Phoenix restart

Dean McNulty, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:06 AM ET

The Daytona 500 may be the biggest race of the year for NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, but most drivers and crew chiefs will tell you that the real season starts this Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.

The reason is that in spite of the big paydays and all the hype of the Daytona 500, it is only one race of 36 in the 2012 season.

And Daytona is not an accurate gauge of how a team compares to the competition. On the big 2.5-mile superspeedway, everyone is on the gas all race long.

Starting at Phoenix, a driver’s skill and the set-up of the race car provide a much more accurate picture of how good, or how bad, the team really is.

This season, with what was essentially a two-day delay getting out of Daytona because of last week’s rain out, winning the 500 could even be a negative.

Matt Kenseth, for example, his been on the promotion treadmill almost from the time the checkered flag flew early Tuesday morning with trips to Texas, taking in a Mavericks game, and then off to Los Angeles where he did some stand-up with late night host Jay Leno.

While the honour of winning the Daytona 500 brings with it a lifetime of accolades, it can also take the wind out of driver looking to duplicate the win in Phoenix.

Look what happened last season to Trevor Bayne, last year’s surprise Daytona star.

He came to Phoenix and didn’t even finish the race, putting his No. 21 Ford into the fence.

Kenseth is aware that Phoenix is where you can look at the rest of the season in terms of performance.

“I always feel like after Daytona, no matter how it goes, that you get to Phoenix and start the rest of the season,” he said Friday.

“Daytona is our biggest race of the year and you put a lot of effort and emphasis on that and I feel like once that is over you come here and get ready to get serious about the next six or seven months and hopefully try to get qualified for the Chase.”

Kenseth said that the fact that PIR was repaved and reconfigured last season makes it almost like a brand new track for him.

“Now with (the track) sitting all winter, I think there’s a little wondering when you get out there of what the surface is going to be like,” he said.

The weekend schedule at PIR has also been altered in that the only practice time before Saturday qualifying was two sessions on Friday.

“Having all the practice on Friday, all you do is qualify on Saturday, so that gives you a little less time to think about things overnight, and try new things on Saturday,” Kenseth said. “You have to be ready to get it done in two practices, get it all done. So I think that presents a little challenge for the team and the driver, as well.”

Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart agrees that PIR does present its own set of challenges, but he, for one, welcomes the change from the hype machine that is Daytona.

“I think everybody’s pretty worn out after being in Daytona for so long,” he said. “Phoenix means a normal routine and a chance for the crew guys to get back to their families for a couple of days before heading to another racetrack.”

The kind of racing at PIR is so radically different than Daytona. There is much more emphasis on what the driver can do inside the car, as much as what the car can do on the track.

“Daytona is a restrictor-plate race and, unlike Daytona, two guys can’t get in a line at Phoenix and go to the front,” Stewart said.

“Daytona and Talladega have always just been two different forms of racing. With the draft being so important at those two tracks, it’s more of a team deal than an individual deal.

“What happens at Phoenix and the races after that has to be done on your own. You can’t help each other at Phoenix. You just have to go race.”

And the racing is what Sprint Cup drivers like the most about Phoenix. 


Videos

Photos