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Danica, Junior, Johnson Hope To Continue Momentum At Desert Mile In Phoenix

And now to the rest of the season for the Brickyard Legends in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

With the 55th Daytona 500 is completed, it’s time to begin the long road to NASCAR’s next big event – the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard on July 28 and the Crown Royal presents the “Your Hero’s Name Here” 400 at the Brickyard. And while the Brickyard is 19 races off – a span of five months – it’s one of the crown jewel events that Brickyard Legends such as two-time Daytona 500 winner and five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time Brickyard winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, three-time Cup champion and two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart can attempt to conquer.

It’s never too early to begin preparing for that “road trip” to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The next stop is the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday, March 3.

By winning the Daytona 500, Johnson is the Sprint Cup points leader after race No. 1 of the 36-race season, just five points ahead of a popular driver at the Brickyard, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Danica Patrick already had established herself as a popular driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from her impressive debut in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 when she came within seven laps of winning the race. She arrives at PIR seventh in the standings.

While those drivers are off to a fast start, a NASCAR legend from Columbus, Ind., and another former Brickyard 400 winner need to make up some ground after they were involved in an early crash in the Daytona 500 last Sunday.

Stewart, who lives down the road from Indianapolis in nearby Columbus, is 37th in the standings, 44 points out of the lead. Kevin Harvick, who won the 2003 Brickyard 400, also was involved in the same crash that foiled Stewart’s efforts and is 38th in the standings, 45 behind Johnson.

A championship can’t be won in the first two races of the season. But a slow start can certainly doom a driver’s chances of getting into NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship.”

But Stewart isn’t ready to panic.

“Easy,” Stewart said. “We’ve left there (Daytona) 43rd (in points) and won a championship in ’02. So you just put it behind you, and it’s no different than if you get in a wreck on any other week. You can’t change it. So, you’ve got to focus on what you can change, and that’s the week ahead.”

Mark Martin won the pole Friday and will start alongside Kasey Kahne. Daytona 500 winner Johnson qualified third to start alongside Kyle Busch with Gordon fifth, Stewart sixth and Harvick seventh.

Stewart is one of 13 drivers that have led laps in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 – a statistic of which he is honored to be included.

 “It’s pretty cool,” Stewart said. “To be honest, as a race car driver, it’s an honor to just be able to compete in both, let alone lead laps. So the good thing is we’ve got you guys (media) to tell us the cool stats because we don’t know that stuff until you tell us. But that’s a pretty cool honor to be in a group of 13 people.”

Stewart has proven his versatility at Phoenix by racing in all three divisions in the old Copper World Classic, including USAC Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown, IndyCar Series as well as NASCAR Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup.

He drove to victory in his very first Cup race at PIR in 1999, but so far that remains his lone victory and one of eight top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 22 starts. He was 22nd in this race last year and 19th in the second race in November.

“My favorite memory is, oh, man; probably the first Copper Classic I ran,” Stewart said. “The worst memory was the first time they started changing it (the track); and the very worst memory is the second time they changed this track. Every time they change it they keep screwing it up and making it worse. It was really good the way it was. It was a lot of fun back then.”

Stewart is back at PIR with the new car. And during Friday’s practice session he made sure he got as much time as possible with his No. 14 Chevrolet SS because Phoenix is a track where handling is very important, opposed to the high-banked restrictor-plate track at Daytona where aerodynamics play such a key.

“Well, we had all the practice time we wanted at Daytona, and nobody wanted to use that,” Stewart said. “This is a little different deal here where you’re running by yourself. This is the first time that we’ve all had a new car, guys. We’re not reinventing the wheel. It’s the same thing that we did with we had the COT (previous version race car) and the same thing that we’ve had every time a new manufacturer had a new body style. So we’re not totally starting from scratch or reinventing the wheel. You’re just going to have to have the time that you do have to learn and everybody has the same amount of time. So, it doesn’t really matter how much time you’ve got.”

While Stewart’s Daytona 500 is one he would like to forget as a driver, he was very happy as a team owner. One of his drivers, Danica Patrick, started the race on the pole, led five laps in the race to become the first female ever to lead laps in the Daytona 500 and ran in the top three for most of the race until the final lap, when she got shuffled to eighth place.

“I thought she did a great job last week,” Stewart said of Patrick. “She played a very, very smart race because it’s very easy to get overanxious and want to do better than where you’re at; and cause yourself to have a worse day. And I thought she displayed a lot of patience, and that’s really hard to do sometimes. So I thought she did a great job.”

Patrick has one Cup start at Phoenix, last November when she started 37th and finished 17th. That performance gave crew chief Tony Gibson confidence in his driver, and Patrick is enthusiastic about running competitively Sunday at PIR.

“It was nice to come here at the end of the season and race in the Cup race,” Patrick said. “It was also nice to have Tony Gibson as my crew chief. I feel like it will give us a good baseline of where we need to start setup-wise for the weekend, so we can kind of pick up where we left off. I feel like we were pretty decent at the end of the race. Is qualifying on the pole and leading laps what we should be thinking based on last weekend? No. I think we need to … I need to keep realistic expectations, and I think everybody else does, too. Daytona is a very unique place, and this is kind of where the bulk of the season really starts. Things like being able to get up to speed quickly, knowing what I want in the car, how to push it to its limit and what its limit is are things that are going to begin to be tested now. That’s something that you don’t really face at Daytona.”

Patrick added her name to the exclusive list of race drivers that have led laps in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. While her debut at Indianapolis in 2005 is the start of “Danica Mania,” she is hopeful that her strong Daytona 500 performance will do wonders for her career in NASCAR.

“To look at the list of names, and to fall under them, while I’m honored to be a first woman to do something, those are great,” Patrick said. “You can’t take those away. A first is always wonderful. But to fall into a historical statistic that is small, that is a small group, along with other drivers, and have it not be about being a male or a female, that is something that I aspire to as a driver. I hope that when I am done racing that people remember me as a great driver. And, if they remember me as a great girl driver, that’s fine, too. But I hope they remember as a great driver and a list of others. I feel like that is one of those statistics that’s just genderless, and that’s pretty neat for me.

“They really are very similar in a sense with my first Indy 500 and my first…wasn’t my first Daytona 500, but my first year full-time in the Series with the whole pole position potential. And with leading in the race, and being fast and being a contender then kind of losing it a little bit at the very, very end. They are very similar. I feel like now days having the experience that I had in IndyCar, and understanding how media works. What it is like to be busy, and do a lot of interviews and a lot of things outside of the car. And also building a great team helps me manage and tolerate all of that is very different than it was back in 2005. I kind of feel like it is another weekend now. Last weekend was what it was. But we’re moving on, and maybe perhaps in 2005 it was kind of a little bit of an ongoing excitement level and hope for me. But I think I’m a little more mature now to know that these things come, they go. We’re going to have great weekends like maybe last weekend. And we’re going to have bad ones. I don’t know where they are going to pop up, but I don’t doubt that they will. I just feel more mature to be able to handle all of it.”

The man on the move on the final lap of the Daytona 500 was Earnhardt, who was able to lurk back in the pack for most of the race before making the move at the end. He finished second for the third time in the last four years. But that second-place finish has boosted Earnhardt’s confidence coming to Phoenix, where he has back-to-back victories in 2003 and 2004. Those are his only two wins and are included in his four top-five and eight top-10 finishes at Phoenix.

He was 14th in this contest last year and 21st in the return trip in November.

“We got off to a good start, just like we did last year,” Earnhardt said. “I really think that if you put yourself in a hole early, no matter how good of a team you are, you’re going to be one of those guys that are sitting there at Richmond or the last couple races before the Chase really digging and worried about your opportunities and position and worried about the guys that you have to beat. You’ll be sitting in that 10th- to 14th-place position sweating it out. It’s a distraction that I’d rather not have to put the team through or have to go through myself. If we can put together a solid 10 races and get a good foundation of points together then we should be able to steadily maintain that throughout the rest of the regular season and go into the Chase comfortable and not have to really sweat it out and start thinking that you can mentally prepare yourself for the Chase better, I believe when you don’t have to worry about those last few races. Mentally, it’s just easier and emotionally it’s easier.”

And while Johnson continues to bask in the glory of his second Daytona 500 win, the race Sunday at PIR could prove vital for several other Brickyard Legends who are prepared for the long, five-month journey to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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