Story lines to watch Sunday at Phoenix International

So many questions, so few answers.

Can Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. manufacture a curtain call in Sunday's The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway?

Can pole-sitter and 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski regain the magic with an in-your-face dash?

Can Tony Stewart, who missed last season's final 15 races (broken leg) and was an uncharacteristic non-factor last week (35th in the season-opening Daytona 500), get it going from a Row 10 starting position?

Can Danica Patrick make Richard Petty eat his words?

Can Arizona drivers Michael McDowell (Glendale, starts 26th) and rookie Alex Bowman (Tucson, 35th) truly make PIR their home sweet home?

Can Austin Dillon put the splendid No. 3 in victory lane again?

Can drivers gain a foothold on the tricky 1-mile oval, a misshaped circular beast that recently underwent repaving and reconfiguration? And can they do so with a Generation-6 machine that underwent mandated technical modifications following last season's checkered flag, changes that are in force for the first time this season as the new package doesn't apply to races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway?

Time will tell.

The good news is despite inclement weather hounding the Valley and wreaking havoc with Saturday's Nationwide Series race, teams somehow managed to dodge rain showers earlier and put forth two valuable practice sessions to perhaps help shoo away some doubts regarding how the cars might handle in race conditions.

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First things first.

"I feel like I shouldn't have any problem getting on the racetrack and doing the best I can do," said Earnhardt Jr., following a hectic seven-state media tour following last week's popular victory. "I've been doing this a long time and have had opportunity to win races and get back the next weekend and do well. It should be no problem."

Well, we'll see.

Not that Earnhardt Jr., who starts fifth Sunday, isn't fully capable of posting back-to-back wins to open the season.

But it's been accomplished just once in nine years at PIR. Plus, there's still a potentially deep pothole regarding the unfamiliarity and uncertainty of the stock-car modifications, a rut that could make for long and uneventful races for teams unable to organize precise setups.

"No one really knows for sure who the car to beat is, but we felt like we were pretty strong (in practice)," Keselowski said. "I guess we're all going to find out together who's got what."

At the moment, it appears Keselowski has a rocket ship (No. 2 Alliance Truck Parts Ford) beneath his rump.

MORE: Keselowski wins pole in bizarre new format's debut

Ditto Kevin Harvick (starts 13th), who 2012 PIR winner Denny Hamlin believed early on might be the driver everyone would be stalking based on practice speeds.

"I think if you get someone out front that's hit on something, they're liable to check out and make it a nasty, nasty race," Hamlin said.

It could be Keselowski. Or Keselowski teammate Joey Logano,who also starts in the front row, or even Harvick, who monopolized Saturday's practices by posting top speeds in each and also is a four-time Cup Series PIR winner along with Jimmie Johnson (starts fourth).

MORE: With dominant car, Kevin Harvick looks to continue Phoenix success

Or it could be someone else, perhaps 21-year-old rookie Kyle Larson (starts eighth), who has been sneaky fast all weekend.

"The cars are far different than when we were here in November," said Johnson, the reigning and six-time driving champion. "This will be the first real test on which team and organization has found speed in their cars and been able to use the new rules package to their advantage."

So far, so good for Logano.

"We don't have the speed as some others, but I like the way my car is driving," Logano said. "I think we've got something for them."


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