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Posted: Friday, February 28th 2014 at 12:50pm

NASCAR Preview: History at Phoenix tees up Earnhardt for two in a row

By NASCAR Media
EMAIL STORY CONTACT EDITOR PRINT
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Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be looking for his second straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. / Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Phoenix, AZ - With an epic Daytona 500 triumph in the books, it’s on to Phoenix International Raceway for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., with plenty of historical fodder indicating a second-straight victory not only is possible but somewhat probable considering the inevitable momentum from winning NASCAR’s biggest event.

Earnhardt’s success at the one-mile PIR oval has been somewhat intermittent but it’s also been memorable; he went to victory lane back-to-back in 2003 and ’04 (there was one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race per season there at the time). Also, there’s this recent history: Earnhardt finished fifth and fourth at PIR during his solid 2013 season.

Inevitably, talk started almost immediately Sunday night about another possibility: Earnhardt winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship for the first time. Five drivers have won the Daytona 500 and the series title in the same season: Jimmie Johnson (2006, ’13), Jeff Gordon (1997), Richard Petty (1964, ’71, ’74, ’79), Cale Yarborough (1977) and Lee Petty (1959).

Perhaps getting somewhat overlooked is that Earnhardt was being considered a title contender before the first lap was run this year. Such optimism was based mainly on his strong 2013 season when he posted a career-high 22 top 10s, starting with a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 and ending with a fifth-place finish in the final series points, Earnhardt’s best result since 2006 – and his best result since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. That followed a several-year slump that seemed particularly puzzling in 2009 and ’10 when Earnhardt finished 25th and 21st in points.

Earnhardt said he is grateful that his organization, starting with Hendrick, “… believed in me, and were trying to find ways to make the chemistry work, regardless of what anybody said, regardless of what the critics were saying, when everybody was saying I was finished, whether I was going to do anything ever again. I've been pretty vindicated, but I'm in a good place now. I feel we're embarking on a season that could be something really special for me.

“Whether we win the championship or not remains to be seen, obviously. But I had one of my greatest years last year, and I think we can top that this season.”

A statistical footnote going into Phoenix: Since the Daytona 500 became the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ season-opening race in 1982 – a surprising piece of trivia in and of itself – only two drivers have followed a Daytona 500 victory with a win the very next race: Matt Kenseth at Phoenix in 2009 and Jeff Gordon at Rockingham in 1997; Gordon went on to win the series championship that year.

WDUN will have live coverage from MRN Radio of Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 'The Profit on CNBC 500' from Phoenix International Raceway beginning at 2 pm on 102.9 FM and 550 AM.

NASCAR Nationwide Series: Goal No. 1 For Smith - Win JRM Its First Championship

With a victory in the season-opening DRIVE4COPD at Daytona International Speedway last Saturday night, Regan Smith got his season off to a thrilling start by edging out Brad Keselowski at the finish line by .013 seconds – the seventh closest finish in NASCAR Nationwide Series history and second closest in series history at Daytona. The win sets him on the right track to accomplish his primary goal this season – win JR Motorsports its first title.

“This year there’s two goals, that’s to win Junior Motorsports their first championship and for me to prove to the right owner that I belong racing on Sundays,” Smith said after the race. “But that first goal is the primary goal.”

If history is any indication, by achieving his first goal Smith could find himself racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on Sundays in the near future. Fifteen of the past 16 NNS championships (dating back to 1998 when JR Motorsports owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won his first NASCAR driver’s title) were won by drivers currently competing full time in NASCAR’s highest level, including 2013 champion Austin Dillon.

The next step in Smith’s quest to accomplish his primary goal is finishing well in Saturday’s Blue Jeans Go Green 200 presented by Cotton, The Fabric of Our Lives at Phoenix International Raceway. In six series starts at the one-mile track he’s posted one top-five (fourth place in last November’s race) and two top-10 finishes. In nine NSCS starts at the track, Smith has never finished better than 20th. In two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts at Phoenix, his best finish is 30th.

Smith arrives in Phoenix with a six-point advantage over Trevor Bayne in the points standings. Elliott Sadler (-eight), Brendan Gaughan (-nine) and Ty Dillon (-10) round out the top five. Smith’s four career wins have all come in the last 35 races. Last year Smith captured two of those victories (Talladega, Michigan), after winning the season finale in his only start of 2012.

In 2013, Smith led the points standings for 10 consecutive weeks before ultimately finishing third in the final standings behind Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish, Jr.

WDUN will have live coverage from MRN Radio of Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series Blue Jeans Go Green 200 from Phoenix International Raceway beginning at 3:15 pm on 102.9 FM.

NASCAR Camping World Trucks: Busch Picks Up Where He Left Off In Season Opener

Although it wasn’t the Daytona 500, Kyle Busch still celebrated his historic win after taking the checkered flag by .016-seconds over Timothy Peters last Friday at Daytona International Speedway.

With his season-opening win, the Las Vegas native became the first driver to complete the career national series sweep at Daytona, adding to his wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Nationwide Series at the track.

In addition to the accomplishment by Busch and his No. 51 ToyotaCare Tundra team, he also helped manufacturer Toyota capture its eighth consecutive win at DIS.

The win was Busch’s 36th in the series, and he has now won at least one race in nine of the past 10 seasons he has competed. His lone year without a win was in 2012 when he only made three starts.

Kyle Busch Motorsports is also the reigning owner champion, and the team will attempt to defend its title this season with Busch and Erik Jones sharing driving duties. KBM won the owner crown after tying with ThorSport Racing last year and winning on a tie breaker.

Jones, who set a record as the youngest winner in the history of the series with his win at Phoenix last November (17 years, five months and nine days), will drive the truck in the next race at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday, March 29.

Busch’s next race is scheduled for Charlotte Motor Speedway during Sprint All-Star Weekend on Friday, May 16.


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