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Out of the bubble, back on the grind

Feb 26, 2014, 1:37 PM EDT

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This February was different for me.

At this time of the year, I’m usually contemplating over who wins the Daytona 500, which F1 teams get their ducks in a row during testing, and what benefits IndyCar sees exactly in having a five or six-month off-season (that one is a toughie).

But this February, I was more concerned with Adelina Sotnikova shocking the figure skating world, good guy David Wise making Olympic history in ski halfpipe, and the trials and tribulations of furry mascots.

I immersed myself inside the bubble that was the XXII Olympic Winter Games, with only a few reminders of my usual duties: Namely, my colleague Tony DiZinno fulfilling my requests for updates on any racing bits I’d missed, and NBC IndyCar/F1 voice Leigh Diffey calling all the sliding sports at Sochi.

But the bubble’s been popped. The Olympics are over. And now, I’m back on the grind here at MST.

So it goes for yours truly…And so it goes for NASCAR as well.

Their bubble, of course, was Daytona Speedweeks and its climax was the Daytona 500. It may not have had massive production numbers or crying bears, but it still produced a memorable result (not to mention one of the oddest social media episodes in NASCAR history).

In the end, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went one step beyond his late, beloved father by claiming a second Daytona 500 – thrilling everyone from Junior Nation to the executives in Daytona Beach.

The win comes at a critical time for NASCAR, which has had to deal with attendance and ratings woes in recent years and, quite frankly, needs its biggest star to morph into a regular winner ahead of the new (and improved?) Chase for the Sprint Cup it concocted over the off-season.

But NASCAR’s biggest show of the year is over. And now, it’s time to see how Earnhardt fares on the grind that begins this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

One figures that with Earnhardt effectively in the new Chase thanks to the win, we’ll see a less burdened competitor that’s more willing to take a chance or two. That could lead to more success at Phoenix, a track that may not pop into your mind as one of “his places” but a track where he rattled off a fifth and a fourth in 2013.

Besides Earnhardt, you figure competitors such as Kevin Harvick (a winner at PIR in two of the last three races there), Carl Edwards (the PIR spring race winner from one year ago), and Jimmie Johnson (six Top-5s in his last eight races there) will have their say in the outcome.

But a shake-up could be in the cards in Phoenix as well with the introduction of NASCAR’s new knockout-style qualifying format. Since Phoenix is a one-mile track, competitors will have a two-round format this weekend: The Top 12 fastest speeds advance from the 30-minute opening round to battle for the pole position in the second round.

In summary, Phoenix is where we’ll start to see the true contenders emerge. The bubble of Daytona is gone.

Now, it gets real.

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