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NASCAR At Phoenix: Subway Fresh Fit 500 Starting Grid And Stories To Watch

Today's Subway Fresh Fit 500 marks the true start of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. The pagentry of the Daytona 500 is all over and done with - and fortunately, so is the rain, as there is a 0% chance of rain in Avondale, AZ today - and now the grind that is a 36-race Sprint Cup season, including the 26-race battle to make the Chase for the Championship, begins.

Mark Martin is not racing for a title this year, running only about 25 races, but he starts today's race from the pole position. Tony Stewart, meanwhile, is trying to defend his championship from last season and will start today's race from the outside of the front row. For the entire 43-car starting grid, visit Jayski.com.

Here are some stories to watch in this event, which can be seen at 2:30 on FOX.

Can Jimmie Johnson overcome one of the worst proffessional weeks of his career? After tying a career-worst 42nd-place finish in Monday evening's Daytona 500, Jimmie Johnson already had plenty of reason to be miserable. Then came the smackdown from NASCAR: a $100,000 fine, a six-week suspension for crew and car chiefs Chad Knaus and Ron Malec, and worst of all, a 25-point deduction. Johnson opens today's race with -23 points. Knaus is atop the pitbox pending the National Stock Car Commission's hearing of his team's appeal, and the team is confident they can present a case necessary to have at least some if not all of the sanctions overturned. They'll pretty much have to if they are to race for this year's championship. Johnson is in the midst of of one of his toughest stretches ever: since winning at Kansas last September, he has just one top-10 finish (second to Stewart at Martinsville). Worse, aside from a pair of 14th-place results, he has finished 26th or worse in every other event. Johnson can no doubt boost morale for his team by recording his fifth Phoenix victory today. He starts fourth, putting him in prime position to make a run at today's checkered flag.

After a terrible finish at Daytona, does Jeff Gordon rebound with another win in this event? Gordon broke a near-two-year winless drought by winning this race a year ago. He went on to record two more victories, but fell flat during the Chase. His Daytona 500 ended before the mid-point with a blown engine. Like his teammate, Gordon needs to turn things around and nothing would turn their fortunes around quicker than a victory in today's race. A triumph would be the 86th of Gordon's career, but more importantly, it would mark the 200th for team owner Rick Hendrick.

Phoenix has been the scene of the end of several long winless droughts, can Dale Earnhardt Jr. or another long-suffering driver break theirs today? Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, and Gordon each broke long winless streaks at Phoenix in recent years. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, as well as Martin, are deep in strings without a triumph.

Juan Pablo Montoya grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons in Daytona, can he score his first Sprint Cup oval win today? There is little doubt that the defining images of Monday's 500 will be taken from Montoya's incident with a jet dryer and its aftermath. Montoya could go a long way towards putting that misery behind him by scoring a victory today. Flat tracks have been Montoya's strong suit since joining the Sprint Cup series, at least among ovals. He hasn't won on a track with only left-hand turns since September 2000 at the now-defunct Gateway International Raceway in the likewise-defunct CART series.

There are plenty of other stories to follow today, 43 in all, in fact, one for each driver. SB Nation Atlanta will be following all of them. Let's go racing, boys 'n girls.

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