With NASCAR traveling to the ‘Valley of the Sun’ for the next to the last race of the season, it was no surprise that the reconfigured race track was soaked instead with liquid sunshine. Yet, the track dried, veteran racer Adrian Fernandez uttered the four most famous words in racing, and the green flag waved as scheduled.
Surprising: While it was no surprise that PIR was new and improved, with brand new pavement as well as a new track layout, it was surprising to see the new faces that showed up in Victory Lane this weekend.
From the Nationwide race with Sam Hornish Jr. scoring his first ever NASCAR win to young Ryan Blaney, son of Dave Blaney, notching the ‘W’ in the K&N Pro Series West finale, PIR definitely had some fresh-faced winners.
But most surprising was Cup winner Kasey Kahne, scoring his first win since 2009, his first victory of the 2011 season, and his first victory ever at Phoenix International Raceway. Kahne’s victory came in his next to the last ride in his No. 4 Red Bull Toyota.
“It feels great to get a win for Red Bull and get a win in the 4 car,” Kahne said. “To win a race at this level, as competitive as everything is right now, for myself, to see how happy all the pit crew guys were, the guys preparing the race cars at Red Bull, it was pretty cool.”
“Makes you feel pretty good to be a part of that.”
Not Surprising: To no one’s surprise, Carl Edwards, behind the wheel of the No. 99 Aflac Ford, and his championship Chase nemesis Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, stalked each other all race long, finishing second and third respectively.
And not surprisingly, thanks to that close finish, the championship will be decided at the final race of the season in Homestead, Florida. Edwards is currently just three points ahead of Smoke going into Ford Championship weekend, one of the closest margins between first and second in the Chase in NASCAR Sprint Cup history.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead heat going in there,” Stewart said of the upcoming Homestead weekend. “We just got to do our job like we’ve been doing.”
“I’m still pumped up,” Smoke continued. “I want to go to Homestead tomorrow and start. I want tomorrow to be Friday. I’m excited about it and ready to go.”
“Yeah, Homestead is going to be a lot of fun,” Edwards said. “I really enjoy racing there.”
“The cool thing about Homestead, you’re going to be able to move around, pass, and not get hung up as badly in traffic as you can at other racetracks,” Edwards continued. “I don’t think there’s a better place to go than Homestead to fight for this championship.”
Surprising: After Phoenix, with only those two drivers remaining in contention for the championship, it is indeed surprising that five-time champion Jimmie Johnson will not be six-time champ.
Johnson, behind the wheel this weekend of a black No. 48 Lowe’s Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, finished 14th in the race and sits currently in the fifth position in points, 68 points out of first and officially out of contention.
“Yeah, I’m definitely disappointed that we won’t be able to go to Homestead and race for our sixth, but that’s motorsports,” Johnson said. “It’s a very tough business.”
“What we did over the last five years was absolutely spectacular,” Johnson continued. “What we did over the last five years is abnormal. Now we’ll get a taste of normalcy.”
Also surprisingly, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates, especially Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also had difficulty in the ‘Valley of the Sun.’ The driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet fared especially poorly, struggling with brake problems to finish 32nd.
“We weren’t good when we got here,” Gordon said. “We were fighting and battling but then the brake problem happened and that pretty much ruined our day.”
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in the No. 88 Retro Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard, also struggled and finished 24th.
“We pitted and got caught with the caution and lost a couple of laps and just never got a chance to get it back,” Junior said. “We missed it. We didn’t hit it.”
Not Surprising: As bad as Hendrick Motorsports team members fared, it was no surprise that the other half of the Stewart Haas Racing duo fared well. Ryan Newman, with his No. 39 US Army Veteran’s Day Tribute car covered with pictures of vets, finished top-five yet again.
“The guys on the US Army Chevrolet, with the Veteran’s Day special paint scheme, that was an amazing comeback for us to come from 30th to fifth,” Newman said. “I’m really proud of that.”
Surprising: Although the two tangled at Martinsville, it was surprising to see the feud continue between Brian Vickers, soon to be out of work with his No. 83 Red Bull Toyota team exiting the sport next week, and Matt Kenseth, race pole sitter, who was looking for a good run in his No. 17 Crown Royal Ford.
“My two year old could watch that and know it was intentional,” Kenseth said of his wreck with Vickers. “It was real pre-meditated.”
“I don’t understand what happened,” Vickers said of his Kenseth encounter. “He just stopped on the straight-away.”
“He wrecked me at Martinsville,” Vickers continued. “He got wrecked here. He just lifted halfway down the back stretch. I’ll count that one.”
Kenseth finished a miserable34th, dropping two positions to sixth in the point standings. Vickers soldiered on for a 23rd place finish, languishing in the 25th position in the points.
Not Surprising: Having had the most miserable week leading up to the race, from being parked to losing his sponsor for the last two races, it was not surprising that Kyle Busch’s most miserable weekend continued.
Busch had to start the race from the back of the field due to engine troubles caused by human error. He managed to work his way up through the pack, only to have the engine of his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota expire on Lap 214.
“It’s just devastating,” Busch said. “To go through turmoil like this, all you can do is group together and pull through it and try to persevere and move on.”
“Catastrophic engine failure,” Busch continued. “It’s terrible to have one in a weekend, let alone two in a weekend.”
“It’s certainly a tough few weeks and all we can do is look forward to next week at Homestead.”
Surprising: It was surprising to see another crew swap during the race, this time for AJ Allmendinger, whose pit crew let him down during a stop, most likely costing the driver of the No. 43 Wix Filters Ford, a race win.
Allmendinger’s crew was swapped out for the crew of David Ragan, another Ford driver who was not in the hunt, helping the Dinger to a top-five finish.
“We were losing four or five spots on a stop,” Allmendinger said. “You can’t do that and win a race and those guys are pretty good.”
“Thanks to the 6 guys, our Ford teammates coming over and pitting the last two stops,” Dinger said. “They did a good job.”
Not Surprising: To no one’s surprise, Allmendinger’s Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose also had a good run at PIR. The driver of the No. 9 DeWalt Ford finished a respectable eighth.
“We had a good car today,” the Aussie said. “We were solid all day long. It bodes even better for the first half of next season.”
Surprising: Since Jeff Burton has had a fairly difficult 2011 season, it was a bit surprising to see the driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Global Mining Chevrolet end up with a fourth place finish. The top-five finishing driver hopes that the turnaround will continue right into the 2012 season.
“The Caterpillar Chevrolet was good, really, all day,” Burton said. “When things are tough, you find out what people are made of. My group has just kept digging and kept their heads up.”
“Nobody has quit on this team, not once,” Burton continued. “I’m real proud of that.”
“We’ve run really well the last month and hopefully we will build some momentum going into next year.”
Not Surprising: With no ride secured for next year, it was not surprising to see David Reutimann, ousted driver of the No. 00 TUMS Toyota Camry for Michael Waltrip Racing, drive his guts out for a seventh place finish in the next to the last race of the season.
“We qualified in the top-10 and we were able to stay up there all day long,” Rooty said. “I’m proud of the crew guys for the job they did today. They really stuck with me.”
“This is a great group of guys, probably one of the best in the garage and they’ve been with me a long time,” Reutimann continued. “We have one more week together and I want to go out on a high note at Homestead.”