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CUP: Slippery Phoenix Hosts Race Two

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So now the grind begins.

After two long and often difficult weeks at Daytona, Sprint Cup teams who still have cars to race will be tangling in Round Two of the 36-race schedule Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.

The Subway Fresh Fit 500 is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (ET) on FOX.

From now through the Nov. 18 season-ender at Homestead, FL, the series is scheduled to race every weekend but two – April 8 and July 22. It’s among the longest of sports seasons, and the “regular” part of it begins with Sunday’s 312-lapper.

Racing at Daytona is an entirely different animal. The cars, the atmosphere, the money, the time and emotion spent – all are different. Phoenix begins the part of the season that will be more like what drivers and teams will face for much of the year. The next four weeks – at Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol and Fontana, CA – will provide a much clearer look at the strength of teams than did the two long weeks at Daytona.

And, if Friday and Saturday are indications, it should be an interesting Sunday on a track surface that can be slippery in all the wrong places.

The PIR surface remains relatively new after a repave and reconfiguration last year, and some drivers had problems with the track’s nuances this weekend. Four went to backups after bumpups.

Among those was Matt Kenseth, the Daytona 500 winner.

“We had to spend our winter really dividing our time between focusing on downforce and drag to make sure we were not uncompetitive at Daytona and the restrictor-plate races that follow and also spending time on the intermediate and short tracks,” team owner Jack Roush said Saturday.

“Phoenix, in particular, has been a little better than the average short track for us. Short tracks were certainly our weakness last year, and they historically have not been a strength for us. But I especially look forward to going to Las Vegas and Fontana and all the mile and a half and two-mile tracks that follow.”

Greg Biffle (seventh) will be the highest starting Roush driver in Sunday’s field.

Mark Martin, who spent most of his career with Roush’s team but now drives for Michael Waltrip Racing, won the pole for the race Saturday with a speed of 136.815 miles per hour, edging defending series champion Tony Stewart. Martin, 53, needs only one more Sprint Cup pole win to match his age.

Qualifying third through 10th were Regan Smith, Jimmie Johnson, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne.

Johnson’s performance will be of particular interest Sunday. He and his team – especially crew chief Chad Knaus – are targeting a good run after Knaus was suspended and fined $100,000 (and Johnson 25 points) for an aerodynamic infraction at Daytona.

Knaus was suspended for six weeks, but he is continuing to work at the track during the appeals process. “I can’t wait to put that Kobalt car in victory lane Sunday,” Knaus said.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.