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CUP: Many Questions At Phoenix

It will be a short, but busy weekend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, as they will race this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

There will be two rounds of practice today for Saturday night’s Subway Fresh Fit 600 at PIR. The first is from 1:10-2:55 p.m. ET, with the second from 3:35-5 p.m. Qualifying follows at 7 p.m. Both rounds of practice and qualifying will be televised on SPEED.

This weekend, there are quite a few unanswered questions as the teams square off for battle in the seventh of 36 races on the season. Among them:

How will the cars react at a faster track with the new rear spoiler?

Phoenix will be the second race since NASCAR dumped the rear wing and added back the rear spoiler, and lap speeds here are about 35 miles per hour faster than they were at Martinsville two weeks ago. How it will affect things here remains to be seen.

“I've seen a lot of people who have said it is going to make for better racing,” said four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson. “ ... I just have a feeling it's going to make it more difficult. When we get on these faster tracks, it is going to make it tougher to close that gap and to get someone's bumper and put a pass together.”

The race will increase from 312 to 375 laps this year. How will that change strategies?

Historically, Phoenix is a race where fuel strategy comes into play. Just ask Mark Martin, who two years ago lost this race because he had to stop for a splash of fuel. But all bets are off with the longer race distance.

“It's interesting to see how Phoenix will be affected from a fuel mileage strategy standpoint,” said Jeff Gordon. “And you won't know until you get into it. It just depends on how the cautions fall as it does in most races.”

How long will Denny Hamlin be able to race?

Hamlin won at Martinsville two weeks ago, but he’s coming off of surgery on his left knee. He is hoping to at least start Saturday night’s race, possibly yielding the seat of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to relief driver Casey Mears, if necessary.

“It’s painful — as anyone who has had this surgery or any similar surgery can tell you — but I am working hard to get back my full range of motion and get back to where I need to be,” said Hamlin. “The actual surgery went very well, no issues and no concerns so I owe big thanks to Dr. (Patrick) Connor and the team. They took good care of me and gave me every opportunity to be back in the car this weekend. All I can do now is work hard, follow the rehab program and see how fast I can get back.”

Can The Biff keep the pressure on Jimmie Johnson?

By virtue of his six consecutive top-10 finishes, Greg Biffle is a mere 14 points behind Johnson. This despite the fact that Johnson has won three of the first six races of the season, while Biffle hasn’t victory lane since Dover in Sept. 2008.

“A person's going to have to be great (to beat Johnson),” said Biffle. “You'll have to be flawless at this. And we've been good so far. We've been good everywhere we've been. That's not good enough. We're going to have to be better than that. We know that. And we're prepared to work hard and continue to get better and better. And we're going to keep putting pressure on 'em.”

One footnote here: If Biffle finishes in the top 10 again on Saturday night, that will tie him with Morgan Shepherd for the most consecutive top 10s to open the season.

Who gets back on track this weekend?

There are a whole flock of expected championship contenders who have struggled so far in the early season: All three Joe Gibbs Racing cars are outside the top 12 in points, as are Mark Martin and Carl Edwards. Juan Pablo Montoya, who last year qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, is mired in 25th in points. So some of the big names will be looking for a big night.

“Hopefully we can have a clean day and get things back on track for the Target team,” said Montoya. “Last couple of weeks have been kind of rough for us. But it's okay. Overall the team keeps doing an amazing job, brings good Chevrolet race cars, good motors. I can't complain.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.

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