The Phoenix International Speedway will play host to round two of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season later this evening.
While Trevor Bayne shocked the motorsport world by winning the biggest race of the stock car calendar, there is little reason to expect anything similar tonight. Carl Edwards will start from pole position ahead of Kurt Busch and with big name drivers to the front of the field it is unlikely that an underdog will emerge victorious in the desert.
Edwards leads the Sprint Cup standings, Bayne is ineligible for points in the top tier, and looked supremely confident after setting a lap record in qualifying. The Roush Ford driver will start the race as the overwhelming favourite to add a spring victory to his autumn success of last year.
That race will not be remembered for Edwards’ success though; rather for the failure of Denny Hamlin to convert his dominance into a trip to victory lane. The race was the penultimate round of last year’s Sprint Cup and it is also the race that cost Hamlin any chance of ending Jimmie Johnson’s title monopoly of recent years.
Hamlin led the vast majority and could open a commanding gap to his pursuers seemingly at will. However a late race splash and dash cost him the opportunity of heading to Homestead with Johnson in his sights. Hamlin was the only driver who made a late stop and all he could do was finish 12th and think about what might have been.
A strong showing looks almost inevitable from the Gibbs Racing star and this race could turn into a terrific battle between both Gibbs’ cars of Hamlin and Kyle Busch with Edwards and Kurt Busch also expected to join the battle at the front.
Kurt Busch dominated speedweek at Daytona but ultimately the former champion had to settle for fifth in the season opener after getting into prime position in the final green-white-chequer but unable to challenge Bayne and Edwards for the win. It is clear that Busch is motivated and ready to win another title but this race should give a great indication of what his chances of success are for the rest of the season. If the Penske driver can challenge Edwards at the front it would give a great indication that the only team with a Dodge is well placed for the gruelling 36 race calendar.
Kyle Busch will start fourth and after winning the Truck and Nationwide race his confidence is sure to be sky high as he attempts to win for the second time in Arizona. Busch is an incredibly aggressive racer blessed with startling speed and confidence and the chance to win all three races in a weekend is one that does not come along too often. As a result if he is in contention in the final 20 laps fireworks can be expected from the number 18 Toyota.
While the drivers at the front are under pressure to win the races there is pressure right the way through the field. Amazingly it could be said that Jimmie Johnson is one of the drivers under pressure to get a strong result tonight. The Hendricks Racing star had a trying race at Daytona and stands 25th in the standings. With the new points system in operation, one point increments through the field, any poor race is punished heavily. Consistency is king once more in NASCAR and while Johnson has long made consistency his forte a poor qualifying effort places him under pressure. Johnson will start 28th and as a result he will be in the middle of the pack throughout the early stages and could find himself the victim of someone else’s accident.
Dale Earnhardt Jr, a teammate of Johnson, is also under pressure. He raced well at Daytona, as expected, but a late puncture cost him the chance of challenging for his first win in three years. Earnhardt has not managed to break into the top twenty in the final standings for the last two years and it has been his inability to win on intermediate tracks that has led to this. He needs to show that his good form at Daytona was not just the result of his ability to race well at restrictor plate racers. If Earnhardt fails to race well a feeling of déjà vu will once more fill his garage and the struggles of recent years could occur again. Earnhardt’s chances were done no favours by qualifying 35th for tonight’s race.
Kevin Harvick looked set for a great race at Daytona. The Richard Childress Racing star led during the early laps and was able to replicate his speedweek pace. Unfortunately an early engine failure cost him the chance to show exactly what he could achieve in Florida. This weekend though should give him the chance to race at the front of the field. Harvick, twice a winner at Phoenix International Speedway, should feel confident about putting his disappointing Daytona race to bed and he could be a dark horse for tonight’s victory. Harvick will start 17th.
Tonight’s race will start at 8pm.