After a week off, the Sprint Cup Series will be in the desert this weekend for the first night race of the season, the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway. Jimmie Johnson has won the last three races at the 1.0-mile oval, and will be looking to win four straight at a track for the second time in his career.
Lowe's Motor Speedway (2004-05) is the only other track on which Johnson has accomplished the feat. Johnson won three straight at Martinsville in 2006 and 2007, but Denny Hamlin's win at the track in March 2008 broke that streak.
Naturally, Johnson swept both events at Phoenix last season, picking up his first win of the year in the April event when crew chief Chad Knaus made a fuel mileage gamble before leading 214 of 313 laps in winning the November race. Given how strong Johnson has run the last few races -- winning at Martinsville and finishing second at Texas -- there's no reason to believe Johnson can't win this weekend.
Then again, Mark Martin appeared to be the class of the field in the spring race last year before fuel mileage relegated him to a fifth-place finish. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won twice at Phoenix in his career -- in 2003 and 2004 -- and finished in the Top 10 in both races last year.
And let's not forget guys like Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, who also have multiple Phoenix wins. Harvick swept both Phoenix race in 2006, while Burton took the races in 2000 and 2001 -- back when he was still driving the No. 99 for Jack Roush.
Jeff Gordon, coming off his win at Texas, will also have something to say on Saturday night -- after all, he's the last guy not named Johnson to win at Phoenix. Kurt and Kyle Busch have both won in the desert, splitting the races in 2005 -- the first year Phoenix had two Cup dates. Matt Kenseth also owns a Phoenix win (2002), as does Tony Stewart ... though his was all the way back in 1999.
At this point, betting against Johnson (for entertainment purposes only, I assure you) is a dangerous proposition, but there are a lot of guys coming into this race who have a legitimate shot at the checkered flag. Gordon is the kind of guy who can use one win to catapult himself into a hot streak, and Kyle Busch is literally dangerous everywhere.
Phoenix can be a place where Martin continues his climb back up the standings, and there are few tracks better for Earnhardt to start righting the ship. In fact, the next three tracks -- Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond -- line up well for Junior, as he's collected 10 of his 18 career wins at those tracks.
Also of interest is how Joey Logano performs. Will he use Saturday's win in the Nationwide Series in Nashville and parlay that into his first really strong Cup effort? Can the confidence carry over like that?
Inquiring minds want to know.
If I must pick a winner, I'll go with Martin. He felt robbed after last season's race (and it is worth mentioning the car he almost won in last season won't even be in the race this year -- read more on that a few posts down), and the way Martin's been running of late has me convinced he'll find Victory Lane again sooner rather than later.
Maybe as soon as Saturday night.