like I wanted." As a result, Labonte finished 15th. "It was a good night, but it could have been a lot better," said Labonte.
ETC.: Labonte still wants to race, but he is not sure how many races he will be running in 2014. "I've talking to a lot of people in Cup, Nationwide and the trucks and we'll see what happens," said Labonte. "If this team decides to run any more Cup races, I hope to be part of that deal."
36 REED SORENSON, Chevrolet
Team: Tommy Baldwin Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 15th, six points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: His best finish in nine starts is 12th.
LOOKING AHEAD: Sorenson said, "We had a great run in Daytona and I am looking forward to getting back behind the wheel of my Chevy. I enjoy working with Todd (Parrott, crew chief), he is a huge asset to the team, and I know these guys have been working hard to get the cars ready to go for this weekend in Phoenix. Hopefully, we can have another solid run and continue the momentum for the start of the season."
LOOKING BACK: Sorenson was one of the unlucky drivers to be involved in the last-lap accident as he ended up spinning across the finish line in 16th place. "We had a great car today," said Sorenson. "I am so proud to say that we were up front competing for a top-10. Those cautions there at the end got us shuffled back a little bit, and then we got caught up in the accident on the final lap. I hate that we weren't able to get a top-10, but we had a great run today."
ETC.: Parrott looks on his new job with Tommy Baldwin Racing as a "new beginning." Parrott, the crew chief for Dale Jarrett when Jarrett won the 1999 Winston Cup championship, was suspended last year and lost his job with Richard Petty Motorsports for failing a drug test. After completing NASCAR's drug recovery program, Parrott began looking for a new job. In hiring Parrott to be the crew chief for the 36 car, Baldwin said, "we at TBR are excited to take another step and grow our company with Todd Parrott. He will be a great addition to the team. I think it's important for everyone in this sport to have a second chance. Todd has earned that right by handing everything as a professional, and we are proud to have him on board."
99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 16th, six points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Won this race a year ago after leading 122 laps. It was his second win at the one-mile track. Overall has 11 top-10 finishes including seven top-five's in 19 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Edwards can't wait to get to Phoenix. "We had a great car there a year ago, and I feel we are going to have another great one this weekend," said Edwards. "That track has always been good to me, and I feel it will be again this year. Winning early was big last year, and it is even bigger this year with a win meaning you are in the Chase."
LOOKING BACK: Edwards led three times for eight laps including three with 25 laps to go while battling Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead. But Edwards was involved in the last-lap accident and finished the night in 17th place. "We had a really fast Fastenal Ford," said Edwards. "I got to lead so that was really run. The 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) was very good. He definitely deserved the win. The reason we all crashed at the end was there was still some oil on the race track (from a previous wreck). I just hate to tear up that race car. That was a really good car."
ETC.: During the off-season, Edwards participated in a 'mock' NFL combine at Velocity Sports Performance, where he was worked out by former University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer and current East Tennessee State head coach Carl Torbush. Activities at the combine tested skills of agility, quickness and flexibility and included everything from stretching to executing true passing and blocking drills. "I learned a little bit about being a defensive back," said Edwards. "I realized as these guys talked to me that the sport of football is very technical - just like racing. You have to work on it for years to get better."
9 MARCOS AMBROSE, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 17th, eight points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Only one top-10 finish in 11 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Ambrose hopes to put his troubles at Phoenix behind him this weekend. "We haven't run as well there as we would like," said Ambrose. "But our short track program was a lot better the last half of last year so we have high hopes for this weekend. We really want to get this year started off on the right foot and a good run at Phoenix will help us do that."
LOOKING BACK: Despite being involved in two accidents, Ambrose finished 18th in the Daytona 500. "We had a fast car today," said Ambrose. "The Stanley Ford was good all week and the car was fast tonight. That is encouraging. We were caught up in that wreck close to the end. From there we survived the other ones and finished the race on the lead lap. We had a (good) chance for the majority of the day. We had a good car."
ETC.: With Juan Pablo Montoya moving to the IndyCar Series in 2014, Ambrose becomes the lone international driver on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. "I'm proud to be from Australia," said Ambrose. "The sport is widely popular back home as is Richard Petty. Everybody knows Richard Petty and it's cool to be the guy that is representing Richard Petty Motorsports and NASCAR globally."
18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 18th, eight points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Finished seventh in the November race for his third top-seven finish in the last four events. Overall has one win and 11 top-10 finishes in 18 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Busch said, "I'm glad to be back at a race track where drivers matter and car handling matters. I ran really well at Phoenix in both races two years ago, but we struggled there as an organization last fall. I think the guys at JGR have worked really hard to make sure we turn that around, so I'm looking forward to getting back there, for sure. The best way to get over the disappointment of the Daytona 500 is to get back in the car and have another chance at winning the next one. I wish the race was today, to be honest."
LOOKING BACK: Busch was another driver caught up in the last-lap accident as he finished 19th in the Daytona 500. Busch had overcome a pit-road infraction to run up front late in the race but got shuffled back on the final restart. "On one of our green-flag stops a (air) hose got hooked underneath the left rear quarter panel and when Kyle took off it pulled the pit gun out the changer's hand and it brought the equipment outside the pit box and we had to serve a stop-and-go-penalty," said crew chief Dave Rogers. "Kyle did a good job of keeping the nose clean and racing for the 'lucky dog' spot. We had a shot there on the closing laps, but we got shuffled back and contact with the 4 (Kevin Harvick) ended our day."
ETC.: When asked how much the new, ride-height rules have impacted the teams, Busch replied, "It's affected us enough where we've been testing an awful lot this offseason, already, trying to figure things out and trying to come up with what's going to be best. Is running the old way going to be best? Is running a new way or running something entirely different going to be good? What is it? We've been to Nashville twice. Nashville is going to get a lot of business this year."
32 TERRY LABONTE, Ford
Team: Go Fas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 19th, 10 points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Will not be racing in Phoenix. Travis Kvapil will be behind the wheel. Kvapil has one top-10 finish in 14 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: The team will have a unique sponsor this week. Author Michael Alden has decided to promote his book "Ask More Get More" on the car. "I had never been to a NASCAR race before, and when I was invited to the Daytona 500 and had a chance to meet the team and all the NASCAR fans, I knew that this was a great opportunity to promote my new book," said Alden.
LOOKING BACK: Labonte, who says this was be his last Daytona 500, ran in the top 10 on and off all evening, but got caught up in a late-race accident to end any hopes he had of a top-10 finish. Labonte ended the 500 in 20th place. "We had a good car, and we really thought we were going to have a real shot at a top-10," said Labonte. "But things got a little too wild there at the end."
ETC.: On Friday before the 500, Labonte was named one of the 20 nominees for the 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. The two-time champion was "surprised" at being on the list of nominees in his first year of eligibility. "I didn't really think about it but that's exciting to be named with those other guys that were named," said Labonte. "That's pretty cool." Labonte doesn't feel his chances of being one of the five inductees next year are very good. "I think there are more deserving (individuals) than me to be in the Hall of Fame," said Labonte. "There's been so many people that have been in this sport for so many years that accomplished so many things back in the early days whether it was drivers or crew members or team owners. It's an honor to be mentioned in that category with those people but there's a lot of people I think that really made our sport great."
41 KURT BUSCH, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 20th, 10 points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Finished fifth in the November race for his second top-eight finish in the last three events. Overall has one win and 12 top-10 finishes in 22 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Busch believes tire management will be key in the new qualifying format. "A set of sticker tires versus scuffs can be three tenths (of a second)," said Busch. "Three tenths on the stopwatch in normal qualifying is 1st to 25th. So that'll be interesting to see how that is balanced out. You can't cool the cars down during qualifying. So we'll have to let the rough edges drag in the beginning of qualifying sessions to see what patterns develop. But places like Phoenix the tires don't drop off very quickly. Vegas, they're okay, but Fontana, you're going get that one good lap and then you're going to wish you had stickers on, and that's when it's going to be very difficult to control a car at qualifying speeds with old tires. So tracks that are abrasive on the tires, that's when you're going to see a big discrepancy in qualifying results."
LOOKING BACK: With 10 laps to go, Busch and Bobby Labonte got together with Busch spinning down pit road. No caution flag was thrown. Busch was able to get the car straightened out and returned to the race to finish 21st. "That was a disappointing finish for the 41 team," said Busch. "We had a great car early on, led some laps and stayed up front. But after the long delay (six hours and 22 minutes for rain), we got hit coming to pit road and that really changed the characteristics of the car. It's just disappointing after seeing what the car was capable of early on."
ETC.: Busch remembers his "first wheels. My dad gave me a plastic truck to gnaw on and check on before I even had teeth. So it was always about cars with him. Mom, she loved baseball, and so I played baseball a lot as a kid. And that is why I guess I am such a big baseball fan now -- especially the Cubs. But cars, we had them all the time. There was always a car in the garage."
31 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 21st, 12 points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Finished 10th in the November event. Overall has one win and nine top-10 finishes including eight top-five's.
LOOKING AHEAD: Newman said, "The key to running well there (Phoenix) is handling in all four corners. Each one is unique and you really cannot favor one corner over another. Plus, you have to have a good qualifying effort there because of track position. It's a tough place to pass. So qualifying will really be of interest even more so because of the new qualifying format that NASCAR is implementing this weekend."
LOOKING BACK: It was not a good night for Newman as he was involved in two wrecks. Still, he was able to finish 22nd in the Daytona 500. "I honestly don't know what I could have done differently," said Newman. "I guess we could have taken a risk and raced to the front and led some laps. But it's a matter of luck. This is restrictor-plate racing and wrecks happen."
ETC.: Krissie Newman, Ryan's wife, believes "kids have a better compassion level when they're raised around animals." For that reason, she and Ryan have started Rescue Ranch. "We want to get remote controls out of their hands and give them an understanding of the outdoors," said Newman. Rabbits, turtles, lizards and birds now make up the family of resident animals who will spend the rest of their lives on the ranch helping to educate children and their families. Other animals will be added later. "I have a beautiful wife with a passion and a dream and I'm right there with her," added Newman.
55 BRIAN VICKERS, Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 28th, 20 points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Only one top-10 finish in 14 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Vickers said, "In some ways this is like the first race of the season. We only restrictor plate race at Daytona and Talladega, but the thought process of being successful at Phoenix is more like what we will experience for the whole year. Success at Phoenix will be about getting your car right in practice, getting a good qualifying spot and then putting together a good race program."
LOOKING BACK: Vickers knew he was probably in the wrong place, but he didn't any place to hide as he got caught up in an accident on lap 163 of the Daytona 500. As a result, he finished 30th. "We had a good car, but just got caught up in one of the wrecks," said Vickers. "A couple of those guys (rookies Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson) were just racing really aggressive and bouncing around, moving a lot. I knew it was just a matter of time. I thought about dropping back out of the pack, but the problem was there was no second pack to go to."
ETC.: Vickers said he is really looking forward to the 2014 season "for a lot of reasons. One, my first full-time year back in quite some time. Being out of the car with health issues is tough. I'm really trying to be a forward-thinking person with some reflection upon the past in regards to not making mistakes (health wise) again. You want to learn from the past. But, I don't want to dwell on the past. At the end of the day, you just have to point forward and just go."
5 KASEY KAHNE, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 29th, 20 points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Finished second in the November race after leading 41 laps. Has finished sixth or better in four of the last six races including winning the fall race in 2011.
LOOKING AHEAD: Kahne is a big fan of the new qualifying format. "It brings a little more excitement to Friday and adds some drama so I like it as a driver. Basically, it's an hour program and you get a few chances to make those laps and get a pole award so that's great." As for the race, Kahne knows qualifying well is important "for track position. That is another reason why the new qualifying format will be exciting since everyone knows how important it is to start up front at Phoenix."
LOOKING BACK: Kahne was not a very happy camper after the Daytona 500. "Things just didn't go our way tonight," said Kahne after finishing 31st. "We got caught up in two wrecks, spun out when we hit a slick spot as we left the pits and then got a pit-road speeding penalty," said Kahne. "I had no choice on that penalty. I had to speed up to keep that spinning car from hitting me. We had such a good car, but nothing went right for us tonight."
ETC.: Kahne said he got his work ethic "from my dad. He taught me at a young age that you have to work hard for things and if you want something, you have to work hard to get it and stay after it. I just kind of always had the same outlook on working and getting up in the morning and doing things like that. He applied it when I was pretty young and I've always kept it because he was up and gone at five in the morning, every morning. So I just learned from a pretty young age that you've got to get up and get things done."
27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 30th, 21 points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Two top-10 finishes in 14 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Menard said, "I always look forward to going to Phoenix because the size and layout of the track makes for some fun racing. After coming from a place like Daytona last weekend where the aero package is everything, it's different racing at PIR because it doesn't mean as much. We've ran well at Phoenix in the past and I'm looking for the entire 27 Pittsburgh Paints/Menard team to have a great run."
LOOKING BACK: Menard led three times for 29 laps - more than any other driver outside of winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who led six times for 54 laps. But Menard's hopes of challenging for the win were wiped out on lap 145 when he was involved in a 13-car accident. As a result, Menard ended the day in 32nd place. "We had a really fast car, we could run the bottom better than the top, but were fast in both lanes," said Menard. "It felt good to lead laps and know we brought a good car here. I wish the ending was a little different for us, but it wasn't meant to be this time."
ETC.: Menard is looking forward to the 2014 season and his new teammates. "The 27 team is pretty intact with the exception of two new engineers, but for the most part we have same core group of guys," said Menard. "There are a lot of changes around us with Ryan (Newman) and Austin (Dillon) which is exciting. Ryan brings a new outlook to RCR and a level of experience to our group as a consistent Chase driver with multiple wins and has worked with several premier racing organizations. Austin has more championships than Ryan and I combined. He's a young kid full of energy, and he's a lot of fun to be around."
14 TONY STEWART, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 32nd, 25 points out of the top 10.
PHOENIX RECORD: Finished eighth in this race a year ago. Overall has one win and 12 top-10s including eight eight-five's in 23 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Stewart has never been a big fan of restrictor-plate racing even though he has his share of success in those type of races. For that reason, he is really looking forward to Phoenix. "Unlike Daytona, guys can't get in a line at Phoenix and go to the front," said Stewart. "With the draft so important at those two tracks (Daytona and Talladega); it's more of a team deal than an individual deal. What happens at Phoenix and the races after that has to be done on your own. You can't help each other at Phoenix. You just have to go race."
LOOKING BACK: A fuel pressure problem ended any hopes Stewart had of challenging for the win in his first official Sprint Cup race since breaking two bones in his right leg last August and missing the rest of the 2013 season. As a result, he finished 35th.
ETC.: The custom scooter Stewart used to move around following his Aug. 5 sprint car crash has been donated to the Darrell Gwynn Foundation. The Foundation, in turn, will auction the scooter at the Barrett Jackson event on April 11-13 at Palm Beach, Fl. To make sure the scooter and a special prize package that Stewart has included is a strong fundraiser for the Foundation, Stewart will match the first $50,000 bid and donate it to the Foundation. "The scooter and the money will be well served by Darrell and his team, which have donated wheelchairs to hundreds of individuals through its National Wheelchair Donation program," said Stewart.
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