Commentary

Rumor mill, Nationwide qualifying and Cup practice in high gear at PIR

Phoenix blog Saturday.

Updated: November 8, 2008, 4:09 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

All times Eastern

4:01 p.m.

Denny Hamlin led the Happy Hour final practice Saturday, posting a lap at 129.898 mph in the No. 11 Toyota. Mark Martin was second on the speed chart at 129.636 mph in the No. 8 Chevrolet.

Pole-winner Jimmie Johnson was 16th and Carl Edwards was 12th.

Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 is scheduled to start at 1:45 p.m. MT. The forecast calls for clear skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. Perfect.

3:45 p.m.

How bad are things for the No. 96 Toyota team? Well, consider the speed chart in the first practice Saturday.

Driver Ken Schrader was 43rd with a lap at 125.353 mph, which was more than 1.5 mph slower than Kyle Petty in 42nd.

***

NASCAR has a wide array of statistical data that most fans never see.

For example, take a wild guess who has made the most quality passes (running inside the top 15 under green-flag conditions) this season.

It isn't a Chase driver. It's David Ragan. He's made 1,690 passes in the No. 6 Ford. Denny Hamlin ranks second with 1,582 passes and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is third with 1,577.

The category is a little misleading. If a driver is leading most of the race, he doesn't have many chances to make passes.

Another unusual stat is the driver who has the highest percentage of time racing on the lead lap. Jeff Burton leads that category this season, spending 93.4 percent of the races on the lead lap.

Carl Edwards is second at 92.8 percent and Greg Biffle is third at 91.3 percent. Surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson doesn't rank in the top five.

NASCAR also has an overall driver rating, similar to the quarterback rating in the NFL. Edwards leads at 107.7. Johnson is second at 106.5.

***

Some drivers were asked Friday how they felt about the fact that NASCAR chairman Brian France doesn't attend a lot of races.

Most didn't really care, but France was in the Phoenix International Raceway garage Saturday.

3:02 p.m.

All the single female fans can scratch another Cup driver off the "available" list. Jamie McMurray is engaged.

He got on one knee Monday night in Phoenix and asked girlfriend Christy Futrell to marry him. She said yes -- well, sort of.

"It was pretty exciting stuff," McMurray said. "Actually, her words were, 'Are you kidding? Are you serious?' I said, 'Yeah, I'm serious.' ''

McMurray proposed at the Phoenician hotel.

"I wanted to wait another day," McMurray said. "But then I thought, 'I can't wait another day. I have to do it right now.' I was pretty nervous. I'm no Romeo, but it was cool.

"It's certainly a big deal to find someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. Christy's been glowing since that day. I think she likes me."

2:08 p.m.

Denny Hamlin won the pole Saturday morning for the Hefty Order Block 400, the Nationwide Series race that starts at 2:30 p.m. MT.

Hamlin turned a lap at 132.915 mph in the No. 18 Toyota. Carl Edwards will join Hamlin on the first row, turning a lap at 132.543 mph in the No. 60 Ford.

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick start on the second row. The first Nationwide-only driver on the starting grid is Mike Bliss on the inside of Row 3.

***

Kevin Harvick turned the fastest lap in the early going of the first Cup practice Saturday. Carl Edwards was second on the speed chart, and Jimmie Johnson was third after the first 20 minutes of practice.

1:43 p.m.

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Let's start the blog with a bang and throw out the latest rumor going around the Cup garage area.

Will plans to have rookie Joey Logano replace Tony Stewart next season in the No. 20 Toyota change?

Speculation is Joe Gibbs Racing officials are trying to work out a deal to get Martin Truex Jr. from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to drive the No. 20 car next year.

If JGR can't get Truex, they might make a run at Kurt Busch, who wants out of his deal with Penske Racing.

A quick warning: Rumors are rampant these days in NASCAR because of the difficult economic times. So here's another rumor: JGR president J.D. Gibbs is expected to arrive at Phoenix today and possibility address this issue to deny all of it.

The Logano/Truex gossip started because of DEI's tenuous situation right now on sponsorship, and growing concerns that the 18-year-old Logano might not be ready to race Cup full-time next year.

But Home Depot, primary sponsor for the No. 20 Camry, already has invested tons of money in a marketing campaign for Logano.

DEI picked up the 2009 option on Truex's contract in August, but another rumor floating through the garage is that Bass Pro Shops, the primary sponsor of Truex's car at DEI, may join Stewart-Haas Racing next year as the second sponsor for Ryan Newman.

DEI has discussed merger possibilities with Chip Ganassi Racing and Petty Enterprises.

Will any of this actually happen? Probably not, but it shows how crazy things are these days on the speculation about the future for NASCAR teams and drivers.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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