NASCAR Phoenix 2013: Subway Fresh Fit 500 viewer's guide

Here are some storylines, notes and drivers to watch for during the NASCAR race at Phoenix International Raceway:

Storylines

Toyotas are fast, but are they reliable?

A recurring theme throughout last season was the continued engine reliability issues that hovered over the Toyota-powered teams. And specifically, it was an issue that inflicted the cars of Joe Gibbs Racing, who frequently saw its three drivers head to the garage with an expired motor.

While it's a small sample size the problem seems to have carried over to 2013, with Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. all being befuddled with engine-related issues in the Daytona 500. For Kenseth and Busch it was particularly painful as the pair was running in the top three when their Toyotas started billowing smoke.

The woes continued this weekend as Denny Hamlin had to go to a backup engine after his team discovered a broken valve spring. This negated Hamlin's eighth-place effort in qualifying and will require him to start at the rear of the field.

And Sunday morning "human error" during a change of valve springs led to Busch's No. 18 team electing to also switch motors. Like Hamlin, Busch will be forced to go to the back of the grid, forfeiting his fourth-place starting position.

Nevertheless, while the Toyota engines may be problematic, they are certainly not lacking for speed. In every practice session and again in qualifying, the top of the leaderboard has been dominated by Toyota drivers.

Whether the engines are durable enough to last a full race distance is open for debate.

What can Danica do for an encore?

Following a historic Daytona 500 where she started on the pole, led laps and was in contention late, Danica Patrick set the bar high for herself as she embarks upon her rookie Cup season.

Yet as good as Patrick performed at Daytona, it has been the opposite thus far at Phoenix.

Throughout practice the No. 10 car was near the bottom on the speed chart as Patrick struggled with a Chevrolet that alternated between loose and tight. And in qualifying she placed 40th out of 43 cars.

However, all is not lost for Patrick.

In the event here last fall, Patrick -- like she did on Friday -- turned in a subpar effort in qualifying and started 37th. But in the race she was able to drive her way into the top 15 and ended the afternoon with a then-career-high 17th-place finish.

There is no reason why Patrick can't again do the same thing Sunday.

Worth Noting
  • If Jimmie Johnson wins the Subway Fresh Fit 500 he will join Marvin Panch (1957), Bob Welborn (1959), David Pearson (1976), Jeff Gordon (1997) and Matt Kenseth (2009) as the only drivers to start the year by winning consecutive races.
  • Nine of the last 13 races at Phoenix have been won by a driver starting in the top 10. However, in three of the last four races here the eventual winner started 13th or worse.
  • Joining Busch and Hamlin at the rear of the field will be Kurt Busch, who wrecked in qualifying. Despite going to a backup car, Busch was still able to post the fourth-quickest lap in final practice.
Favorites

1) Mark Martin

Mark Martin is in the midst of a 106-race winless streak with his last Cup win dating back to September 2009. That streak has an excellent shot of coming to an end Sunday, as Martin will start from the pole and posted the fastest lap in the second and third rounds of practice. He also ran just seven laps in final practice to smartly conserve his delicate Toyota power plant.

2) Kevin Harvick

If someone is going to topple the Toyota contingent, recent history points in the direction of Kevin Harvick. It was Harvick who led the most laps in this race last year and then went to Victory Lane in November.

3) Kyle Busch

After leading 237 of a possible 319 laps here in November and having the fastest 10-lap average in final practice, Busch would have been the obvious favorite. But a pre-race engine change puts Saturday's Nationwide Series winner to the rear. And on a track where passing can be tricky, it's going to be challenging enough for Busch to just get into the top 10, let alone Victory Lane.

Sleeper

With a win, a second and two fifth-place finishes in his last five Phoenix starts, there is no better choice for a sleeper than Ryan Newman.

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