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Saturday, March 2, 2013
The real season begins at Phoenix

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- It hasn't been your normal post-Daytona week when a guy named Jeremy Clements is the biggest story in NASCAR.

Clements -- a Nationwide Series driver most people never heard of until a few days ago (the baseball equivalent of a .200 hitter in Triple-A) -- was suspended by NASCAR for saying a racial slur.

He quickly apologized, but his careless comment, whatever it was, and NASCAR's action were the talk of the week.

Danica Patrick
Daytona 500 pole winner Danica Patrick will start 40th in Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson wins the Daytona 500 for a second time and Danica Patrick becomes the first woman to lead a lap in the race and finishes eighth, but an obscure minor league driver's punishment was a social media explosion.

And many people criticized big, bad NASCAR for suspending poor, little Clements, as if any other sports league would have handled it differently. But enough about Clements.

This is Phoenix International Raceway, a tricky 1-mile oval in the desert where the pretenders are separated from the contenders.

"I need to keep realistic expectations," Patrick said before qualifying 40th after winning the pole at Daytona. "I think everybody else does too. Daytona is a very unique place, but this is where the bulk of the season really starts.

"Things like being able to get up to speed quickly, knowing what I want in the car, how to push it to its limit and what its limit is are things that are going to begin to be tested now. That's something you don't really face at Daytona."

The Phoenix track was repaved and reconfigured in 2011, so the pavement still is relatively new with a lot of grip. Usually that's not a good thing for side-by-side racing, so judgment on the Gen-6 might take a little longer.

"I really don't know what to expect," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second at Daytona last week and has two victories at Phoenix. "This surface is very new. For us to be able to put on the best race we can put on, surfaces that have a few more years on them tend to do better. It tends to widen out and give us more grooves to run in the corners."

Along with the new car, the Cup teams have one other X factor this weekend -- a new tire from Goodyear.

"The tire change probably is the biggest thing for us," said Earnhardt, who will start 21st Sunday. "I'm hoping it helps us. I haven't run very well here since the repave."

Sunday's race, along with the Las Vegas event next weekend on the 1.5-mile oval, will give a much better indication of where teams stand in 2013 than the Daytona results did.

However, it won't tell us everything. In the eight seasons since this spring event was added to give Phoenix two races a year, only one spring winner went on to win the championship -- Johnson in 2008.

Johnson has four victories at Phoenix, but none since 2009. His average finish in the three races since the repave is 17th.

"The track here is so different than what it was before," Johnson said Friday. "We were probably going to run top-10 if I didn't blow a tire [in the 2012 fall race]."

He said the drivers are learning everything they can as fast as they can -- the new pavement, the new tire and a new era in NASCAR with the first race in the Gen-6 on a non-restrictor-plate track.

But Tony Stewart bristled when asked what his team learned Friday.

"It's a new car," Stewart said after practice. "It's going to take some time for us to learn these cars, and you're not going to learn it in an hour and a half of practice. If anybody tells you they've got it all figured out, they're lying to you. Give us four or five more weeks and we'll be able to give you a lot more answers."

Mark Martin has seen it all before. At 54, he became the second-oldest NASCAR pole winner when he earned the top spot on Friday. A victory Sunday would make him the oldest winner ever of a Cup race.

A Martin victory in the No. 55 Toyota wouldn't be a big surprise, but he sees 2013 as a season where a lot of surprises are coming.

"This is an exciting time for all of us," Martin said. "Every team in the garage has the opportunity to get an edge on the competition. Right now, the window is wide open to find something. If you do, you might be able to hold onto it for several weeks before the rest of the garage figures out what you're doing."

And maybe the biggest news of the week will revolve around the driver who wins the race, not the unknown guy who makes a boneheaded speaking mistake.