Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rating the Subway Fresh Fit 500: 2 Stars **

After the craziness of a wild Speedweeks that saw nearly everything imaginable, the Sprint Cup Series brought a toned down version of NASCAR racing this week in the desert. The second race of the season gets a 2 Star Rating.

This race had moments of tight racing, especially after restarts, but for the most part the field quickly got strung out and nobody could make up much ground.

We saw similar racing in the November race at Phoenix International Raceway, but that also included a great championship battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, who both finished in the top three in that race.

This time around Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick took turns dominating the race. Harvick raced hard to take away the lead from Busch midway through the race, but otherwise the driver out front couldn’t be touched.

The new surface and configuration at Phoenix make for some interesting moves down the backstretch, but there is also room for improvement in the quality of the racing. The groove is still too narrow early in the race, but hopefully that improves as the track ages.

Drivers were able to make moves on the high side late in the race. Johnson and Brad Keselowski had a great battle for the fourth position during the final run. Plus, Harvick had something for Hamlin coming to the white flag, but he ran out of gas before he could try to make a move for the win.

As for Hamlin, this win solidifies a great start to the season with new crew chief Darian Grubb. Hamlin didn’t have the best car throughout the weekend or early in the race, but the team adjusted on the car throughout the race and gave Hamlin the car he needed to run for the win at the end of the race.

This could be the start of something pretty great for the #11 team. This is a team that just 15 months ago led Johnson heading into the final race of 2010 at Homestead. Hamlin had issues early that race and never could find his stride in 2011 with Mike Ford on top of the pit box.

Ford was a good crew chief, but Hamlin needed a change and Grubb might be the perfect fit for Hamlin and the #11 team.

With an early win, Hamlin should regain some confidence that he will have a quality ride most every week and can go back to challenging for the championship rather than just a spot in the Chase. Hamlin likely won’t need a wild card to get in the 2012 Chase.

Now the series heads to the always important first mile-and-a-half racetrack of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Daytona and Phoenix are both tracks where the quality of the car is not nearly as important as it is at a track such as Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is where we’ll start to find out which teams have the best equipment. Also, teams that do well at Las Vegas often do well for the majority of the season. Although Carl Edwards didn’t win another race after he visited Victory Lane at Las Vegas, he did make quite a run at the championship.

So, welcome to the real beginning of the season. All of the excitement and extra festivities from Daytona and the celebrations for Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth are over. Now it’s time to dig in and build a solid foundation for the rest of the season.

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