Friday, April 9, 2010

Changing Conditions at Phoenix Track Will Play Big Role Saturday Night

By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix is going to be a tale of three races within and who adapts to all three the best as the race goes on. The race starts in the bright Arizona sunlight at 4:45 p.m. (PDT) where the temperatures will be about 85 degrees. They race for a few hours under those conditions until twilight hits at around 6:30 p.m., and then by 7 it will be completely dark with temperatures much cooler than when it started.

Each of those stages will be critical for every team involved because the surface and temperature of the track will change drastically. The crews for each team will have to slowly make the transition from day to night racing a little bit at each pit stop with the combined goal of having the optimum setup for the final stages of racing at night and finishing strong.

Phoenix International Raceway changed the length of its race from 500 kilometers to 600 because of the earlier NASCAR-mandated start time, which would have had the race ending just as twilight hit. The difference equates to about 63 laps, but also ensures that the spring Phoenix race remains unique because of the day/night changes.

Because the race is being run on a Saturday, the practice and qualifying schedule was compacted into one Friday session, which changes a normal pattern set by the crews as well as everyone else who use the practice speeds as a barometer in trying to figure out who will do well. On a normal weekend, we have a practice session Friday, which is used mostly with qualifying trim, then the teams qualify, take a break, and practice for real on Saturday.

The two sessions Saturday are critical for handicappers, bookmakers and fantasy players to get the best read on who the drivers to beat will be. This week in Phoenix, we have a jumbled mess because everyone was trying many different things to prepare for the different expected conditions on Saturday.

Following Friday’s qualifying session, the teams will not get any other practice time and will have to do their final tinkering as the race goes on.

More so than with other races to determine who might win, we have to look at recent past history of a driver’s performance at not only Phoenix, but Richmond and New Hampshire as well. While none of those three tracks are similar on paper, they all have relatively flat banking and are a mile or less in distance. Crew chiefs who have had success on one of the three tracks often will bring the same chassis to the other two because the setup requirements are similar.

The practices are still important and critical to the calculations, but because it was a much different kind of practice this week, it doesn’t hold as true as with other tracks. So this week, we’ll place a lot of emphasis on what chassis certain drivers have brought for the race, mixed in with some notes about practice.

Jimmie Johnson has won four of the last five races at Phoenix and it just so happens he brought the same car he won with in the last Phoenix race. He wasn’t spectacular in practice and only ran a few laps with qualifying trim on in the final session Friday, but chances are that this car is set up to run its best when the lights come on with cooler temperatures. Knowing this, it’s likely crew chief Chad Knaus made only minor adjustments for the early stages of the race because you can’t win a race at the beginning.

Denny Hamlin is an interesting candidate to win because he’s on the injured list. Following his Martinsville win two weeks ago, Hamlin had surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. He has Casey Mears on standby just in case he can’t go the distance because of the pain.

Should Hamlin hand over the steering wheel to Mears during a pit stop, chances are that they’ll go a lap down, which makes Hamlin a risky play this week. However, he had a great practice run Friday and brought the same car that finished third at Phoenix last fall.

All indications show that it will be tough to get Hamlin to get out of the car while the race is going, especially if he’s having a good run. He’s a competitor, the team finally ran well with their win at Martinsville, and he’ll want to keep the momentum going as much as he can.

Tony Stewart hasn’t been talked about too much this season, but has managed to quietly put himself eighth in points. He brought his second-place Phoenix chassis from this race last year which, coupled with a great practice on Friday, makes him a solid contender to get his first Phoenix win since his rookie year of 1999.

Along the same lines as Stewart is his teammate Ryan Newman who brought his same chassis that ran at both Phoenix and Richmond races last season. He finished in the top-10 of both Richmond races. During the final stages of practice, Newman reeled off the third-fastest lap while in qualifying trim.

Jeff Burton is a two-time winner at Phoenix, along with multiple wins combined at New Hampshire and Richmond. The team struggled early in practice but gathered itself nicely toward the end Friday with good speeds in qualifying trim. The best thing about Burton this week is that he brought the same car that finished second in Phoenix last November.

Mark Martin should be considered a candidate just because he won this race last season. He practiced well Friday, but the car he’s using is new which always leaves some uncertainty to its capabilities because it has no track record. Jimmie Johnson has proven this year that a new car can win a race, but Johnson is in an entirely different class.

Greg Biffle is a nice candidate to run well this week just because he runs well every week. He’s the only driver this season to have finished the first six races within the top 10. Biffle had a strong practice with the fourth-fastest single lap and has done well at Phoenix in all series in the past. His most recent success was a fifth-place finish in this race last year.

Drivers that could surprise this week include Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr. McMurray had a great first practice but couldn’t get any speed with qualifying trim on. Joey Logano was smooth for the entire day Friday, and Earnhardt Jr, a two-time Phoenix winner, had a good first practice.

Don’t put too much into start position for this race, even though it has proved very critical the last four races. Only 10 of the 27 Phoenix races have been won from a top-five starting position with only four more getting wins while starting among the top 10. However, the last four races have been won from a top-five starting position. Based on this week's lineup, it doesn’t appear anyone of the top nine starters can win.

Driver Quotes

Tony Stewart on what makes the Phoenix track so slick:
“It is just Phoenix. But that is what makes it fun, too; it makes us work as drivers. You have got to not overdrive your car. It is very sensitive to heat and that makes us as drivers have to work harder.”

Jeff Gordon on how his Friday Phoenix practice and qualifying sessions went:
"Under the conditions, I am pretty happy our team had a very impressive day. We started the day really far off, so we tried a few new things and experimented since we’re early in the season. It’s hard to do that when we have all our practices in just one day. I’m really proud of my guys; they didn’t give up and we made big gains certainly for qualifying as well. We’ll see what happens tomorrow night in the race."

For Roberts Top 10 Driver Ratings, click here.....

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