Monday April 20th, 2009

Here are five things we learned last weekend at Phoenix International Speedway in the Subway Fresh 500, race No. eight of 2009.

No driver has had worse luck this year than Martin. He suffered blown engines at Fontana and Las Vegas, which led to back-to-back 40th place finishes. He also cut a tire in Atlanta that resulted in a 31st-place finish. After four events, he wasn't in the top 30 in the standings.

But even when he was sinking in the points, Martin was running well. He kept telling anyone who would listen that he and his crew chief Alan Gustafson were going to turn their season around, that they weren't panicking. Turns out he was right. Over the past five races Martin has won three poles; then at Phoenix he reached Victory Lane for the first time since 2005. More importantly, he hasn't finished lower than seventh in the last four events, and he's now climbed to 13th in the points.

So what's changed for the No. 5 team? In a word, nothing. Gustafson has prepared fast cars for Martin each week, and he could easily be in the top-five in the standings right now if not for those fluky engine failures earlier in the season. At this point you've got to like Martin's chances of qualifying for the Chase, which is the entire reason the 50-year-old came out of retirement this offseason.

Johnson had won the previous three races at Phoenix, and at times during this one he clearly had the top car in the field. But he had some problems on pit road midway through the race, lost track position, and then was forced to claw his way back up through the field. He finished fourth.

Now second in the standings behind his teammate Jeff Gordon, Johnson has ripped off four straight top-five finishes. This team, once again, is hitting on all cylinders. Johnson has typically struggled through the summer, but he's already built a big enough cushion that it won't matter if he endures another swoon in July and August. Make no mistake: This is still the team to beat for the championship.

First, the good news for Junior: He led 67 laps on Saturday night. The bad? After falling through the field, he was nudged into the wall by Casey Mears. Little E eventually retaliated and smashed into Mears. He finished 31st at what has been one of his best tracks.

"We just couldn't get it right tonight and we were very loose at the end," he said. "It felt good to lead some laps. We'll get 'em [next week] at Talladega."

While all of Earnhardt's teammates at Hendrick Motorsports have won a race this season, he continues to flounder. He has just two top-10 finishes and he's 19th in points. Sure, we're only a fourth of the way through the season, but Earnhardt is already in danger of missing the Chase. Next week will be a crucial one for the No. 88 team. Talladega is his best track on the schedule, and he desperately needs a solid top-10 run to turn his season around.

As I wrote in the magazine last week, Kurt Busch is the biggest surprise of the season. Well, he authored another solid run at Phoenix, finishing third. He's third in the points and it looks like he'll be a serious contender for the championship.

The only thing, in fact, that will prevent Busch from being in the title mix this fall is Busch himself. A few weeks ago at Martinsville he got into a heated discussion over the radio with his team owner, Roger Penske. At one point Busch called Penske "dude," which is something you absolutely don't do to Penske, one of the most respected men in motor sports. Penske has said that he still supports Busch and everything is fine between them, but you've got to wonder: How much patience will Penske have with Busch if he makes another blunder? Stay tuned.

If Busch is the biggest surprise of the season, then Stewart is second. On Saturday he finished second to record his sixth top-10 run of 2009, which ties him for the most in the series with Gordon and Johnson. Stewart is fourth in the standings.

To review: This offseason Stewart launched his own race team, Stewart Haas Racing. He brokered a deal with Rick Hendrick to use Hendrick chassis and Hendrick engines, which basically means that Stewart Haas is a satellite team of Hendrick. Stewart also hired Darien Grubb, who had been an engineer at Hendrick, to be his crew chief. I've always thought that Grubb is one of the smartest guys in the sport, and he and Stewart have clicked faster than anyone in the garage anticipated.

This team is going to win a race -- soon. They should be very good on Sunday at Talladega, where Stewart took the checkered flag last fall.

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