The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes the first of two visits to Phoenix on Sunday with the running of the Subway Fresh Fit 500 (3 PM ET, Fox). While it was a rookie in Danica Patrick, who grabbed the pole last week in Daytona, we go to the opposite end of the career spectrum for this week’s pole-sitter. It’s 54-year-old Mark Martin sitting in the premier position.
Martin had a strong showing in Daytona last week and is third in the overall point standings—the overall standings don’t exactly match the results from the season’s first race because the overall numbers factor in the number of laps each driver led. Now as to Martin, we should point out that he’s not a playoff contender. It’s not because TheSportsNotebook is knocking the veteran driver, but because Martin is semi-retired—three times since 2007, including last year, he’s only run 24 of the circuit’s 36 races.
“He still has the drive to run, but just doesn’t want to do the full schedule anymore,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill. “He’s gotten close to winning when he’s driving full-time.” Indeed, Martin finished second overall in 2009 when he ran the full schedule. “Now he focuses on helping the younger drivers in his team.”
Aside from his value to his team at Michael Waltrip Racing, Martin can still make some good money for himself and for those who bet and may cash in on him. He’s a 20-1 shot to win on Sunday. The question will be the value of the pole position. While Phoenix International Speedway (PIR) will never be mistaken for Daytona when it comes to wide-open racing, it’s still a track that encourages a certain fluidity of movement. When the PIR raised the bank walls several years ago, they made side-by-side racing easier, which in turn made it easier for drivers to pass. Hence, Martin still goes off at fairly long odds, even as he holds the pole.
RUNNING WITH THE ROOKIES
Bill and I were both impressed with Danica’s showing on Sunday. Even though a late slip dropped her to eighth, a top 10 finish at Daytona speaks well to her ability to compete at this level. “She had a good car and kept it clean,” Bill said, praising the highly-publicized rookie’s run under the intense scrutiny of last week. Now that Daytona is behind us, hopefully Danica can settle into something resembling normalcy regarding intense media coverage and pressure on each individual race.
There’s another rookie not getting nearly the ink, and that’s Rick Stenhouse Jr. He’s in 11th place in the overall standings, the only one of the four surprise drivers in the top 12 to really keep an eye on. Bill dismissed the efforts of Michael McDowelll, J.J. Creley and Aric Amirolo—all of whom are in the magic playoff spots in the top 12 after one week—as unlikely to last. Bill agreed with my baseball analogy that it was akin to the Houston Astros grabbing two of three to start the season. Stenhouse is different—while not necessarily endorsing him, Bill agreed that his lack of a track record is precisely what makes him intriguing in the early part of the schedule. We’ll see what Stenhouse can do on Sunday in Phoenix.
THE BETTING ODDS
It’s no surprise that Jimmie Johnson is the favorite to win on Sunday, at odds of 6-1—but what are the odds that JJ wins two weeks in a row? One level down is Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowksi, and Kyle Busch at 8-1. Keselowski did a yeoman’s job last week, getting wiped off the track in an early wreck, coming back and finishing in the top 10 with a torn-up car. Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth are each 10-1.