The storylines and drivers to watch for during Sunday's NASCAR race at Phoenix International Raceway.
All eyes on Harvick
When the NASCAR circuit last visited Phoenix four months ago, Kevin Harvick won his fourth race of 2013 and his final one with Richard Childress Racing. Now with Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick heads to Phoenix in excellent shape to score his first victory with his new team. Throughout practice the No. 4 Chevrolet has clearly separated itself from the rest as Harvick posted the fastest laps -- both single-lap and multi-lap runs. And several drivers, including Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr., have noted the clear gap between Harvick and everyone else.
Coming off an emotional victory that all but secured him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt could be excused if he had trouble focusing this weekend. There is no Daytona 500 hangover for NASCAR's most popular driver, however. Upon arriving at Phoenix, he had already moved past last week's win, and he backed that up by setting fast time in Friday's lone session of practice. What winning Daytona does is afford Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte the opportunity to experiment with chassis setups, deviate from script and aggressively gamble in their pursuit of more wins.
New format equals less pressure
Under the old points format a bad Daytona followed by a poor finish in the second race of the year could quickly derail a team's chances at a championship before the season had ever really gotten started. But now with greater emphasis placed on winning, how a team performed the race before -- good or bad -- no longer carries the same weight.
That means those who endured a trying Daytona no longer have to be burdened about being buried in points just one race into the year. And among those who benefit from the new Chase criteria are Tony Stewart (failed fuel pump), Martin Truex Jr. (blown engine), Clint Bowyer (blown engine) and Kurt Busch (crash), who all had various troubles in last week's season-opener.
- Keselowski, who led a Team Penske sweep of the front row in qualifying, will be without his crew chief Sunday. Paul Wolfe left Phoenix early Saturday to be with his wife, who was expecting the couple's first child.
- A win Sunday would give Earnhardt victories in consecutive races for the first time in his career.
- Matt Kenseth in 2009 was the last driver to open a season with consecutive wins. The others: Jeff Gordon (1997), David Pearson (1976), Bob Welborn (1959) and Marvin Panch (1957).
- By qualifying 42nd, 72-year-old Morgan Shepherd extended his record of being the oldest driver to start a race in NASCAR Cup Series race.
1) Kevin Harvick
As noted above, Harvick likes this venue. In addition to winning here in November, he was also fastest in practice over short and long runs. All of it makes him the consensus favorite.
2) Jimmie Johnson
The defending champion has quietly gone about his business this weekend. But no driver has led more laps (933) and has a better average finish (6.3) than Johnson, who also owns four career victories on the one-mile oval.
3) Denny Hamlin
The Joe Gibbs Racing cars struggled here last fall, but historically Hamlin has been at his best on flat ovals which require finesse. And judging by the success he enjoyed during Speedweeks, the driver of the No. 11 car looks very capable of repeating his 2012 Phoenix win.