Stewart still not 100 percent
Tony Stewart came back from a broken right leg at the Daytona 500 still not fully healed, yet able to race.
By the time he arrived at Phoenix International Raceway, he also was annoyed — at all the questions about his health.
“I’ll be honest, I’ll be more happy when everybody quits asking me how I feel,” Stewart said. “I’m not 100 percent. I’m not going to be 100 percent for a while.”
The same could be said of his team after a disappointing start to the season at the Daytona 500 last weekend.
Stewart crashed out of the exhibition Sprint Unlimited and struggled with engine issues at the Great American Race, finishing 35th. Danica Patrick was strong early, leading laps for the second straight year, but got tangled in a late-race crash and finished 40th.
Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, the two newest members of Stewart-Haas Racing, were in position for good finishes, but had troubles at the end of the race. Busch finished 21st, and Harvick hit the pit-road wall head-on on the final crash of the race to finish 13th.
Stewart and the rest of his team are hoping to bounce back quickly at Phoenix, particularly with a new championship format that makes it important to finish races.
Busch will have the best starting position for SHR in Sunday’s race in 10th, and Harvick is two rows back at 13th. Stewart will start 20th, and Patrick will go off 33rd.
“Not that you’re not going to be aggressive, but you have to keep the mindset right now that you still have to finish the races,” said Harvick, the all-time leader in victories at PIR with nine, including four Sprint Cup victories. “But as you in that position (to win), you can start being a lot more aggressive with really anything. All you’re after at that point is winning races to try to gain more bonus point to protect yourself in the first round of the Chase to get the cushion.”
Sunday’s race on Phoenix’s odd-shaped mile oval will cover 312 miles. A few more things to look for:
NASCAR’s opening race at the Daytona 500 went through a six-hour rain delay, and weather could be an issue again this week.
A massive storm moving across the Southwest on Friday and brought rain to the Phoenix area on Saturday. A few raindrops hit PIR Saturday morning, but the storm slipped past to the north and the sun was out for the final Sprint Cup practice session around midday.
The storm was expected to continue to produce rain overnight, tapering off Sunday morning in Arizona. The Sprint Cup race is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. local time.
KESELOWSKI ON THE POLE
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, will start on the pole for Sunday’s race after setting a track record at 139.384 mph. He finished third at Daytona last week and made it through the second of two sessions in the Sprint Cup debut of NASCAR’s new qualifying system on Friday, edging Joey Logano after finishing second to his teammate in the first round.
DALE JR.’S RIDE
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had quite a ride since winning the Daytona 500 for the second time last weekend, going on a whirlwind tour while receiving numerous freebies, including ribs from a Memphis barbecue restaurant.
It was a victory he’ll remember for the rest of his life and one that was wildly popular with his fans, but reality returns this weekend.
“The only bad part about winning at Daytona is you go to Phoenix, and somebody else wins the next race, then they are getting the ribs,” Earnhardt said with a laugh. “If I can win, I will keep it going, but it would be nice if we had an off weekend there where we could keep going, because so much great stuff happens to you during this week and it’s been great.”
With the sun shining, the drivers had good track conditions for their final practice session on Saturday.
Harvick was the fastest in the final practice, clocking 136.960 mph, and rookie Kyle Larson was just a few tenths of a second behind him.
Keselowski wasn’t particularly fast in practice, ending up 20th at 135.905 mph.