Will Different Mean Better Saturday At Phoenix?
By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent
Avondale, Ariz. – Greetings from Phoenix International Raceway, where drivers and fans likely will need a scorecard to keep up with all the changes surrounding Saturday’s Subway Fresh Fit 600.
First, the race distance has increased since last year’s race, up 63 laps from 312 (502.1 kilometers) to 375 (603.5 kilometers).
Secondly, the starting time is approximately an hour earlier per NASCAR orders to incorporate earlier start times this season – from about 5:30 p.m. Arizona time (7:30 p.m. eastern time) to about 4:30 p.m.
Third, say adios to the dreaded rear wing and hola to the return of the spoiler.
Mix in the usual challenges facing drivers and teams trying to unlock the secrets to a smooth setup at PIR, what with its kinky dogleg along the backstretch and the huge differences between Turns 1-2 and 3-4, and no wonder crew chiefs might be burning the midnight oil to come up with a winning game plan.
“The (extra laps) is definitely going to make a difference,” said series runner-up Greg Biffle, who trails leader Jimmie Johnson by 14 points after six races. “Cars that are good later in the run, later in the night (sunset is about 7 p.m. local time and the race likely will take about 3½ hours to complete) … that’s going to benefit them. It’s certainly going to play a role in strategy.”
PIR President Bryan Sperber lobbied NASCAR to allow the 63-lap increase so as he could assure fans part of the race would be held under the lights.
“When NASCAR approached us with the earlier start time, which is an industry-wide initiative, obviously we’re going to support that,” Sperber said. “However, our fans have come to expect a significant portion of our race to be run as the sun is setting, and finish into the night. It was really important we preserve that.”
Unlike Biffle, Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus doesn’t see a huge impact with an earlier green flag.
“I don’t think it’s going to have a big impact,” Knaus said. “The track stays pretty consistent through the daylight hours, so I don’t think you’re going to have a big swing. You go through a pretty big transition when it gets dark: It gets cooler and the track picks up speed.”
Denny Hamlin, who is recuperating from knee surgery two days after scoring a big win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last week, agrees with Biffle.
“(The difference will be) quite a bit, because Phoenix is a very temperature-sensitive track,” said Hamlin, who will be replaced by Casey Mears in case his knee becomes too bothersome to finish the race. “You’ll need to focus on making your car good during the day. I think practice becomes even more important.”
Although the return to a spoiler might have more of an impact on PIR’s 1-mile oval than it did on a shorter Martinsville, it may still be insignificant. The true test, drivers agree, will occur the following week at Texas Motor Speedway.
Still, PIR’s unusual layout offers plenty of challenges.
“That’s what makes the track so fun,” Biffle said. “It’s very challenging. It’s so different. The only racetrack I can think of that’s an oval – you’ve got to throw Pocono out because it’s an animal of its own – Phoenix stands out as being one of the most different from one end to the other.
“You almost drive it like a road course. In Turn 1 you brake real late and turn in. (Turn) 3 and 4 is a long sweeping corner where you’re on and off the gas a couple times trying to get the car to turn around the corner. Dogleg backstretch. So it’s a unique p lace.
“It’s always a balance. That’s what makes it so much fun.”
– Mark Armijo is the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic and a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com2 Comments