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NASCAR At Phoenix Preview: Valley of the Sun hosts penultimate Sprint Cup race

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series enters its penultimate weekend of the 2012 season with the running of Sunday's Advocare 500K at the Phoenix International Raceway. Kasey Kahne won last year's race, while Denny Hamlin triumphed at PIR in February.

Jerry Markland

Where has the season gone? Seems like only yesterday we saw Juan Pablo Montoya blew up a jet dryer 160 laps into the Daytona 500.

And yet, here we sit with the penultimate weekend of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season looming. We're headed back to Phoenix, where Denny Hamlin just won. Or, again, that's how it seems.

Sunday's Advocare 500K at the Phoenix International Raceway sort of provides an opportunity to think about the season that has passed so quickly and all the changes abound for the upcoming campaign. Next week's finale in Miami will be all about the championship battle between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, unless of course one or the other has a disastrous day in Arizona.

The 2012 season has had its high points, its low points, and its downright bizarre points. There will be plenty of time to reflect on those during the offseason, though.

Sunday's race marks the next-to-last start for Matt Kenseth as driver of Roush-Fenway Racing's No. 17 Ford. The Wisconsinite has claimed 24 wins in that car since 2000 - two of them in the Daytona 500 including this year's race - and the 2003 Cup championship. It will be a bit jarring when the teams unload in Daytona come February and Ricky Stenhouse Jr's name is above the door on that 17, while Kenseth is preparing to pilot the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Dodge's farewell to NASCAR, at least for the 2013 season, also nears. The automaker has expressed hopes of returning as early as 2014 after it was unable to fill the void left by Roger Penske's defection back to the Ford camp. Since returning to the sport in 2001 after a long hiatus, Dodge has enjoyed plenty of highlights - including Keselowski's run for this year's championship - but has been unable to match the success of the Chevrolets, Fords, and now Toyota.

Chevrolet's Impala nameplate also enters its final two-race stretch in major competition. Next year it will be replaced by the new Chevy SS in the Sprint Cup Series and the Camaro in the Nationwide Series. The Impala returned to Cup racing for the 16 "Car of Tomorrow" races in 2007, before becoming the Bowtie Brigade's full-time entry the following season. Johnson and Tony Stewart have ensured a clean sweep of championships for the Impala. Johnson's win at Texas last Sunday not only marked Chevy's 700th victory in Cup racing, but it sewed up the GM brand's 10th-straight manufacturer's title.

Plenty of other changes are abound heading towards the 2013 campaign, and Phoenix gives us all a chance to get one last good look before the title fight takes center stage.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.