By Rob Tiongson, Ashley Hobbs, Shelby Parrack, Nick Brincks, and Matt Kacar

From the high banks of Daytona Beach, FL to the Estrella Mountains surrounding Phoenix International Raceway, it's time for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers and teams to transition from high speed action to some paint trading, "real racing!"  Real racing, I said?  Well, there's no more drafting, no talk about being left out of the pack - it's all about handling, it's about having a good brakes package, and also about having a car that can take the abuse of that strange dogleg on the backstretch.  Unlike most speedways, one can think of Phoenix International Raceway as a "backwards" kind of speed arena, as the frontstretch is virtually straight while the backstretch has semblance to that of a front straight on most d-shaped ovals. 

Drivers will negotiate around this mile speedway in just over 25 seconds, diving their cars from the frontstretch into a sweeping turns one and two.  As the drivers head into the back straight, it's a monster of its own, as they'll be able to swerve their cars below the apron before settling back into the entrance of turns three and four, where many an incident or "racing deal" has happened.  Sure, the scenery looks beautiful and the forecast on race day calls for partly sunny conditions, but it'll not be your typical Sunday afternoon drive in Avondale, AZ.  Instead, it's all about having the car that can make the passes in the corners and that unique back straight, as well as the pit crew reeling off flawless pit stops. Remember, last fall's Phoenix race was virtually decided in the pits, when Carl Edwards ran out of fuel in the waning moments, handing the win to Kevin Harvick.

Many racers and teams are looking to make up lost points and ground from their Daytona debacle, while the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Jeff Gordon hope to maintain their strong start with a solid effort on Sunday.  Before the Track Talk crew reveal their picks, we talk about the latest topics in NASCAR racing!  With that said, stats guru Ashley Hobbs, our Track Talk Daytona winner (with her race pick of Dale Jr.), serves as our host for this week while Shelby Parrack, Nick Brincks, Matt Kacar, and yours truly field up her questions.  We'll then reveal our picks, which as Ashley likes to say, "doesn't go against our stats!"  With that said, let's do more talking, but in the form of racing topics!

Trending Topics by Ashley Hobbs

Question 1

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, before the race, he would join Twitter if he won the Daytona 500; Dale Jr. is now on Twitter. How do you think NASCAR will be affected by having its most popular driver on Twitter?

Parrack :  I think it's already showing how good this is for our sport. It is certainly bringing more fans into the twitter world, and even rejuvenating some fans love for the sport and getting them to interact more. Jokingly most fans speculated Jr would "break" Twitter when joining, but thankfully that didn't happen! But he certainly loves his selfies!

Brincks :  I don't think Dale Jr. being on Twitter will help NASCAR too much, but it is great for the fans to see the most popular driver finally embracing the social media network. He's having fun with it and I think fans have enjoyed him on Twitter so far.

Kacar :  While it is good to see Dale Jr. on Twitter, it wont have much of an affect on NASCAR as a whole. For his fans though, they probably can't be more happier.

Tiongson :  It's showing already because we now have Tony Stewart on there, even if his PR rep is handling the account.  Having the sport's most popular racer on Twitter is going to show the importance of the Cup drivers' visibility on social media and from a marketing stand point, it's a win/win for both the driver, the products/team that they represent, and also for the fans, because they'll have a convenient way to mingle with their favorite racer if they're not at the track.

Question 2

Last season, both Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart suffered (more or less) season ending injuries. Hamlin seems to be on the upswing and bouncing back with a vengeance; Stewart on the other hand seems to have the fire in his eyes, but so far does not seem to be making a waves. Do you think Hamlin will continue his good fortunes, and do you think Stewart will be able to get back to his old self before time runs out for the championship this year?

Parrack :  I feel like what happened last year is essentially that-- last year. We're in a new year with a clean slate for everyone. Denny is definitely hot right now, so I see that continuing for him. Hopefully Smoke can settle in and be back to his old ways as soon as possible!​

Brincks :  I'm confident that Hamlin will pick right back up where he was before the injury - as a championship contender. For Stewart, one race isn't enough to say he isn't making waves. Tony typically gets off to slow starts most seasons, so it might just take him a while to get warmed up. This has been the case even without injury. They'll both be fine, win races, and make the Chase.

Kacar :  That is impossible to answer right now. There are only four plate races on the schedule so to make a prediction if either of them will bounce back from their awful seasons last year would be wrong. A better option would be to wait till after March is over to look at that.

Tiongson :  I'd have to say that both drivers will have productive seasons because we saw how competitive were even in the short sampling we saw Stewart back on the track in Daytona.  It may take him a few months to be back in "Smoke" form but Hamlin is probably going to fare the best.  He was able to return last year and with a lot of folks ragging that he shouldn't have returned with grinding accidents on a weekly basis, I think it's safe to say that he's gotten his bad luck out of the way.  I look for that 11 team to do big things in 2014.

Question 3

The Nationwide race was won by a Cup regular, Regan Smith, but barely. The Sprint Cup drivers seemed to have a handle on the race overall. Do you think we will see yet another season in the Nationwide Series that is dominated by Cup guys in the field? Also, what, if any changes, would you make in terms of Cup drivers dabbling in the Nationwide Series?

Parrack :  This is a topic that I have always been on the opposite end of. It does not bug me in the slightest having Cup drivers in the Nationwide series. I feel like it's good for the series; it brings fans to the stands and sponsors to the cars. It helps the young guns push themselves and see what they are up against and need to strive for. With that said I feel like the 2014 season and driver line up is better than ever for the series. We have a crazy amount of rookies and up and comers in good rides (i.e. Chase Elliott, Dylan Kwasniewski, Ty Dillon etc.) so I feel like we will be seeing a fair amount of NNS regulars in Victory Lane this year.

Brincks :  First off, that Nationwide race was awful. Yes, the finish was great, but the race as a whole was atrocious. The "no bumping" rule killed that race. There were maybe 2 green flag, on-track lead changes in the first 100 laps. That's pathetic. But that's a whole other story. I hope NASCAR limits Cup guys from racing in the Nationwide Series somehow. NASCAR created this mess by making so many companion weekends. I miss watching races at Nashville, Pikes Peak, Milwaukee, and Nazareth, when Nationwide drivers didn't have to deal with Cup drivers. Now, it's so easy for Cup drivers to race on Saturday because they share tracks almost every weekend and the same goes for the trucks. I'd like to see a limit of maybe 10 or 15 races for Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series, 5 or 10 in the trucks. On top of that, they shouldn't be able to race for a Cup team. Give series regulars the best equipment and let the Cup drivers show their skill in lesser equipment. That, or just make them start at the back of the pack.

Kacar :  Yes, it is a guarantee that the Nationwide Series will be dominated by Cup regulars once again. The only option to fix that is to limit the number of starts a Cup regular can have in the Nationwide series. I would only let Cup regulars to have 10 Nationwide starts each year.

Tiongson :  I don't mind the Cup teams dipping into the Nationwide ranks but they've got to limit it or if they want to be in it, their teammate should be a Nationwide regular so that they could serve as a "mentor."  You need the Cup regulars in the Nationwide to give those series' drivers a chance to race against a Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, or someone established so that when they do move up to Cup, they'll know how to race them.  Ask Jeff Gordon back in 1992 if he'd be ok with the Cup drivers of the time competing in the then Busch Series and he'll likely say it's fine with him.

Question 4

We just cannot leave this one alone; we all know Danica Patrick and Richard Petty have had a little spat as of late. Tony Stewart said he would supply the cars for them to compete against each other in. If this were to happen, besides the fact it would be bigger than the Daytona 500, who do you think would actually win the race and what would that mean to NASCAR?

Parrack :  It's definitely a lingering topic, as much as I would like to say Richard would win-- I think it would hands down be Danica on this one. They are from two completely different eras so Danica would definitely hold all the cards. I'm sure it would bring a lot of new and old eyes to the sport for a "one race deal" if old fans who may no longer watch heard RP was going to be back in a car! ​

Brincks :  They could race and it wouldn't mean a whole lot. Richard shouldn't have to prove himself against Danica Patrick, who hasn't proven herself to anyone. 

Kacar :  Who knows and I'm so sick of this story. I would say Petty would because Danica has no talent.

Tiongson :  It'd mean more if Richard Petty joined an actual Sprint Cup race because it'd be kind of interesting to see how he'd do against today's competition, not just Danica. Enter him in a race at Martinsville and we'll see how "The King" does against everybody else, including Danica.

Alright friends, we're almost at that time for our race picks!  Before we reveal them, here's our points standings for this year's #TeamTPFCup thus far after Daytona:

1) Ashley Hobbs - 48 points

2) Shelby Parrack/Rob Tiongson - 40 points

3) Matt Kacar - 31 points

4) Nick Brincks - 30 points

There's still plenty of racing to go and the ladies lead the way!  Who do we pick for Phoenix?  Drumrolls please...

 

Brincks :  He's on the pole and he'll be in Victory Lane too. Brad Keselowski for the win!

Parrack :  My race pick for this weekend is Brad Keselowski. He gave Carl Edwards the push to the win here last spring and was super strong. After seeing practice and qualifying-- the Penske Fords are probably the strongest team out there this weekend!

Kacar :  My pick is Joey Logano.

 

Hobbs :  Jimmie Johnson...cause I can't go against my stats!

Tiongson :  I have to like Kevin Harvick's odds at PIR on race day.  He won his last RCR race at this track last November in dramatic fashion and just knows his way around this facility, having swept the races there in 2006. 

There you have it, race fans!  The TPF crew has spoken and given their thoughts on the second race of the NASCAR season.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Sunday's race at Phoenix?  And who is your favorite to win The Profit on CNBC 500K? Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!  Thank you, Nick, Matt, Shelby, and Ashley - let's go racing, girls and boys!