NASCAR drivers to take on new-look PIR in Chase

Phoenix International Raceway had become like a comfortable old

chair for NASCAR drivers over the past 20 years: cracked and

creaky, yet familiar and fitting.

This weekend, it’ll feel more like something fresh out of the

box.

Repaved and reconfigured, the mile oval at PIR will look and

feel vastly different for NASCAR’s second race at the track this

season than it did just nine months earlier.

And with this being the penultimate race in the Chase for the

Sprint Cup championship, it’s going to add a whole lot of extra

intrigue, not to mention some guesswork by the teams and

drivers.

”With two races spread out the way that they have it, I guess

they felt that during the offseason wasn’t going to be right for

them,” said Jeff Gordon, eighth in the Chase, 81 points behind

leader Carl Edwards. ”I’m sure it’s something that many of us

would disagree with, especially with how much it is going to change

things for the championship, but I think it’s their choice and

their decision. We don’t know all the input that went into making

that decision, so we live with it.”

PIR was built nearly 50 years ago and has been a regular stop

for NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the inaugural race there in

1988. The track is quirky, with vastly different turns at both

ends, and had become bumpy and cracked since its last repave 20

years ago.

Despite its flaws and eccentricities, PIR had become a place the

veteran drivers felt comfortable, particularly since it started

hosting two races a year in 2005.

The problem was that the track had become too worn down. PIR

officials use an aggressive approach to track maintenance between

races and on race weekends, but the track was brittle and breaking

apart after 20 years of racing.

”It just got to the point where we were just patching

patches,” PIR president Bryan Sperber said. ”The last weekend we

had in February, we had the track break apart in four or five

different places and had to go in at night to fix it. To have a

track come apart on a race weekend, that’s the last thing you

need.”

The concern, at least for the teams, was the timing of the

changes.

It’s one thing to have a new track surface at the start of the

season, but doing it near the end of the Chase puts added pressure

on teams that they didn’t necessarily want with so much on the

line.

Normally at a track such as Phoenix, teams have a deep data base

of what kind of setups have worked and the drivers know which

racing lines will work. With the repaving and the alterations to

the banking and dogleg, they’re nearly starting anew.

PIR held a tire test in August and a two-day test for teams in

October, but that’s still not a lot of time for a sport that relies

on so many calculations by teams and the feel from the drivers.

”They did a really nice job with the work they’ve done here, so

it’s just a matter of us trying to figure out what we have to be

good for the weekend now,” said Tony Stewart, three points behind

Edwards in the Chase. ”After this weekend, when we come back in

the spring, we’ll have a lot better idea, but it definitely does

put a little more emphasis on trying to get it figured out and get

caught up.”

Many of the drivers would have liked the changes to have come in

the offseason, but there really wasn’t much choice because of the

timing between races.

Track officials started tearing up the track immediately after

the Feb. 27 race and spent the next six months working to push the

dogleg out 95 feet, increase the banking and set the new

asphalt.

The Chase race wasn’t until November, but the track had to be

nearly complete for a test in August so Goodyear would have time to

get tires ready. Workers needed almost every minute of those six

months to get the work done, so trying to redo the track between

Sunday’s race and the next one in March wouldn’t have worked.

Weather also worked against PIR trying to do it during the

offseason.

Asphalt sets better in the heat and there are few places hotter

than Phoenix in the summer. Had PIR officials tried to do the

repaving in summer, they would have risked the temperatures

dropping too low – yes, even in the desert – which would have kept

the asphalt from setting right and led to cracking.

”You’ve got to go with the hand that you’re dealt,” Sperber

said. ”There was just no other alternative because of the time it

takes to do it because there’s no way it could have been done

during the offseason. Which is the lesser of the two of evils: you

have a wild card race or you have it break apart during the race.

Those were my options, so it was kind of an easy decision.”

PIR did its best to break in the track.

In addition to the tests in August and October, the track ran a

tire dragging machine that spun 80 tires over the track for more

than 90 hours. It also had a group of drivers, including Nationwide

Series champion Randy Lajoie and ARCA champion Frank Kimmel, turn

laps the past few days in an attempt to widen the upper groove.

Combined, the cars ran more than 3,000 miles at the track.

The Cup drivers got four hours of practice over two sessions on

the new surface on Friday, but they would have liked more – a whole

lot more.

”It’s a little frustrating and presents a challenge with you

and your team, but that’s what the sport is about, I guess,” said

Dale Earnhardt Jr., seventh in the Chase standings. ”It’s not

something I enjoy, but it’s part of the playing field, part of what

you’ve got to encounter while you are out there trying to get your

car going.”

In other words, it could take them a little while to get

comfortable with this new version of PIR.