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Earnhardt's post-500 focus, Stewart's readiness, highlight NASCAR weekend in Phoenix


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, a new qualifying procedure for the Cup Series, the evolution of the Gen-6 car, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-Daytona 500 focus, Tony Stewart’s health and a new title format’s effect on race strategy lead us into the 312-miler at Phoenix International Raceway.

1. Phoenix hosts debut of new Sprint Cup qualifying format
There’s no denying that NASCAR’s single-car qualifying had largely become an exercise in boredom in recent years. Fans weren’t turning out to watch it in person like they once did and the two- to three-hour sessions weren’t adding anything exciting to the race weekend.

So NASCAR came swinging with a drastic overhaul in the offseason and largely got it right. Phoenix serves as the Sprint Cup debut for NASCAR’s new group qualifying format that will feature two different rounds to set the order for Sunday’s race. It all fits in a TV-friendly one-hour window, too.

It’s pretty simple: all drivers are eligible for the first round and will have 25 minutes to put down the best lap possible. They can draft, they enter and exit pit road for small adjustments and they can enter the track whenever so desired. When the first session ends, the top 12 drivers earn a spot in the final round to go for the pole. Larger tracks have three rounds.

It’s a product that may also lead to competitive strategy and aggression. NASCAR will police grave qualifying infidelities — intentionally crashing or blocking another car won’t fly — but these teams and drivers are too smart. They’ll find ways to interfere without appearing to interfere. They’ll play games. They’ll compete.

All told, it’s a better system. It could be a lot of fun, too.

2. Gen-6 debut a year ago less than stellarThe constant hype and hyperbole at Daytona last season from the sport’s talking heads about NASCAR’s then-new Gen-6 race vehicle produced a pretty predictable result when the series made it out to Phoenix. The second race of the year was largely a dud with limited passing and Carl Edwards going to victory lane based mostly on pit strategy.

It ignited, too, into NASCAR’s still-ludicrous decision to penalize Denny Hamlin for hardly defamatory comments about the new vehicle after the race. Bygones are bygones, though, and Phoenix this time marks the one-year anniversary of the Gen-6’s restrictor-plate track debut.

What can we expect? Hopefully a better race. The second-to-last race of the 2013 season — also at Phoenix — produced competition that was remarkably different. Lead changes jumped from 12 to 23 as Kevin Harvick took the win as Edwards ran out of gas coming to the white flag.

NASCAR put in some substantial work on finding a better aerodynamic package for the Gen-6 over the offseason. Sunday will be the first time we see if any of it made a difference in the part of the game NASCAR can’t gloss over with a shiny new championship system.

3. Earnhardt Jr. in unchartered NASCAR territory  What a week it has been for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Just before midnight last Sunday, Earnhardt won the prize that seems to mean the most to him — he took his second Daytona 500 — and has subsequently been on the traditional media barnstorming tour for winners of NASCAR’s biggest race. He also joined Twitter and has quickly proved to be one of the most prolific and best users among NASCAR drivers.

It’s a tour that typically raises questions about whether or not the Daytona 500 winner can actually prepare and focus again for the next race. No 500 winner since Matt Kenseth in 2009 has won the very next race, though that’s not exactly a fair barometer for judging a driver or team’s post-500 preparation.

There’s good news for Earnhardt, however. For the first time in NASCAR history, how well he does Sunday largely doesn’t matter.

Earnhardt is the first qualifier for NASCAR’s revamped Chase system — as long as he can stay inside the first 30 positions in the point standings, of course — and has lost the weight and worry of winning a race during the regular season. It’s an interesting position that gives the No. 88 team the freedom to race for wins and experiment with setups for the tracks in the Chase.

That said, Earnhardt will not come to Phoenix with his eye off the ball. He tweeted earlier this week that Hendrick Motorsports engineers had already been emailing him data and statistics about Phoenix while on the cross-country media tour. You can bet that crew chief Steve Letarte — a pretty strict process-follower himself — has been preparing like normal.

Still, the new system and Earnhardt’s role in it all will be fascinating to watch Sunday.

4. Tony Stewart still has to prove race readiness  
Tony Stewart’s return to racing at Daytona after his gruesome leg injury last August wasn’t exactly a rejuvenating shot in the arm. He took hard hits in a Sprint Unlimited crash and suffered through fuel pick-up issues during the Daytona 500. He was also forced to skip the Nationwide Series race that he’s so routinely dominated, likely out of fear of more injury.

Perhaps the lone bit of good news — and it certainly is good — was that all seemed well for Stewart health-wise after Speedweeks. He’ll race Phoenix Sunday afternoon, though not without questions.

It’s Stewart’s first return to traditional racing and his first real test of strength in his injured leg. Though only a mile in length, Phoenix’s configuration is no easy load on a driver. Turn 1 requires heavy braking, the backstretch kink is a high-speed ride not unlike a roller coaster and Turn 3 is flat and long.

Stewart has always been tough in these situations but he’s never had an injury so severe. Is his endurance ready for Sunday’s race? It’s a story to watch.

5. Will Chase change late race pit calls?
Daytona being Daytona — it’s the Daytona 500, after all — will always force the gambling hands of crew chiefs and drivers in the final laps. That’s pretty much always been the tone of the Great American Race.

Knowing that, it’s hard to use the 500 as a barometer for just how hard teams will push to grab a win under NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format. Good news: Phoenix International Raceway could do that just fine.

That new format from NASCAR, of course, guarantees every NASCAR race winner in the regular season (up to 16) earns a spot in the championship battle at race No. 27 as long as the driver is in the top 30 of the series point standings. NASCAR’s hope is that the increased emphasis on regular season winning — a spot in the playoffs is pretty valuable — will increase risk-taking on track and on pit road.

While it’s a safe bet that NASCAR teams and drivers have long pushed to win no matter what, it’ll be interesting to see if late-race strategy at Phoenix becomes crazier than normal. More teams may risk fuel mileage gambles. Some may avoid a late trip to pit road completely. Or everything may remain much like it has always been.

They’ll have to race for us to find out.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.