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Desert drama building at Phoenix

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Several things you saw at Daytona that you probably won't see Sunday at Phoenix:

" A ball of fire on the backstretch.

" A race car hitting a jet dryer.

" A checkered flag after midnight ET.

" Danica Patrick in the race (that's definite).

" A driver powwow on the track during a red flag (maybe not) to look at Brad Keselowski's tweets.

" A multicar crash on the first lap (maybe not on this one, also).

" Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch all finishing 39th or worse.

All those things taking place in one race could happen again, maybe, the next time Halley's Comet passes by Earth.

But there are plenty of things to contemplate in what most drivers consider to be the first true test of the season -- Dodge's future, Chad Knaus' penalty plight and Johnson's uphill battle, to name a few.

In all likelihood, the Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway will mark a return to normalcy, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's back to old-school racing -- no restrictor plate required -- on the repaved, reconfigured 1-mile oval that should get progressively more racy with each event.

The event last November was the first Cup race after the repave project at Phoenix.

"The first time we tested here it was really slippery," said Kasey Kahne, who won the 2011 fall Cup race. "But it got better when we came back. And this weekend it started out pretty good.

"It's a faster place than it used to be. If you miss the lane you can get loose, and once it goes, it's hard to save. There's lots of rubber on the track this time. I think it's in really good shape."

It's back to real racing and the first chance to see what every team can do in 2012 outside the four plate races at Daytona and Talladega.

The zaniness of the most unusual Daytona 500 in history was worth watching, but there are plenty of interesting things to consider entering this race. Here are three questions people are asking this week:

1. Can Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team recover after a horrible 500 and a whopping penalty?

Of course they can. You don't win five straight championships if you can't overcome adversity. Johnson is minus-23 in points right now (assuming the team loses its appeal), but he has 25 races to make it up.

"It's certainly not a position we want to be in," Johnson said Friday. "But there is a lot of racing between now and September [the Chase cutoff]. Right now we're focused on doing the best job we can and get as many points as we possibly can."

The team hasn't said who would replace Knaus on the pit box if he has to serve the six-race suspension, but one likely candidate is lead engineer Greg Ives. It would have been car chief Ron Malec, but he also is part of the suspension.

Some people have speculated it might be former Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Lance McGrew, but McGrew is busy working with Hendrick development driver Chase Elliott, Bill Elliott's son.

2. What happens now for Dodge since Penske is going to Ford in 2013?

Penske was Dodge's only team other than Robby Gordon, and Dodge needs to do a lot better than that if it hopes to continue next season.

Ralph Gilles, who heads up Dodge's racing effort as president of SRT Brand and Motorsports, released a statement Thursday that didn't tell us much:

"We do value our NASCAR program and will be evaluating the opportunities available moving forward. As those opportunities materialize, we'll reveal our 2013 plans, not only in NASCAR but in other forms of motorsports."

This is a bigger problem than just selecting another team. Dodge needs a team that has its own engine-building shop, as Penske does, unless Dodge is going to start building its own race engines. Toyota does it, but it's an extremely expensive proposition.

So Dodge can't just sign Richard Petty Motorsports, for example, because RPM doesn't have an engine program.

The Penske announcement is bad timing for Dodge, which is unveiling its 2013 Cup car next week at Las Vegas -- all dressed up and nowhere to go, so to speak.

3. Can Penske Racing win the championship this year as a lame duck with Dodge?

I doubt it. Everyone is saying the right things, of course, but lame-duck situations rarely turn out well in NASCAR.

Keselowski had a breakout season in 2011 and is expected to contend for the title this year. He doesn't think the announcement of the switch to Ford will hurt his chances.

"I don't have any concerns," Keselowski said Friday. "I think Dodge is committed. There are some classy people at Dodge who aren't going to risk undermining the program this year. So I'm confident we can keep the wheels in motion for 2012."

But Keselowski is 100 percent in favor of the move to Ford. He knows the exact moment when he got onboard.

"Ford revealed its 2013 car on the media tour, a month or more ahead of every other manufacturer," Keselowski said. "That shows the spirit and commitment they have to NASCAR. I want to be aligned with someone who is first out of the gate. It shows how bad they want it. That was the key moment when I drank the Kool-Aid."

The quarter of a million of you who now follow Brad K. on Twitter, most of whom joined during his red-flag tweets at Daytona, may already know that, but I'll pass it along for everyone else.

You won't see everything at Phoenix that you saw in the Daytona 500, but who knows? Racing-wise, it might be a lot better.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.