Raceday: Your guide to Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comMarch 2, 2013 

Race facts

Where: Phoenix International Raceway. Avondale, Ariz.

Track type: 1-mile paved oval.

Race distance: 312 laps or 500 kilometers.

Weather: High of 81 degrees with a zero chance of rain.

TV: Fox, 3 p.m. Sunday

Radio: Motor Racing Network.

Three things to watch

• Mark Martin is fast and he's driven this track since before some of his fellow drivers were born. He keeps himself in such great shape that age isn't a big negative at 54.

• The handling on a 1-mile track is so different from a restrictor-plate track that this is in some ways more the debut of NASCAR's new car design than Daytona was.

• In sustained runs of 10 laps or more in Saturday practice, Daytona 500 champ Jimmie Johnson ran the best times.

Observations

• There's a mix of excitement and anxiety among the drivers about all the variables in this race: It's the new car design, combined with new tire specifications for this race and a relatively recent repaving at Phoenix that reduced groove options.

The tire specifications came out of testing at Phoenix in October. Teams aren't quick to use up their testing options on Phoenix, so even the big multi-car operations have limited data on the layout. The hope is these new tires will grip well enough that drivers feel emboldened to do some passing Sunday after Daytona's parade line.

• I don't know racing. I do know competition and wisdom. At 54, Mark Martin trusts his crew chief totally and worries exclusively about his driving. That's why he won that pole Friday.

• Someone in the media asked Danica Patrick Friday if her Daytona 500 performance was like her 2005 performance in open-wheel racing.

Patrick replied that she's more mature now, so there isn't the same euphoria (translation: No more "I've already made it." this time around). It was prophetic, in that Patrick will start 40th among 43 entrants in Phoenix.

Sounds like she's better equipped these days to roll with the ups-and-downs.

• The track here in Avondale, Ariz., is on the edge of some spectacularly stark hills in the desert - a gorgeous site as you are driving from the Interstate to the track entrance.

Best Bets

I don't pretend to understand the nuances of racing, but you can tell in any sport when one guy is just a little smarter and more driven. Jimmie Johnson's decision to drive in Saturday's Nationwide race, just because he feels he hasn't turned enough laps on Phoenix's layout recently, strikes me as the mark of a champion.

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