Championship preview? How much or how little to read into Sunday race at Phoenix

The NASCAR Cup Series moving its championship to Phoenix Raceway for 2020 doesn’t just signify the first change of venue of the season finale since 2001.

It marks the first change in venue since 2001 to a track that has a race earlier in the year.

There was something wonderful about the aspect that Homestead-Miami Speedway didn’t have a previous race in the season and yet decided the championship. It included plenty of unknowns and a little mystery of who might run well.

Granted, there will be 245 days between the race Sunday and the Nov. 8 championship event at the 1-mile Phoenix oval, but 245 seems way different than 365.

“I like that Homestead was a one-off deal,” said 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. “A lot of guys will be putting a lot of effort in [Phoenix] to see where they stand.

“It gives you a sample and then you have six months to work it out. I don’t necessarily like it, but it is what it is.”

Some drivers dismissed reading too much into the FanShield 500 this weekend. They believe teams will develop the cars significantly, considering NASCAR has revised the aerodynamic package for tracks under 1.33 miles, requiring a smaller spoiler and front splitter potentially cutting the downforce in half. The move was designed to create more passing with a revision toward the 2018 rules.

NASCAR also will add PJ1 – a brand of traction compound – to the turns, adjusting the spots where it was applied last November. In turns 1 and 2, it will be applied to the middle groove (about 35 feet wide), and in turns 3 and 4, it will be in the upper groove where drivers likely would race, about 30 feet wide with the uppermost 15 feet by the wall not treated.

There are no guarantees that NASCAR will apply the traction compound in the same spots in November. Considering NASCAR has applied traction compounds in different spots during a race weekend after a practice or a support race, maybe the only thing predictable will be that Phoenix will remain unpredictable.

“There’s so much development that goes on from the spring Phoenix to the end of the year fall Phoenix, … [that] If someone goes out there and really dominates, it doesn’t mean they are going to go back, they’re going to dominate in the final four,” said Denny Hamlin, the 2019 fall Phoenix winner.

Many teams will rely on their 2018 notes because the aerodynamic package is similar.

“It’s similar to 2018 but the [radiator] pan is different, the spoiler is a little bit bigger, the tire is different, the right-side window [is now] in the car, so it’s really not the same,” said Kevin Harvick, who has won nine Cup races at Phoenix. “There is just a lot to learn.”

Harvick teammate Aric Almirola said with the limited wind tunnel time this year – each organization is limited to 150 hours – that a team’s performance Sunday will set the tone for the remaining short tracks.

NASCAR also has a freeze throughout the year on submission of new parts and pieces. Teams previously could submit new parts for approval two or three times during the season. Because teams need to start working on assembling the 2021 NextGen car and financing the transition, NASCAR instituted the freeze.

“We would all like to believe that if you go out and win the Phoenix spring race that you will go out and win the fall race, but a lot of things can change between now and then,” said 2012 champion Brad Keselowski.

“Maybe less so than before, though. There is a supposed technology freeze and you aren’t supposed to be able to make your cars any different throughout the season. I would say it is a pretty good tell tale.”

It could be … or it could be an elaborate test session. Drivers who have won this year and know they will make the playoffs almost have nothing to lose by experimenting.

“[Phoenix] is a big week on trying to formulate that notebook and try some things and have some ideas, some concepts maybe that you wouldn’t normally do to just get out of the way and utilize your time as much as you can for the championship when you come back,” said defending Cup champion Kyle Busch.

Xfinity: Smoke Show Returns

Three-time Cup champion, NASCAR Hall of Famer, and many in Indiana’s favorite son Tony Stewart, who hasn’t competed in a NASCAR race since his retirement in 2016, will return to NASCAR action July 4 as he will enter the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. It will be his first Xfinity race since 2013 and first other than Daytona since 2009.

“It’s going to be cool making history by turning left and right in a stock car at the Brickyard, and the racing will be full of action and contact,” Stewart said.

Trucks: Bounty Hunters

Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Brennan Poole all will have a shot next week at Atlanta at the $100,000 bonus put up by Kevin Harvick and Gander owner Marcus Lemonis for a full-time points-earning Cup driver who finishes ahead of Kyle Busch at a truck race. If no one wins, the bonus will be available the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Kyle Larson and Poole intend to compete. Busch’s other two races are Texas and Kansas.

Elliott (who also will do Kansas) and Larson will drive for GMS Racing; Jones for team owner Richie Wauters and Poole will do all the bounty races for On Point Motorsports.

John Hunter Nemechek and Austin Dillon are working on deals to compete as early as Atlanta. Nemechek’s family Nemco Motorsports team has a truck that has been re-skinned as a Ford. He could do Atlanta, pending sponsorship, and likely will do Texas.

Stat of Note

Only one driver has finished top-10 in each of the first three races of the 2020 season: Kevin Harvick.

He finished fifth at Daytona, eighth at Las Vegas and ninth at California.

Viewers’ Guide

Friday

Xfinity practice, 2:35-3:25 p.m. ET, FS1

Cup practice, 3:35-4:25 p.m. ET, FS1

Xfinity practice, 5:05-5:27 p.m. ET, FS1

Cup practice, 5:35-6:25 p.m. ET, FS1

ARCA race, 7:00 p.m. ET, FS1

Saturday

Xfinity qualifying, 1:05 p.m. ET, FS1

Cup qualifying, 2:35 p.m. ET, FS1

Xfinity race, 4:00 p.m. ET, FS1

Sunday

Cup race, 3:30 p.m. ET, FOX

Social Spotlight

What They Said

“It was tough to get a hold of at first, just how fast everything is. The tire doesn’t have the same sidewall, so there is not the same amount of slip that you can hang the car out. You just have to get used to that timing and rhythm of when the car does step out, how quickly can you catch it when it slides the front tires, how quickly does it come back. All those things are a lot different from what we do now.” – William Byron after testing the NextGen car