New Phoenix track a challenge for teams
The track is cured and the tires are chosen, but who will win when NASCAR returns to Phoenix International Raceway for the penultimate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup on Nov. 13?
For the 12 teams in the Chase, the key will be figuring out the intricacies of the 1-mile track, which now includes progressive banking through Turns 1 and 2, the end of the dogleg and Turns 3 and 4.
“No one knows what to expect; this is the wild card,” Kyle Busch said Tuesday during testing at the newly resurfaced and reconfigured track.
When it comes to acclimating to the track design, Busch acknowledged there will be “growing pains.” Busch believes it’s too early to tell whether there will be one racing groove or two but added he’s “not going to be the guy that takes that chance.”
Matt Kenseth, who is seventh in the point standings, battled with grip early Tuesday but complimented the track on the redesign.
“There’s absolutely zero grip yet,” Kenseth said early in the test. “I don’t know if that’s the race track or if that’s the tire or what.
“They did a nice job paving the track. Right now, you just can’t run it all yet and I don’t know why. It’s slow and slick. We’re just working on the car, trying to make it better.”
Kenseth seemed pleased at day’s end despite being 29th of 36 cars on the speed chart with a lap of 131.979 mph. Jeff Burton clocked the fastest lap of 134.590 mph. The track qualifying record set by Carl Edwards in February was 137.279 mph.
“It was really slick when we started, but right now there’s a lane and in the middle of the corner there’s almost a lane and a half,” Kenseth said. “It’s interesting. It’s really smooth. There’s nothing else like it.”
While Jeff Gordon said it took time to get used to the new configuration of the dogleg, he liked the new pit road and the “wide front straightaway” that has been expanded by 10 feet to 62 feet in width from the retaining wall to the SAFER barrier.
But Gordon, who was 12th fastest (133.328 mph) in the first day of testing, expects the competition to change dramatically under race conditions.
“When we come here to these tests, we’re all trying to learn things, get laps, do our own thing. We’re not racing. We’re not getting side by side with other cars. So naturally you’re just going to see one groove built in there. It is a very narrow groove right now.
“You always hope when you come back, there’s multiple cars and series that are going to be here that the groove will widen out, especially the double-file restarts. Then just double-file restarts in general with our race should widen it out.”
Teams have just 10 sets of tires over the two days to build a baseline for when the Sprint Cup Series returns in one month. By the end of the first day, Goodyear tire engineers seemed pleased with the progress.
“It looks like it’s starting to come in, take a little bit of rubber,” said Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales for Goodyear. “The guys are saying the grooves are starting to widen out a little bit. Wear is under control, temperatures; yeah, I think we’re in good shape.
“It’s still a little bit of an unknown being new. Guys are getting two days of testing, but they’ve never raced here on this configuration.”
That new configuration and new surface caught some teams off guard Tuesday. Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish left marks on the outside wall between Turns 3 and 4 in the Penske Racing fuel injection cars.
“The track got better in the groove, but it got worse out of the groove,” Keselowski said. “This is definitely the wild card. Right now, if you get the high line on the restart, you’re looking at running 30th when the first lap gets over.
“It will be difficult setting the baseline for the race. It’s just going to continue to change.”
While NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the repaving job is one of the best he’s even seen, he also acknowledged that with the reconfiguration and repave it’s like introducing an entirely new track into the Chase.
“There will be challenges,” Pemberton said. “But it’s like a whole new track for everyone. Everyone is starting at square one. Whoever processes their notes the best, that will be the team that wins here.”
HEY, MISTER, CAN YOU SPARE A DOLLAR?
Turner Motorsports released a statement Tuesday that the organization was cutting back because of the loss of Dollar General’s support. But Kyle Busch says KBM did not win that sponsor sweepstakes.
“We’ve been informed that we’re not the team,” Busch said. “We will still have their support on the truck series level. They’ll still continue to sponsor — we’re talking still but — eight to 12 races, so we’re working in that number. Besides that, it’s unfortunate that Turner doesn’t get to keep them but it will be good for . . .”
Joe Gibbs Racing?
“If it was, more power to them,” Busch continued. “That means I brought it home for the home team. But that’s out of my realm.”
As far as possibly adding Ricky Carmichael to the KBM stable, Busch says there have been discussions with “The GOAT,” but nothing has come to fruition.
PHOENIX NUMBERS GAME
8 — Degree difference of banking from the frontstretch to Turns 1 and 2 and the dogleg
8 — Feet difference from the base of the track skirt to the fence on the backstretch
30 — Degree difference in temperature from August test (115 F then)
55 — Degree difference in track temperature from August test (155 F then)
1,400 — Feet of SAFER barrier
Kyle Busch described the sensation of the elevation on the backstretch as “going 200 miles per hour on a mini-roller coaster.”