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NASCAR Teams In For Radical Change Of Scene

Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Friday, March 2 2012

The new surface at PIR is still a bit of a great unknown for teams and drivers.

By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent
RacinToday.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Now that the Daytona 500 That Would Not End is finally in the rear-view mirror, it’s onto Phoenix International Raceway, where seemingly more tranquil racing awaits.

Yeah, right.

Although PIR is a smaller oval with lighter speeds and minus the bumper-to-bumper, white-knuckle pack racing that defined the action a few days ago at Daytona International Speedway, it remains a track that is often confusing to drivers and crew chiefs searching for the correct setup.

It’s an even more daunting task these days, ever since the 1-mile oval was resurfaced and partly reconfigured prior to last November’s stop.

“When we went to Phoenix for the Sprint Cup race last November, it w as all new – new configuration, new banking, new surface and new engineering headaches,” said SRT Motorsports engineer Howard Comstock, whose drivers are Brad Keselowski and A.J. Allmendinger. “Early in the (November) weekend, the track created a real challenge for the tams to find enough grip just to be able to get around the corners, let along try to race the corners.

“But by the time we got to the race, the track had ‘rubbered in’ and drivers could not only challenge the corners, but also the other drivers. Most people left satisfied with the new facility.”

Matt Kenseth had a tough time at resurfaced PIR last November. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

Keselowski liked what he saw and drove on nearly four months ago.

“I like the new Phoenix,” Keselowski said. “They did an outstanding job in making a good racetrack better. It’s obviously going to take a few years before the track is in optimal condition, but with it being in the desert, that process can sometimes be accelerated.

“I’m anxious to see how much it has aged over the winter. We saw last year that guys, myself included, were making passes through t he dog-leg. I don’t think anyone expected that going into the race.”

The question is has the track conditions changed significantly since November?

Although a tire dragging machine from Colorado’s Bandimere Speedway drag strip circled PIR for three days starting last Saturday, a lengthy process designed to again add rubber to the upper lane, no one knows for certain what to expect until the cars start turning laps later this week.

“We won’t know until we get there if it’s going to be the slick surface we started with last November or the much friendlier asphalt we ended up with in the race. Determining which surface Phoenix gives us will be the number one engineering challenge of the week.”

Reigning series champion Tony Stewart doesn’t expect racing conditions to be much different a second time around.

“It’s got a little age in it and it’s not a green racetrack because its had (tire) rubber down in it,” said

PIR has once again been dragged in an effort to put rubber down. (File photo courtesy of Phoenix International Raceway)

Stewart, who finished third behind winner Kasey Kahne and runner-up Carl Edwards in the November race. “We saw the rubber never totally come out of it.”

Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson hopes for a better finish than November’s 14th-place effort.

“Things started to widen out through the course of the race,” said Johnson, who won four times on the “old” PIR. “I hope that we are able to get there (two-wide) right away. . .

“It just always takes a while for a new surface to kind of work its way in and give us multiple grooves.”

PIR’s tricky oval isn’t the only obstacle awaiting teams. Since the Daytona 500 That Would Not Start also was rain delayed about 30 hours and didn’t end until nearly 1 a.m. Florida time, teams are also likely waging a logistics hurdle in their preparation for PIR.

“While in Daytona, there were several employees back at the shop getting the primary Phoenix car ready,” JTG Daugherty Racing driver Bobby Labonte said. “The Kingsford Toyota Camry was fairly close to being done last week (before Daytona). The spare is already done. It was basically waiting for the transporter to get back and make a changeover. Every team has to do the changeover with their cars.

It’s going to make a tough trip for the truck drivers more than anything else.”

JTG truckers Dale Lackey and co-driver David Ott estimated a 34-hour drive to Phoenix from the team’s North Carolina headquarters.

“I’ll drive 10 or 11 hours and my (Ott) will drive the next 10 or 11 hours, and then we will switch off again,” Lackey said prior to leaving Tuesday night. “We’ll stop and get fuel, but we will pretty much drive straight through as hard as we can staying within the speed limits.

“Hopefully, we will not have any issues along our journey. We have to be out of the shop no later than 7 p.m. (Tuesday) to make it to PIR b y 5 or 6 a.m. (Arizona time) to park on Thursday.”

Then, comes the really hard part:

Tackling PIR.

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

Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Friday, March 2 2012
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