It’s chilly, breezy and brightly sunny at Phoenix International Raceway as things start to fall into place for Sunday’s Checker O’Reilly Car Parts “500” presented by Pennzoil NASCAR Sprint Cup Race – a nice autumnal day at the track for the penultimate round to a long and grueling schedule.

The Grand Marshal for Sunday’s race is Arizona Senator JOHN McCAIN, who met with the media to answer a wide variety of questions. He diplomatically declined to name a favorite driver, saying he might have 43 other displeased drivers. McCain said he was pleased that The Chase has tightened up and provided more excitement. He also was glad for the race to be in Phoenix at a time the state was the second most economically deprived areas in the country.

The crowd is large and enthusiastic.  The total capacity of this venue is more than 100,000 including hillside, infield and suites.  The grandstand capacity is 67,000 and it appears nearly full. One veteran NASCAR insider said it’s the most supportive Cup crowd at recent races.

MICHAEL WALTRIP/No.55 Toyota is thinking outside the box, so to speak. Next week he’s running a two-day test at New Smyrna Raceway in Central Florida, and among those driving the No.00 Toyota (usually raced by MWR driver, DAVID REUTIMANN) are two former Toyota Formula One drivers. Tuesday Waltrip is testing MIKA SALO of Finland and Wednesday it will be JARNO TRULLI of Italy. Salo has been out of F1 since 2002 and has been racing sports cars, most notably Ferraris. Trulli was most recently with Toyota F1, but Toyota has withdrawn from Formula One, leaving Trulli on the job market. Rumor has it that he will drive for the new Lotus F1 team.

Both drivers are with the MWR team this weekend at PIR. Salo said it has been very interesting being so closely involved, being in the pits, listening on the radio and being a part of it all. Stock car racing is about the only form of motor sports he has not yet tried. This will be his first ever time in a stock car and on an oval. Salo is looking forward to the experience, and hopes he isn’t asking too many questions of Waltrip. Salo, who looked very much under the radar in the NASCAR garage, met Waltrip through mutual friends.

Also seen in the pit lane during pre-race ceremonies was NELSON PIQUET Jr, who then went up to the hospitality suites. Best guess is that he’s part of the Formula One crowd testing next week in Florida.

Sprint Cup driver, CLINT BOWYER/No.33 Chevrolet has Hamburger Helper as a sponsor. General Mills, the parent company, is handing out large foam hands to the fans on Monumental Hill above Turns Three and Four watching the race. While they sit under the Hamburger Helper-provided shade tent, the plan is wave the hands on Lap 33 of the Sprint Cup race.

A.J. ALLMENDINGER had already re-signed with the Petty team before the recent merger with Yates Racing. He will be racing the full season next year with the team, although all the merger details have yet to be finalized. The team will be running Fords instead of Dodges, and Allmendinger started racing a Ford Sprint Cup car two races ago. He is working with the Ford folks to race Fords in other series also, including the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona again with Michael Shank Racing and perhaps some other Grand-Am races. There is also the possibility Allmendinger could race selected Nationwide races.

Among some race folks seen around is Indy Racing League driver, RYAN BRISCOE who drives for Penske Racing. He is engaged to NICOLE MANSKE, who covers NASCAR for ESPN.