After a spectacular start to the season at the Daytona 500, the real racing began Sunday as NASCAR made its first trip to a more traditional race course. That meant putting away the restrictor plates until Talladega and making the season's first trip to the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500.
It's a track that rewards traditional racing. The premium is on a driver's ability to race the track and the crew's ability to prepare a car to handle the changing demands of the hot and slick asphalt at the desert oval. Unlike Daytona, a driver can excel here without the help of drafting or getting a push from another driver.
Many drivers consider this to be the true start of the season because of the unique variables that it takes to succeed at Daytona. The consensus is that PIR is a better indicator of what to expect for the 2012 Sprint Cup season than the actual season opener.
So let's dive in and get right to the Five Things We Learned at Phoenix...
After leading the most laps at Daytona with 57, Hamlin returned to Phoenix where his 2010 championship run collapsed after he was forced to pit late for fuel. But in Sunday's contest, Hamlin led the final 59 laps to drive to his 18th career victory with an impressive win over Kevin Harvick's charging Chevrolet. Harvick ran out of fuel with a little over one lap left and that ensured Hamlin would take the checkered flag.
It marked Hamlin's first victory under new crew chief Darian Grubb, who was let go by Stewart-Haas Racing even after he helped guide Tony Stewart to five wins in the 10-race Chase and ultimately to the 2011 Sprint Cup title.
"Thank you for making me competitive again," Hamlin radioed to Grubb after taking the checkered flag.
This victory was as important for the crew chief as it was for the driver. Hamlin-Grubb could be the right combination for success in 2012 after making it to Victory Lane in just their second race together.
"Someone asked me earlier today if I knew where Victory Lane was out here," Hamlin said. "I told them they can point it to me after the race. It's huge momentum. We have never been in this position this early in the season. This is particularly not my type of race track but Darian helped me win here today."
Grubb and Hamlin had the right strategy Sunday, while Harvick's fuel mileage calculations ultimately fell just short. But despite running out of fuel he was able to score an important second-place finish.
"Racing for a win at a place where we ran so poor last year is big," Harvick said. "To come here and race for the win sets the tone for the rest of the year."
As for the race winner that tone has already been set.
No driver needed a bigger run in the second race of the season more than Jimmie Johnson. After crashing in second lap at Daytona, combined with a 25-point penalty issued by NASCAR when his car didn't meet inspection prior to the first practice of the season, Johnson was in a huge hole. Because Hendrick Motorsports appealed the penalty issued, the points haven't been deducted yet and crew chief Chad Knaus is able to remain on the pit box until the appeal is heard.
But Johnson knew Sunday's race was an important one for him. He was in the lead by Lap 67 after starting in 26th. But right rear trouble forced him to make three pit stops during a caution that came after Lap 130 when Paul Menard and A.J. Allmendinger crashed. He remained on the lead lap, but fell back to 25th.
With 80 laps to go there was Johnson, back in the top five trying to make up ground on a restart. It was time to go and nobody understood that better than the five-time Cup champion. However, Johnson had to go into fuel conservation mode as he was three laps short of making the distance unless he started to save fuel. He got a big boost when Ryan Newman's crash brought out another caution.
He was fifth when the green flag waved with 52 laps to go. With 44 laps remaining, Johnson and Brad Keselowski engaged in a thrilling side-by-side battle for third place. It was a fight that continued to wage but Johnson could not make the pass using the bottom lane. That allowed Kyle Busch to pass Johnson, dropping him to fourth place after Johnson ran into the back of Keselowski's Dodge.
By the time he finally got around Keselowski's Dodge with 17 laps to go, it was for fourth place instead of third and Johnson had to save fuel.
"I rarely get good fuel mileage so I was concerned," Johnson said. "Leaving Daytona 42nd on the board is not a good way to start the season. It kept us from racing for the win but we made a pretty good effort."
Johnson's bid for a sixth Cup title is still pretty far away but he was able to chop some of that deficit with Sunday's finish. He is now 38th in Sprint Cup points.
On the last pit stop with drivers trying to conserve fuel, defending Cup champion Tony Stewart tried the old-fashioned method of saving fuel by shutting off his engine. But with Electronic Fuel Injection, that method didn't work as Stewart was unable to re-fire his engine while running 13th at the time. The engine cranked but did not fire as an ECU (Electronic Control Unit) failed. That left Stewart's crew members baffled because the old-fashioned method of dumping fuel into the cowling of the car with the old carburetor method doesn't work.
The team was eventually able to get the No. 14 Chevrolet re-fired, but Stewart finished the race 22nd, two laps down.
"I just shut the car off like we did at Daytona to save fuel but it wouldn't re-fire," Stewart said. "It definitely cost us a good day."
NASCAR's move to EFI was a long time coming as fuel injection has been part of the passenger car industry for decades. Hopefully, it won't take that long for NASCAR drivers and teams to figure it out.
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick don't like each other, but they can still race hard against each other as evidenced by their thrilling battle past midway when Harvick tracked down Busch, forcing him to go high in the corner to take away the lead at Lap 169. It was a hard but clean battle and even though these two drivers personally don't like one another, they are among the best at putting on a great race nonetheless. Busch went on to finish sixth.
Matt Kenseth's Daytona 500 win is nearly one week old but his 13th place finish at Phoenix is nothing to be ashamed of. Kenseth crashed in Friday's practice session and had to qualify with a backup Ford. He started 26th in the race but made it all the way up to seventh in the first portion of the contest before finishing of the top 10. He is fourth in the standings after two races and 10 points behind the leader, Hamlin.
Kenseth has made The Chase every season except 2009 so expect NASCAR's Mr. Consistency to be there again this season. However, the only time Kenseth didn't make The Chase came in 2009 -- the year he won his first Daytona 500.