NASCAR At Phoenix 2012: Viewer's Guide For Subway Fresh Fit 500

Here are some storylines to watch for in today's Subway Fresh Fit 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway:

Can Jimmie Johnson climb out of his big hole?

Earlier in the week, NASCAR announced it had penalized Hendrick Motorsports for illegal C-posts found on the 48 car during inspection for the Daytona 500. The sanctioning body subsequently deducted 25 driver points from Jimmie Johnson, 25 owner points from Rick Hendrick and suspended both crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for six weeks.

Because of those penalties -- and because of his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, which netted him just two points -- Johnson finds himself in a hole unlike any he's ever been in before, sitting at minus 23 points. While it's far too early to panic, a good run this weekend would go a long way toward righting the ship, or at the very least, helping put Daytona behind them.

The good news for Johnson is crew chief Chad Knaus is still with the team as his appeal is going through the process, and as such, he will be atop the 48 pit box all weekend.

Kenseth going for back-to-back

The last time Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500 in 2009, he followed it up by winning again the next week at Auto Club Speedway. In the process, he became just the fifth driver in history to start the year with consecutive victories, joining Marvin Panch (1957), Bob Welborn (1959), David Pearson (1976) and Jeff Gordon (1997).

A win at Phoenix might be a far more daunting task this time around for Kenseth. In 19 career races on the one-mile oval, his average finish is 18.1. In his last nine starts there, he has just two top-ten finishes. Not exactly numbers that scream "potential winner."

Using Phoenix as a barometer

Because of its unpredictable nature, it's incredibly difficult to gauge how a driver is going to do through the course of season based on how they perform at Daytona. A poor finish in the 500 doesn't necessarily ensure a driver is doomed to a bad season and vice versa.

Case in point: Last year, eight drivers who would go on to make the Chase finished 20th or worse in the 500. Conversely, only three of the top 10 finishers would later qualify for NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

All that being said, two bad races to begin the year can start to put the squeeze on a driver and team. If you're looking for a telltale sign of who should be in Chase contention, keep an eye on who finishes in the top 15. Last year, 11 of the 12 eventual Chase drivers finished 15th or better ago in this race. The only exception was Carl Edwards, who led the series in top-five and top-10 finishes.

Worth Noting

Recent history suggests Chevrolet is the manufacturer most likely to end up in the winner's circle Sunday. Dating back to 2003, the Bowtie Brigade has won 13 of 16 races in the desert.

Only two drivers have notched their first career wins in the 31 Sprint Cup races Phoenix International Raceway has hosted. The first driver to do so was Alan Kulwicki in 1988 during NASCAR's maiden voyage to the one-mile track. This was followed up eight years later by Bobby Hamilton taking Richard Petty's team back to Victory Lane for the first time since "The King" won his 200th race at Daytona 12 years prior.

Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 will be just the second race on the reconfigured and repaved oval. Last year between the February and November races, track officials added some banking, widened the front stretch and extended the dogleg on the backstretch.

Favorites

1. Kasey Kahne

No owner has more victories at Phoenix than Rick Hendrick, who has won with five different drivers wheeling his cars. Coincidentally, Hendrick's newest driver, Kasey Kahne, is the most recent PIR winner, having won here last November while driving for Red Bull Racing. Add everything up and it makes sense to think Kahne should be viewed as the favorite Sunday.

2. Tony Stewart

Kahne may have picked up the checkered flag in November, but it was Tony Stewart who dominated. Starting eighth, Stewart quickly ascended to the lead and altogether led five different times for a race-high 160 laps before sliding back to finish third. Bringing the same car this weekend as he raced last fall, the expectation is Stewart will once again be challenging for the win.

3. Carl Edwards

The Roush Fenway Fords looked mighty fast throughout Speedweeks. While there is a sizable difference between Daytona and Phoenix, it is worth noting Carl Edwards did finish second here last fall and started on the pole in this race a year ago.

Sleeper

Last year, driving for the underfunded team of Richard Petty Motorsports, AJ Allmendinger was able to post top-10 finishes in both Phoenix events. Now with Penske Racing, ‘Dinger will have better equipment underneath him, which should give him a chance to improve. That doesn't necessarily mean he's going to win, but a solid top-five finish shouldn't be ruled out.

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