It's always good to see old friends and fellow Karters do go in mainstream Motorsports. And it was great to see AJ get his first pole at one of our favorite tracks. AJ Allmendinger described his first NASCAR Sprint Cup pole as "a small victory" - with the fervent hope that it leads to something bigger, as in a race win.
Allmendinger led a quartet of former open-wheel stars in Friday's qualifying session for Saturday's SUBWAY Fresh Fit 600™ at Phoenix International Raceway. With a lap at 134.675 mph (26.731 seconds), Allmendinger's No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford edged Scott Speed's No. 82 Toyota (134.373 mph) for the Coors Light Pole Award. (Ed Note: Both AJ and Scott raced Karts with us as did Sam Hornish, Jr before he moved onto Indy Cars).
Sam Hornish Jr. (134.198 mph) qualified a career-best third in his No. 77 Dodge, followed by Marcos Ambrose (133.814 mph) in his No. 47 Toyota. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fifth fastest at 133.640 mph.
"I knew we were going to be quick," Allmendinger said. "We were quick in practice, but you go out there and you just don't know how much grip is going to be on the racetrack. I knew I was going to have to get everything out of it to have a chance of beating (Speed).
"It's a small victory for us to get our first career pole together, and to start up front is really cool, but the big picture is (Saturday), and that's what we're focused on."
Speed was the 13th driver to make a qualifying attempt. Allmendinger went out 30th and had the benefit of a slightly cooler track.
"As soon as Turn 1 started getting shaded - that's when Scott ran his lap, when the shade had kind of come over - I knew the grip was going to be there, but it was a little surprising how gripped-up the racetrack got," Allmendinger said.
"It was still really hot out there, but it seems like, at a lot of these older racetracks, a couple of degrees, when it gets cooler, can really change the racetack a lot."
Speed was sporting a shaved head at Phoenix, a far cry from the blue-black dye job he had for the last two races, at Bristol and Martinsville.
"I had to shave all the black hair because that seemed to be bad luck," Speed said. "I also named our car. Her name is 'Rattlesnake.' I think it's kind of mean and sounds fast. We're in Phoenix, so it fits. I don't know which one of those has changed our luck around, but we'll continue doing all of them."
It was a game of numbers - two and four.
Capitalizing on a late caution that extended Saturday's SUBWAY Fresh Fit 600™ three laps past its scheduled distance of 375 laps, Ryan Newman and crew chief Tony Gibson snatched victory from Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch with a two-tire call under the final caution.
Both Busch and Johnson took four tires on Lap 373, under caution for Scott Riggs' blown tire in Turn 4 one lap earlier. Gordon, who took two tires and left pit road with the lead, spun his tires on the decisive restart on Lap 377, allowing Newman to surge into the top spot.
After two circuits under green at the flat one-mile track, Newman crossed the finish line 0.13 seconds ahead of Gordon to win his 14th NASCAR Sprint Cup race and his first since the 2008 Daytona 500 – ending a 77-race drought.
Johnson charged from seventh to third during the green-white-checkered-flag finish. Mark Martin, also on two tires for the final restart, ran fourth, one position ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya. Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano completed the top 10.
Johnson extended his lead in the series standings to 36 points over Kenseth in second and to 96 over third-place Greg Biffle, who finished 22nd Saturday.
"I've got to throw Gibson under the bus - he wanted to go four, and I said, 'Just give me two,'" Newman said. "I liked the track position. I'd rather block than have to boot. I was in a good position there, obviously.
"I had restarted on the bottom side earlier tonight and could not get going. On two tires, I was kind of impressed - but there were a lot of cars behind us with two tires. It was a good situation to be in. It was just the right time, right place."
Busch and Johnson had dominated the two long green-flag runs that preceded the two-lap dash to the finish. In fact, Busch, who tied Johnson for most laps led with 113, stayed out front from the time he passed Johnson on Lap 262 until Riggs' accident 110 laps later.
"I can't freaking believe this," Busch lamented on the radio to crew chief Dave Rogers when the ninth and final yellow flag flew. "What do you want to do?"
Busch and Rogers opted for four tires. Johnson made the same call for his No. 48 team.
"I was excited to see the caution come out, because it was an opportunity to win," Johnson said. "I decided - I made the call for four tires. It's the first time that I can remember in a long time that I actually said what I wanted for a pit stop, with the way Martinsville played out and Bristol and last night's (Nationwide) race (where four-tire calls proved successful). I knew with the green-white checkered there weren't a lot of laps, but I felt we might get a caution with everybody racing so hard.
"So I made the call for four and made the most of it. We got from seventh to third and just did what we could. So, not a bad night at all. Excited to see us stretch out the points a little bit and get another top-five finish here."
Racing for the first time since March 31 surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee, Denny Hamlin completed the race in 30th place, two laps down.
Asked after the race if he was in pain, Hamlin replied, "More than I can tell you. I'm pretty sure I didn't do any damage or anything like that, but I'm absolutely exhausted right now."
Hamlin had Casey Mears standing by as a relief driver, but opted not to use him.
"I got a lot of encouragement from the team," said Hamlin, who fell three spots to 18th in the standings. "Through thick and thin, we're a team. I feel like they'd give their left leg for me and do everything they could do to make sure we were successful, and I felt like it was my duty and my job and that's what I'm hired to do, is to try to do the best I can and keep this team as good as we can."
Editor's Note: PIR has always been a fun track to go to for me since moving out West in 1997. When I was the President of the Arizona Sports Racing Association, we held many events at PIR. I also helped start a Kart Racing Group within ASRA after the Open Wheels Classes died off. It runs to this day in the Southwest at various tracks. As the President of the Professional Test Drivers Association of America (PTDAA), I have spent many days of private testing for OEs at PIR, and always find the staff there very helpful. A special thanks to Griffin Hickman and his staff at PIR in thee Media Center for all their help and understanding.