Repaved, reconfigured Phoenix is big unknown for Chase drivers
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- With a new track surface and an altered layout, Phoenix will lead Sprint Cup teams into the great unknown this weekend.
"Absolutely, it is an unknown for all of us, a new surface, new tire; it is basically like a new race track," said two-time Phoenix winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who also won the final race on the old track surface back in February. "If we do not get that groove widened out then it makes for very tricky conditions and you are on a fine line between having great track position and maintaining speed and making it hard for other guys to pass. If you get a foot outside that groove it could ruin your entire day. That is not something as a championship contender you want to go into with those types of conditions, you don't want those variables to factor in.
"You want the safest condition you can be in, you want to control your own destiny and that is what is going to change things this year at Phoenix."
The track, which was last repaved 20 years ago, has been widened, banking has been increased and new asphalt will definitely alter the type of racing at PIR.
So throw out the notebooks with the chassis setups from previous Phoenix races. Get out the calculators and computer programs because what used to work on the flat one-mile oval with its once aging surface no longer applies.
It's been a major topic of conversation among the drivers in the Chase, who predict it will be a one-groove racetrack with single-file racing.
"The new Phoenix [track] is definitely different," Kyle Busch said last Friday at Texas prior to his dustup with Ron Hornaday. "It's something that we've all got to become accustomed to and kind of used to, how it's going to change and what's going to be different about it. It's fun. We'll see what happens when we get there. Unfortunately, we are all expecting single file. It's going to be a little tough to get two lanes going there."
Former NASCAR Nationwide champion Randy Lajoie, who helped condition the upper groove at Phoenix along with five other cars in early October, believes grip will be key to the race this weekend.
"Whoever wins this race is going to have to work hard and will have a lot of fun," Lajoie said. "This track has a lot of grip and we definitely widened the grip out. We've been able to give the drivers some more options. What the track did -- it's definitely going to make everyone who tested here think it's a whole lot nicer when they turn their first laps."
Edwards, who clings to a slim three-point lead over charging Tony Stewart in the battle for the title, won this race last year to break a 70-race winless streak. But the winning combination that worked last November will be irrelevant on a track with much more grip and an altered layout.
"Phoenix is really the big unknown," Edwards told SI.com last Friday. "Nobody really knows what's going to happen. That racetrack could throw curves to us that no one has thought about yet, that you could be ruined by or you could take advantage of and beat the competition. We just don't know what's going to happen and we hope that racetrack is one that's kind to us."
In the past, PIR was known as a "driver's track," where a race driver could, using his driving ability, "hustle" the car around the track. It helped many skilled drivers overcome a mediocre setup. Will that be the same with the new track surface?
"It's hard to say," Edwards admitted. "I would say this first trip to Phoenix it will be more of a crew chief/engineer race. You're going to have to really pay attention to tire wear. The setup is going to be hugely important. The track is very smooth, very easy to drive. I don't know that you'll be able to go there and manhandle the car and hustle it around there like you could the old Phoenix -- not this first time."
Stewart is the hottest driver in NASCAR since the Chase started at Chicagoland on Sept. 18. He has won four of the eight races in the Chase so far, including victories in the last two Cup races at Martinsville and last Sunday night at Texas.
Stewart is a former winner at Phoenix in 1999 and loved the characteristics of the old track, but he is uncertain of what to expect this weekend.
"Nobody knows," he said. "Your guess is going to be as good as mine is right now. I think we'll have a little better idea hopefully on Friday in practice we'll get some cars around each other and see what we've got."
Stewart's teammate has a degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. So when it comes to understanding how the new track surface will impact the engineering side of the equation, who better to speak on that than Ryan Newman?
"From what I experienced in the test, the performance of the race and the function of the race is going to be a derivative of how wide the racetrack gets," Newman explained. "I think the racetrack will be its best when the checkered flag falls on the Cup race. The racing itself I think will be good; the track I don't think is a huge difference. After the first test, when it was 110 degrees out there and all the grumblings that went around in the middle of the summer, I was pleasantly surprised with how good it drove out there."
When tire rubber turns to dust it creates a difficult problem for Goodyear tire engineers. That's what happened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to the 2008 Brickyard 400, because the tire rubber couldn't properly adhere to the racetrack, decreasing the racing groove.
"As the tires interact with the asphalt they create a dust," Newman continued. "When we ended the test the track was dustier out of the groove than it was when we showed up on a green race track after it had been raining and nobody had been on it, so it's not a factor of the tire; I think any tire would probably do that because of the asphalt that they have there."
Drivers and crews have always had to deal with dust storms at the track in the Arizona desert but that dust was generally dirt and sand. This weekend the dust storm will be from the racing tires.
"For whatever reason, if it is the asphalt or the tire, or both, and obviously the dirty air, the wind blowing dirt and being out in the middle of the desert, it takes a long time to burn in a lane that you can adjust to," explained five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, a four-time winner on the old PIR surface. "It is a fun lap to drive. I don't know if we are really going to be able to race in all the areas on the track yet. I think from a driver's standpoint you can't make mistakes; that is how people are going to overtake you. If you make a mistake, you are going to open a door and maybe lose five or six spots because you just can't get back down in line."
Kevin Harvick believes if the second groove doesn't develop in the course of the race it will be a track position game that could turn "physical." That may be the only way to complete a pass is to literally loosen up the car in front and move it out of the way. Harvick also believes if the second groove does come in there will be more room to race, making it a fun track to drive.
"I think it has the potential to be an awesome race and it has the potential to be a disaster, but either way, we're going there to race," Harvick promised. "As the test went on out there, the cars seemed to move up a little bit higher and they gained a little bit of speed. If the groove keeps moving up, I predict the cars will probably move up and hopefully that'll help the racing."
Denny Hamlin isn't as hopeful. While he thinks Phoenix will be a "fun racetrack" he noted how different it drove from the past. He believes it will be "years down the road" before it allows two-groove or three-groove racing, but with the old track surface falling apart a repave was necessary.
"It's a whole new track for sure," Hamlin said. "The stats are going to show previous winners and all that, but it will for sure be a different race track than what we've seen in the last 15 years. It's almost like a new racetrack, new facility that we go to and [this is] its inaugural race as far as I'm concerned."