Phoenix Raceway provided a championship preview Sunday, but where to next?
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. – As NASCAR rolls through a stretch of races from Homestead to Las Vegas to Phoenix and next week to Atlanta, the venues all have something in common: They have dominated the season finale conversation in NASCAR for decades.
Atlanta was the season finale from 1987 to 2000 and would have had it for 2001, but a postponement because of Sept. 11 resulted in New Hampshire having the final race that year.
From 2002 to 2019, Homestead was the site of the final race, despite several overtures from Las Vegas to serve as the host to crown a champion and be the site of a postseason awards banquet in the days that followed.
But NASCAR, which owns the Homestead track and had a solid sponsorship from Ford for the championship events, wouldn’t move the race amid making a variety of changes in how it determined the champion. NASCAR scrapped the season-long points system in 2004, when it added the Chase, a 10-race mini-season of sorts for the drivers who advance.
In 2014, NASCAR implemented a knockout playoff system in which four drivers would be eligible for the championship in the finale, and the driver among those four who finished best in that race would be crowned the champion.
Homestead provided some incredible racing thanks to progressive banking, as the asphalt is banked more near the wall, allowing for multiple grooves. Even with the solid racing, however, it seemed that a change had to happen for the championship race. Going to the same track, despite the beautiful weather and great racing, got stale. NASCAR moved the event to Phoenix starting last year after a $178 million overhaul of the Phoenix facility.
The move to the 1-mile Phoenix track for the championship race was celebrated for two primary reasons: It gave a new venue and new city the championship buzz (Miami never really embraced it), and it provided a change from the 1.5-mile Homestead track.
The race Sunday had enough moments to show that Phoenix is suitable for the championship race. NASCAR uses a traction compound to add grip to try to create multiple racing grooves. It isn’t a universally praised approach, but it at least adds some unpredictability to the event because how well it works depends on heat and track conditions.
Martin Truex Jr. believes his win Sunday could pay huge dividends if he can be a championship finalist.
"Huge boost [and] huge confidence," Truex said. "'ll be honest with you, if we would have come here last year in the final four, I would have been not very confident.
"Last year we struggled here for some reason. It's never been our greatest track, I'll say that. It's always been just OK. I've never come here with a really warm, fuzzy feeling that we're going to go there and win."
Truex’s comments show two key elements of Phoenix having the championship:
- There is an impact from going to the championship venue earlier in the year (Homestead had only one race per year).
- If a driver doesn’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about a venue, that driver shouldn’t be put at a disadvantage every year by having the championship at that track.
A difference in track configuration or length can lend itself to favoring different drivers, as well as putting on a little bit of a different show for fans.
"It should move every year," said Joey Logano, who finished second Sunday. "It should be like the Super Bowl, where it’s something that moves around. The cities should bid on it, just like the Super Bowl.
"I don’t see why we couldn’t do that. Now, obviously it being late in the year, it probably ties our hands to some of the more northern race tracks that probably can’t do that, unfortunately, but I think it should move around."
NASCAR probably won’t move the finale from Phoenix for 2022 – for good reason. The track was allowed only 8,400 fans for the championship race last year (and the same amount for the race Sunday), so this year will hopefully be its first with a full crowd and activities in the city.
A track probably needs to have the championship race for two or three years to really gain, as any change in schedule is disruptive for fans used to making the trek to a track on a traditional date. Plus, any necessary improvements to the facility for the championship race could be paid for with the potential extra income.
Logano pointed out that as NASCAR has added tracks to the schedule, more cities might want the championship race. He didn’t say this, but it stands to reason that with seven road courses on the 2021 Cup schedule, could the championship ever be run on a road course (Daytona? Circuit of the Americas in Austin?).
NASCAR wants to embrace the diversity of its drivers, so why not? No matter where the finale is held, it will have a different dynamic as long as NASCAR has its current one-race-take-all format for four drivers. It will also be different whenever the track hosting the championship has a race earlier in the season.
Now Truex, if he is still alive for the championship, will be the one everyone will look at when they come to Phoenix in November.
"We took a huge swing at the car for this race," Truex said. "We knew what we've been doing here in the past two races wasn't good.
"The car didn't do anything I needed it to do. We just went to work on it."
That isn't to say that if Phoenix weren't the site for the championship race, that work wouldn’t have happened, but Truex and his Joe Gibbs Racing team know the impact that the huge swing they took could have eight months from now.
It would be fun to see the swings at other tracks every few years, knowing the benefits could be more than just another race trophy. Nothing against Phoenix, but the way NASCAR crowns its championship pretty much dictates that the championship venue should change.
"If you do happen to make it to the Championship 4, you need a pretty good notebook going back there, so ... I think it’s pretty neat you go to the championship track early in the year so you can kind of focus on it," driver Ryan Blaney said.
"But I’d like to see it move around to some different race tracks. I think it would be cool for the community."
Thinking out loud
Bubba Wallace appeared to have a solid chance at a top-10 when he stayed out on Lap 265 as the rest of the field pitted under caution during the 312-lap race at Phoenix.
Of course, it was gamble by 23XI Racing crew chief Mike Wheeler, but it was a calculated gamble because he had fresher tires than most by a few laps. It didn’t work, and Wallace finished 16th.
While Wallace might vie for a playoff spot on points, and those five or six points might cost them, it was great to see a team roll the dice. This is a new team that is learning about one another. They should put Wallace in position to see how he reacts and how they perform.
If they don’t do this type of thing now, when will they have another chance? This is a team that should take chances throughout the year. A new team trying to make things exciting? Give me that every Sunday.
Stat of note
With the win at Phoenix, Truex has won at 15 tracks.
They said it
"[My winless streak of] 29 is nothing. I never even thought about it, to be honest. We've been capable of winning a lot of races between the last one and the one today. These races are really hard to win." – Martin Truex Jr.
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass.