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Unfortunately For Hamlin, Chase Down To Two

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 8 2012

Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag at Phoenix in March. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

PHOENIX, Ariz. – By the time Denny Hamlin got to Phoenix, he thought he would be rising up the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup leaderboard.

Hamlin instead has gone backward, free-falling from No. 3 and 20 points back in the Chase to No. 7, 73 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson entering Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is PIR’s new configuration seems to agree with Hamlin.

Hamlin won the March race earlier this season at PIR and likes his chances again this weekend.

“Having won here on this new configuration is a good sign,” Hamlin said three weeks ago during a Goodyear Tire Test at PIR. “We dominated at New Hampshire, which also is a flat one mile. That’s another good sign.

“I just hope we’re within shouting distance of the lead when we get here.”

Hamlin is not, which doesn’t bode well for him but makes things somewhat easier with one less driver to worry about for Johnson and series runner-up Brad Keselowski.

Sunday’s race is the third since PIR underwent repaving and reconfiguration, a process that altered the dog leg and added variable banking in the corners.

Kasey Kahne won the inaugural race on the new surface last November and expects the track to have less grip following an Arizona summer of baking temperatures.

“I think the racing should open up a little bit more,” Kahne said. “The older the surface, the more wear and tear on it, the better a racetrack gets. They did such a good job repaving it and shaping it a little bit differently that I think it will be better than it used to be.”

Jeff Gordon, who won the final race on the old surface, agrees with Kahne and also believes the groove will be wider the third time out.

“Each race the groove has widened out and (we) have some good side-by-side racing,” Gordon said. “That’s all that matters to me.

“Luckily, Phoenix does have those hot summers that I think will allow the grip to go away quicker than others (repaved tracks). That’s going to make for a better race and put the track more into what suits my driving style and (car) setups.”

Johnson, a Gordon teammate, isn’t so certain there will be much change from the earlier race this season.

“I don’t think it’s going to change a whole lot,” Johnson said. “I don’t know, these repaves have been pretty indestructible. They are not aging quite as fast as the drivers would hope.

“They did a good job on that track, (but) I haven’t run good there since they repaved it. Just kind of anxious to go back and hoping we can find some speed and be competitive because I do like the race track. I’ve ran well on all the repaves this year so maybe we’ve got something for them going back.”

Hamlin and Johnson expect some drivers to again cut the corner coming out of Turn 2 by diving onto the flat surface at the dogleg section of the track. But Hamlin says there are pros and cons to making a constant habit of it.

“It takes a toll on your car when you do it,” Hamlin said. “The splitters are so sensitive to hitting the track. When you come off the banking that hard, it’ll bend the front of the car and it takes down-force away.

“It’s just sort of a risk and reward type thing. I think the most times we see it is when guys are fighting for position on the restarts. But I try and keep my car on (the banking) as much as possible to insure I save as much as the car as I can for the end of the race.

“Then, if I have to use the apron, I will.”

Johnson, however, is concerned that part of the track could lead to excessive crashing.

“During the (March) race we actually got some type of second lane working in (Turns) three and four which was different,” said Johnson, a four-time winner at PIR before the repave. “The dogleg, kink, Turn 3, whatever it is on the back straightaway there was a bit of chaos in navigating that thing. Guys shooting across the flat, which led to some issues into the real Turn 3.

“I think that is really the thing to be focused on. There might be some crashes caused from that. The track has had some time to age and I hope it’s lost some grip so we will definitely move out.

“They spent a lot of time and effort to try to create extra lanes of racing through their modeling. I hope they are right. The first time there it was pretty narrow and I hope that as it ages we can get a wider race track and really put on a good show.”

To help enhance the racing groove for Sunday’s race, PIR President Bryan Sperber hired Colorado-based Bandimere Speedway to have a tire rotator machine burnish additional rubber into the surface. The same process was used before the March race.

“Last year we made a commitment to NASCAR and the drivers to groom the race surface for three races using the tire rotator machine,” Sperber said. “This weekend completes the process.”

Prior to last year’s November race, the first following repaving and reconfiguration, a different tire dragging device was used to help widen the groove. It was augmented by six professional drivers in stock cars running more than 3,000 laps.

– Mark Armijo is the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

| Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 8 2012
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