Commentary

Desert air, blue skies await NASCAR faithful at Phoenix International Raceway

Phoenix blog Friday.

Updated: November 8, 2008, 10:48 AM ET
By David Newton and Terry Blount | ESPN.com

All times Eastern

7:07 p.m.

Not sure how the drivers see going into Turn 1 this time of the day. The sun is so bright coming over the grandstands that you barely can see 10 feet ahead of you walking through the garage.

Or maybe that was just the blinding-fast lap that Jimmie Johnson put up.

Yes, Johnson is on the pole for Sunday's Cup race.

Just what Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, the only drivers within striking distance of keeping Johnson from a third straight title, didn't want to see.

Now Johnson's almost certain to pick up five bonus points for leading the first lap, making the 106-point gap between him and second even larger than the sun looked bright.

This will be the fifth time Johnson has sat on the pole during the Chase, giving him 25 bonus points just after the first lap. Wouldn't it be more interesting if he didn't have that?

-- David Newton

6:08 p.m.

Drivers get asked to sign lots of strange things, and that was the case when Jeff Gordon was asked to autograph a monkey wearing a No. 24 jersey and cap.

No, it wasn't Tony Stewart's monkey.

It wasn't even real.

It was a stuffed monkey that apparently was dear to the elderly woman who presented it to the four-time champion behind his hauler.

Unfortunately for Gordon, the monkey to win a race remains on his back. He has two more chances to avoid the first winless season since his rookie year of 1993.

-- David Newton

5:15 p.m.

Denny Hamlin has some issues with the ways things are getting done at Joe Gibbs Racing, feeling everyone isn't on the same page between the teams and the people at the shop.

"We know what our problems are," Hamlin said Friday. "But it's real political in the shops. We know what we want to fix [on his No. 11 Toyota], but leaders in other departments think they have a better way to do it than the way we're doing it."

Hamlin, who ranks last in the 12-man Chase standings, wouldn't get specific, but he defended his crew chief, Mike Ford.

"A lot falls on Mike's shoulders, and I'm behind him," Hamlin said. "I think he's one of the best out there with the things he has to work with.

"We are not performing the way we did earlier, but neither is the 18 [teammate Kyle Busch]. They aren't where they were earlier this year. To do that, everyone in the race shop needs to be a little more open-minded."

-- Terry Blount

4:53 p.m.

Jeff Burton was asked what he thought about Barack Obama being elected President-elect.

"I think it's an exciting time for our country and for the world," Burton said. "It would have been exciting no matter who won, but it is a remarkable thing that a young guy with little experience and the first African-American is elected president.

"That's really special stuff. I think it's cool some ways and exciting to look forward to the future. But in some other ways it concerns me. Time will tell."

-- Terry Blount

4:12 p.m.

To no one's surprise, Jimmie Johnson posted the fastest lap when the first practice session ended Friday afternoon. Johnson, who has won the past two races at Phoenix, turned a lap at 132.871 mph.

Hendrick Motorsports drivers took the top three spots in practice. Casey Mears was No. 2 with a lap at 132.861 mph, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted the third-quickest lap around the 1-mile oval at 132.846 mph.

Carl Edwards, who still hopes to catch Johnson for the Cup championship, was 10th at 132.212 mph.

Qualifying for Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 400 starts at 3:45 p.m. MT.

-- Terry Blount

3:48 p.m.

Kevin Harvick believes NASCAR did the right thing last weekend at Texas when officials parked David Gilliland after he appeared to intentionally wreck Juan Pablo Montoya.

"A lot of that stuff is self-policing," Harvick said Friday. "Sometimes you treat guys the way they treat you, but that incident is something that shouldn't have happened. It was a good opportunity to get someone hurt. Obviously, that was a little bit excessive."

Gilliland hit Montoya and they exited a turn, causing Montoya's car to shoot up into the wall. Gilliland said he misjudged the exit and it wasn't intentional.

Harvick doesn't think so.

"You can misjudge it," he said. "But usually when you hook someone in the right rear [quarter panel], that isn't the case."

-- Terry Blount

3:07 p.m.

Ever wonder what Howard Cosell would look like wearing a black and orange fire suit under that gosh-awful yellow blazer he wore on "Monday Night Football"?

Well, wonder no more.

Tony Stewart put on such a blazer over his Home Depot uniform when it was announced he was going to be the grand marshal for the Fiesta Bowl Parade in January. In case you haven't been around the college football world, bowl committee members always where tacky-colored blazers.

Stewart hopefully won't have to wear the blazer during the parade, which will include four of his cars with sponsorships from his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Speaking of that, bowl representative Dave Tillman reminded us that there is no passing in the parade.

"Don't we start in the back of the parade?" Stewart asked. "That's going to be interesting."

***

Remember that dry air mentioned below? Well, that and a bush that apparently blooms this time of the year has Roush Fenway Racing president Geoff Smith sneezing out of control.

"I've already gone through an entire pack of tissue," he said.

Maybe the man who has more sponsors in his back pocket than anybody in the garage could use that to lure Kleenex as a sponsor.

Just a thought.

-- David Newton

2:39 p.m.

Many people involved in the Sprint Cup garage are swallowing hard and looking worried over today's news from General Motors.

GM reported it lost $4.2 billion in the last quarter, up dramatically from the loss $1.6 billion a year earlier.

And that wasn't the worst news. GM said it had spent $6.9 billion during the quarter and warned that it could run out of operating liquidity in the first half of next year.

How all this affects NASCAR is uncertain, but it can't be good.

GM officials plan to cut capital spending by $2.4 billion in 2009, pushing back development plans for some new models. But it warned that even those steps would not be enough unless conditions improve.

***

Cup practice is under way and Mark Martin is the early leader on the speed chart, posting a lap at 132.076 mph in the No. 8 Chevy.

-- Terry Blount

2:10 p.m.

So who is the Driver of the Year in Sprint Cup?

Depends on whom you ask. Tony Stewart gave an answer no one expected.

"Honestly, I would pick David Ragan," Stewart told reporters Friday. "He has impressed me so much from where he started last year to where he is this season.

"He was a dart without feathers. He was a guy that I thought wouldn't ever make it, but now he gets it."

Ragan was a rookie in 2007, finishing 23rd in the standings while posting three top-10 finishes in the No. 6 Ford. This year he came close to making the Chase. Ragan ranks 13th in the standings with 13 top-10s and six top-5s.

Jeff Burton said he would choose Kyle Busch as the Driver of the Year.

"I think he's done a remarkable job this year, even though he's not going to win the championship,'' Burton said. "He walked into a new situation [with the No. 15 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing] that hadn't been a contender for a while and he immediately ran up front. Everything he sat in this year ran fast."

Busch has 21 victories this season, including eight in Cup, 10 in the Nationwide Series and three in the Craftsman Trucks Series.

-- Terry Blount

1:14 p.m.

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Welcome to sunny Arizona, where the air is as dry as the sense of humor of drivers and owners who are ready for this season to end.

Sam Hornish Jr. kicked off the day by refuting speculation that he plans to return to the IRL. Regan Smith, who was brought into the media center with Hornish to talk about the Rookie of the Year competition, looked pretty bored as Hornish fielded most of the questions.

Nationwide practice already is under way at Phoenix International Raceway and Sprint Cup practice begins at 2 p.m. ET.

Two straight weeks of dry weather. Must be a record.

-- David Newton

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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