In NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, drivers are only as good — or as bad — as their last race.
And that’s what makes Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway so interesting.
In last Sunday’s Daytona 500, the attrition rate among the sport’s top drivers was unusually high. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch succumbed to engine failure within two laps of each other. Three-time series champion Tony Stewart got wrecked on Lap 33 of the 500, in a crash that also took out Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick. Jeff Gordon couldn’t get to the front at the end and wound up 20th.
Yesterday at PIR, though, the six stars all bounced back in qualifying: Kahne took the outside pole alongside Mark Martin, with Busch, Gordon, Stewart and Harvick fourth through seventh, respectively. Kenseth qualified ninth. Kenseth and Busch were also 1-2 in Friday’s lone round of Cup practice, cause for optimism after a disappointing Speedweeks.
Kahne, a native of Enumclaw, Wash., grew up racing on the West Coast and loves coming to PIR, where he was victorious in the fall race in 2011 and finished sixth or better in three of the last four races. His No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet should be a threat to win on Sunday.
“This was always a tough track,” said Kahne. “And when I was racing open-wheel cars, I loved it. It was like my favorite track. And then I came here in a stock car, and it was one of my most difficult tracks to figure out.
“We got it a little bit better, right before they repaved it,” said Kahne. “And then since they repaved it and changed the banking a little bit and the way the track races, I've been way better here and felt really good every time I come. So I personally like the new track way more than I like the old track. … That's my opinion on it. This track is perfect.”
Stewart said leaving Daytona after a bad race was no big deal.
“We’ve left there (Daytona) 43rd (in points) and won a championship in ’02,” Stewart said. “So, you just put it behind you and it’s no different than if you get in a wreck on any other week. You can’t change it. So, you’ve got to focus on what you can change and that’s the week ahead.”
As for the JGR contingent, they look strong as well.
“Left off kind of right where we were when we were here last fall — really fast,” said Busch. “We just need to close out the deal. Maybe we can do that here Sunday afternoon."
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.