The NASCAR Nextel Cup Subway Fresh 500 race at Phoenix International Raceway started on time - 5:30pm local time - but, at 3:20pm, it looked doubtful for an on-time start of the race, and BRYAN SPERBER, PIR president, said he thought the race would be delayed, but that Fox would hang in there until it started.
Several showers hit and ran Saturday afternoon and then the sun came back out - with a vengeance. It was hot and muggy. All kinds of post-rain activities blossomed. Two jet dryers slowly - and painfully loudly - circled the track, along with other vehicles. Everywhere, pit crews were employing various devices with which to dry their spaces, such as large leaf blowers, giant industrial-sized squeegees, push brooms and fans. One crew told me all teams have one of the squeegees. Another enterprising fellow was pouring Coke on the yellow painted lines in his pit box, to make them sticky, because, as he told me, "painted lines become slick and slippery when wet".
On the pit-lane, the cars were all lined up, under covers. As it dried out, more and more were unwrapping, but not all. Those who didn't cover up in time were fiddling with their taped radiators. Pole sitter JEFF GORDON had a complete redo in effect, under the watchful eye of a NASCAR official. There are no specifics in the rule book regarding how much air space has to be left uncovered on a radiator grille, but working on the car between qualifying and the race is strictly regulated. Wet tape falls off, which is not good for the aerodynamic advantage it provides.
Most of the 43 Cup cars had some kind of duct tape applied to the frontal area, especially in the vicinity of the grille. No two cars were done up the same. All kinds of colour combinations and configurations were used. Many of them had tape in strips, with identifying marks or numbers. The crew of DALE EARNHARDT Jr had the most elaborate, and explained the numbering system was the order in which the strips would be pulled from the grill if the engine got too hot (due to water loss from the radiator). Just such a scenario played out for TONY STEWART during the race.
During the driver introductions, it was a toss-up whether the most boos went for Stewart or KURT BUSCH. Clearly, the fans loved Earnhardt Jr - he got the largest and loudest reaction, and all cheers. Pole sitter Gordon drew a loud and mixed reaction.
After introductions, Stewart hopped into the #2 CITGO Pontiac Crawford Daytona Prototype and ran an exhibition lap, to promote the September Grand-Am race at PIR. This is the car that Stewart raced at the 2005 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the Howard Boss Motorsports team. His co-drivers then were ANDY WALLACE and JAN LAMMERS, and they finished third overall and in class. The PIR race will be on an infield road course.
A week later, Stewart's team-mate at Joe Gibbs Racing, BOBBY LABONTE, will make an exhibition run at the Talladega Cup race. Labonte will drive the #44 Pontiac Doran he raced at this year's Rolex 24 with brother TERRY, IRL driver BRYAN HERTA and sportscar/F1 veteran JAN MAGNUSSEN. They finished ninth overall and in class. The exhibition lap will promote the July Rolex Series race at nearby Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham. It could be construed as extra seat-time for Bobby Labonte, who is considering running that Rolex race on 31 July, one of the few off-weekends for Nextel Cup.
Three cars were moved to the back of the pack for the start of the Cup race - MIKE WALLACE for unapproved modification after impound - repairing a leaking brake line; and engine changes for KEVIN LEPAGE and ROBBY GORDON. Gordon was last in the starting line-up already, so it was no loss.
An hour into the race, The National Weather Service issued a 'severe thunderstorm warning' for Maricopa County, lasting until 6:30pm; and then, later, the same warning for two other counties - Mohave and Le Paz until 7:15pm-7:45pm and 7pm, respectively. By that time the weather was looking pretty dark and ugly. The temperature was mild, but it was gusty.