AVONDALE, AZ - The most popular motorsports series in Mexico will make its U.S. debut Friday at Phoenix International Raceway as NASCAR returns to the Valley of the Sun.
The Mexico-based Toyota Series will hold its season opener at the track with a 75-lap race held after Sprint Cup Series qualifying. The series is running as a support race to Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the K&N West Series at PIR this weekend.
The Mexico Toyota Series began in 2004 but moved under the NASCAR banner in 2007 and has been NASCAR-sanctioned since. Drivers run a 14-race schedule on eight different tracks in Mexican V8 stock cars. All but one event this season are on an oval track.
Among the featured drivers is Daniel Sußrez, a 20-year-old out of Monterrey, Mexico, who is the championship favorite after finishing third in the standings last year. Sußrez is part of NASCAR's Next9 initiative -- a group of nine drivers who are under 21 and represent the next wave of young talent -- and is on track to become the youngest champion in series history.
Also scheduled to compete Friday is 16-year-old Ruben Garcia Jr., who has joined the powerful Canels team after winning rookie of the year last season.
Defending series champion Jorge Goeters is with a new team after being replaced by Garcia on the Canels team. Antonio Perez, younger brother of Formula One driver Sergio Perez, is also scheduled to race.
Meantime, Jimmie Johnson will have covered all four time zones and five states on his Daytona 500 victory tour by the time he climbs in the car for the first of two races in Phoenix this weekend.
"I know what time zone I'm in," Johnson said Wednesday during a stop in Dallas to promote the April race in Texas. "I'm a little confused on days. Not much sleep, but some of that is self-induced. But it's been a very fun ride."
If Johnson was feeling a little road weary, maybe a pep rally with primary sponsor Lowe's will help.
There was double cause for celebration Wednesday night in Las Vegas after Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team announced a two-year extension with the only primary sponsor Johnson has ever had. The new contract runs through 2015, and the announcement happened to coincide with a major sales meeting.
"I'll be in front of 5,000 store managers, and they treat me like Elvis," Johnson told The Associated Press. "It's a great relationship."
The Daytona victory celebration started with an impromptu Harlem Shake video, followed by the early Monday morning ritual of turning in the winning car for display at the Daytona track. Then it was on to Connecticut for part of a day, and New York overnight for a full day of media engagements Tuesday.
Johnson and his publicity team landed in the Dallas area Tuesday night, and he was back at it Wednesday before hopping a plane to Vegas. He'll be in Los Angeles on Thursday before finally getting back to the business of racing Friday. He's running the Nationwide race Saturday and will be trying Sunday for a series-best 62nd victory since his rookie year in 2002.
After his first Daytona victory in 2006, Johnson remembers the following week as busy. Just not quite this busy.
"I think that NASCAR has worked very hard to get us in major markets, and people want to see us," Johnson said. "They want to see the winner, want to talk to the winner. I think there's more interest today than what I personally had and what our sport had in 2006."
By the time he gets to Phoenix, Johnson will have a lot of catching up to do. He says Tuesday is normally "download" day, when he goes over the previous week and looks ahead to the next one with crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of his team. Instead, he was chatting up David Letterman.
"So I feel a little removed and not really in the space to go racing in Phoenix," he said. "But it's for good reason, and Chad's going to cut me some slack and I'll have to catch up Friday when I get to the track."
Knaus doesn't really feel the need to cut his driver any slack.
"Jimmie does a very good job of balancing that out," Knaus said. "He'll be on point when it comes time for Phoenix."