Denny Hamlin had been mighty early in the Nationwide Series race the previous day at Phoenix International Raceway, only to fade away as the afternoon wore on. But he would make no such mistakes when it came to Sunday afternoon's Subway Fresh Fit 500 NASCAR
Sprint Cup championship race.
For one thing Hamlin wasn't in the position of being able to dominate from the start of Sunday's second Cup race of the season. Rather than the pole position he had enjoyed on Saturday, he was starting back in 13th place. It was Mark Martin on the pole alongside Tony Stewart for the green flag, but the veteran racer lost grip through the turn and promptly dropped back to eighth place on lap 2.
Stewart had nine laps in front before Jimmie Johnson took over, and then the first caution came out on lap 16 when Clint Bowyer's car blew a tyre. Several of the leaders opted to take the opportunity to pit, including Johnson, Stewart and Martin, leaving Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne in charge for the restart. Unfortunately Kahne was caught out on the high line and slapped into the wall at turn 4 when the field got back up to speed, and Bowyer also made contact with the wall in the same place three laps later with more tyre problems; both cars were able to continue and there was no caution, but Bowyer and Kahne were both now off the lead lap.
Harvick led to the next caution on lap 59 for debris which was nicely timed for the next round of pit stops. Just as had been the case on Saturday, Harvick found that pit stops were not his strong suit at Phoenix and dropped behind Johnson, Kurt Busch and Hamlin for the restart. That put Harvick alongside his 2011 nemesis Kyle Busch for the restart, but Busch simply blasted away and through the field, slotting into second position behind a dominant Jimmie Johnson during the next stint.
Lap 110 saw a spin for Casey Mears in turns 1 and 2: "We just lost the brakes," he explained. "They were getting too hot and we kept backing it up trying to ease off of them but we ended up going to the floor right there going into one. I don't know why they are getting so hot."
This time Harvick had a great stop that put him on the front row - alongside Kyle Busch again. The two had a fierce side-by-side battle for the lead at the restart before Busch finally managed to power away while Harvick focussed on maintaining his second position from Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Brad Keselowski.
The next caution was on lap 132 when Paul Menard crashed after tagging the rear of AJ Allmendinger's car coming into turn 4. Jamie McMurray also got caught up in the mêlée: "Maybe the #22 car and Paul had to check-up and I already had a run on him," said McMurray later. "I didn't see the car in front of him hit, so I got tangled up there."
McMurray was able to continue in the race but subsequently retired with engine problems before the finish. "The motor blew up again. I don't know what happened there. It started missing and started smoking and just quit running," he explained. "Tough day."
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick led at the restart, but Harvick again found the outside line a slippery character to get to grips with and fell back. Just 25 laps later, however, he was fully back on it and there was a fierce side-by-side battle between the two old enemies for the lead that was the fight of the afternoon, finally decided when Busch slid up the track in turn 1 on lap 169 and handed the lead to Harvick. Busch also picked up a vibration that needed a check on pit road, and while he was able to continue it was enough to stop him from continuing to figure in the afternoon's battle for the win.