Altered Phoenix features transition to night, added pit stop

I have to tell you, we always love going out West to Phoenix to race. We have been going there since 1988 and we always look forward to it. If you remember, we went there just in the fall for a number of years. Then when NASCAR did its schedule realignment a few years ago, Phoenix was rewarded with a second race, which fell into the NASCAR on FOX portion of the schedule.

While you can’t always say this when we roll into town, with Phoenix you can almost guarantee we will have great weather. I think I can only remember one time since 1988 when we had some rain, but other than that, the weather is as good as you could ever ask it to get.

This time we have a little bit of a twist with the new start times NASCAR announced for the 2010 season. The green flag will wave at roughly 4:45 p.m. local time. Phoenix in the past has been one of our shorter races with 312 laps.

Now the race has been extended from 312 to 375 laps. To me, that is still going to be a perfect length for a race. This will also get us into darkness. The crew chiefs will have to keep up with the transition of the track conditions into the nighttime. The race will start in the hot sun but then as darkness falls the track will cool down and gain a ton of grip.

Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte also said something interesting about the new length of the race. He said that because everyone is so accustomed to this race being 312 laps, teams will need to remind themselves the race is longer and plan accordingly. So Saturday night it will be interesting to see how the longer race will possibly change strategy.

The addition of 63 laps to the race will probably add at least one more pit stop into the mix. Even though it’s only a 1-mile track, and even though most teams treat it like a short track, Phoenix is known for getting those long green-flag runs. In the past, Phoenix has been roughly a three-stop race. So I am pretty safe in saying it will now be pretty close to a four-stop race.

Aside from the longer race and teams needing to keep up with the track transition to darkness, the other story is the progression of the new spoiler. While I still believe that Texas next week will be the true measuring stick, Phoenix and its 1-mile track will teach the teams even more about what this car and spoiler combination need.

The other story worth watching, in my book, is Denny Hamlin and his knee. If you remember, he won at Martinsville March 29 and then immediately had surgery on his knee. He had injured his left knee playing a pickup basketball game. So here he is less than 10 days later climbing back behind the wheel of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. The team will have a backup driver available for Denny if he finds that he isn’t ready to go.

With the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, where they reset the points after the September Richmond race, it is more important for Denny to only start the race and then turn the car over to a backup driver, if he feels the need. Denny won’t have to worry about pushing himself to finish the race and worry about the points from where the car finished since again, the points reset for the championship field once the Chase begins.

That’s an element this Chase format has changed in the drivers’ minds. No longer do injured drivers or, in the case of Denny, drivers coming back from surgery have to worry about running the entire race for the points. They only need to worry about starting the race for the points and can let a relief driver handle the rest if needed.

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