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New Surface Makes For Big Mystery At PIR

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 9 2011

They have been using a machine to help rubber-up the new track surface at Phoenix International Raceway.

AVONDALE, Ariz. – If NASCAR’s driving fraternity shoulders reservations about the unpredictable mess that usually accompanies the nervy Chase for the Sprint Cup stop at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, just wait until Sunday.

Thanks to recent repaving and reconfiguration at Phoenix International Raceway, drivers and crew chiefs really are in the dark entering the Kobalt Tools 500.

Even Jimmie Johnson is scratching his head.

“Even after being there for two test sessions, I still don’t know what to expect,” said Johnson, whose five-year championship reign likely is nearing an end as he is No. 6 in the standings behind series leader Carl Edwards. “It’s going to be a crapshoot.”

Considering Johnson won four of five races during a 2007-2009 stretch and also leads all Chase drivers with an average 4.8 finish at PIR, his assessment should speak volumes about driver concerns.

Shouldn’t it?

Yes, it should, said ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett, who won at PIR during the 1997 season.

“The Phoenix race will be totally unknown,” Jarrett said. “It could really shake things (the Chase race) up. I’ve talked to a lot of drivers and they don’t really know what to expect.

“What they do expect is some crashes. With new (track surfaces), you expect that because there won’t be

The new surface at PIR is a great unknown for teams and drivers. Expect crashes, some say.

as much racing room (a second groove) as you need until the track seasons for a year or two.”

Along with a fresh coat of asphalt, PIR’s first major repaving job since 1990, engineers also widened the front-straightaway, added variable banking in the corners and reconfigured the dog-leg in an attempt to eventually entice more side-by-side racing.

At the moment, however, PIR temporarily remains without a second groove, an unseemly sight in drivers’ eyes.

“It is going to be important for the track, for NASCAR, everybody to work together to try to create a second groove,” Jeff Gordon said. “I am hoping they take some measures that we talked about at the test to help clean off that second grove before we get there.

“I think that is going to be very important, because it is not just that there was not a second groove, it was if you got a foot outside of that groove, you were either in the wall or you were going to lose a lap. It took that long to get back in the groove and clean the tires off and get back up to speed. That is the part where I say things could be very interesting and challenging.

“Once we get out there and get a couple of different series running at the same time, I think that groove is going to widen out and it won’t be quite as treacherous as it was in the test, hopefully.”

Like others, series runner-up Tony Stewart has refused to predict what the weekend might entail.

“It’s not the same Phoenix at all,” said Stewart, who trails Edwards by only three points. “It’s totally different. I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

What Stewart and his NASCAR brethren hope happens is the fresh asphalt lends itself to allowing a second lane to go with an already existing bottom groove.

If not, try picturing a Conga line at the nearest dance hall and chances are it’s what drivers likely will be doing on four wheels this weekend.

Or maybe not.

In an attempt to speed the time it takes to work in a high groove, PIR officials over the past two weeks employed various methods to apply rubber to the track.

It if works, great.

If not?

“If the second groove doesn’t come in, it is going to be a fuel mileage, single-file, tough to pass race,” Kevin Harvick said. “It will be a track position game with lots of wrecks.”

“Restarts will be treacherous,” Kurt Busch added.

Harvick and Busch have their fingers crossed, however, hopeful that after several hours of practice and two preliminary races, then, maybe, just maybe, a second groove will appear.

“Phoenix is a huge unknown,” Edwards said. “It has a larger opportunity by a landslide to change the outcome of the Chase.

“I don’t know that you’ll be able to go there and manhandle the car and hustle it around like before. The setup is going to be hugely important.”

Maybe as important as ever.

– Mark Armijo is the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix and a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Wednesday, November 9 2011
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