Friday Phoenix NASCAR Notebook

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with Martin Truex Jr. in the garage area during Friday's practice session. (Photo: Getty Images)

AVONDALE, Ariz. - News, notes and nuggets from the opening day of NASCAR’s first visit of the season to Phoenix International Raceway ...

Johnson Ready for Nationwide Return
Jimmie Johnson will make his first Nationwide Series start since Watkins Glen International in 2011 when he climbs aboard the JR Motorsports Chevrolet in Saturday’s Dollar General 200 Fueled by AmeriGas.

Johnson - who has one series win, in his debut season of 2001 - says there’s a simple reason he chose to run at PIR this weekend.

"To get better at this track.  It’s tough to get laps on this track," he said.  "We considered coming out and testing but with the tire change and with them changing the testing policy for Cup, it just wasn’t going to work for a couple reasons.

"Jimmie JohnsonThe next-best thing was to run the Nationwide series race.  I have no clue what I’m going to learn from those cars to carry over.  But reps on the track can’t hurt and ultimately, that’s what I think I need."

Johnson comes to Phoenix after a whirlwind week in the wake of last Sunday’s Daytona 500 victory.  He’s had success at this track before, to the tune of four career Sprint Cup Series wins, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver doesn’t put much stock in past accomplishments.

"The track here is so different than what it was before," Johnson said of the reconfigured one-mile oval.  "I need to do something to try and improve (at) this track.  We were probably going to run top 10 if I didn’t blow a tire (in the 2012 fall race).  But the way the Chase is settled, you don’t need top 10’s.  You need top fives and wins.  We have to make sure we're covering our bases and are ready for the race this fall."

Patrick Rides Daytona Momentum
Coming off a Daytona Speedweeks where she put her name in the record book in a number of categories, Danica Patrick looks to carry that momentum to Phoenix.

Along with becoming the first woman to win a Sprint Cup Series pole, Patrick reflected on joining an elite group of 13 drivers who've led both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500.  She is one of six in that group that's led at least five laps in each.

Danica Patrick"A statistic like that was the biggest one from the weekend,” said Patrick.  "To look at the list of names and join them ... while I'm honored to be the first woman to do something, those are great.  You can’t take those away.

"A first is always wonderful but to fall into a historical statistic that small ... that's a small group of drivers ... and have it not be about being male or female, that's something I aspire to as a driver."

As for her follow-up performance in Phoenix after her Daytona exploits, Patrick says she’s keeping it real.

"Is qualifying on the pole and leading laps what we should be thinking, based on last weekend?  No.  I think we need to keep realistic expectations and I think everybody else does, too," Patrick said.  "Daytona is unique and (Phoenix) is kind of where the bulk of the season really starts."

Earnhardt Jr. Fit and Trim
Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t consider himself a health nut, but NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver is trying to do a better job in the nutrition department.

Earnhardt used the off-season as a time to drop a few pounds.

"The older you get, the more you have to do to maintain a healthy weight," he said.  "That’s really what it’s about for me, trying to maintain my weight so I don’t have to keep getting my driver suits altered throughout the season.  Last year, I was like, ‘Man, they’re shrinking, something is wrong with the washer.’

"This off-season, I lost a lot of weight - about about 15 or 20 pounds - and am trying to do a better job of managing my calories and stuff like that."

Earnhardt might be missing some of his favorite foods but likes the results.

"I never really worried about it before," he said, "just eating all kinds of stuff like pizza and wings, and not really watching portion controls and stuff like that.  I was getting out of control so now, I'm reining all that back in but not getting too crazy.  I’m no health freak, by any means."

Pastrana Excited for Fatherhood
Travis Pastrana started his full-time NASCAR career with an impressive top-10 finish last week in Daytona's Nationwide Series race.  As the Roush Fenway Racing driver readies for Saturday’s stop, he’s also celebrating his impending parenthood and trying to remained focused.

"I got married about a year-and-a-half ago and having a child is going to be awesome," he said.  "But for now, I’m just focusing on the job at hand, going out and trying to drive some racecars."

Pastrana said he won’t push his children into following a motor sports career path and will be happy with whatever they choose to do in life.

"I definitely feel for my parents now with everything I’ve put them through, but we’ll encourage whatever we have – a boy or girl – to follow their passion," he said.  "I’m hoping their passion is ... golf, maybe.

"But with what we have around us in the action sports community, and now getting into the racing family, it's a tighter-knit community with more role models and more people I would like my child to look up to, be a part of and be influenced by.  So I really do hope that they’re in this industry.  Every second is worth it.  I’m passionate about what I do and I love that passion, but I hope they’re passionate about whatever they do."

MWR and PEAK Launch Driver Search
Michael Waltrip Racing is partnering with sponsor PEAK Motor Oil and Antifreeze to launch a search for the next up-and-coming stock car driver.

Race fans can enter by submitting video auditions at PEAKStockCarDream.com through May 31.  Ten first-place winners will participate in a three-day program with coaching and judging from Michael Waltrip, Clint Bowyer, Danica Patrick and others.

The "PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge" will see one winner continue on in a program that will give them the opportunity to earn their racing license.

"Our sport is always trying to usher in a new generation of driving talent as well as spread our passion for racing with everyone, and PEAK is giving us a unique opportunity to do so," Waltrip said.

Petty Blue Returns
The famous Petty Blue colors have returned this weekend in Phoenix, on both Richard Petty Motorsports cars with driver Aric Almirola.

Aric AlmirolaRPM and sponsor Smithfield Foods announced that the iconic paint scheme will return for the majority of the Sprint Cup races in 2013.  Almirola will fly the colors for 24 races this season on his No. 43 Ford beginning this weekend at PIR.

"It’s pretty cool to be driving for ‘The King’ and even cooler to have this color on my car this season," said Almirola.  "We didn’t get off to the best start in Daytona (13th place) but hopefully, we'll run better this weekend."

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