NASCAR will return to the desert outside of Phoenix this weekend for the first time since November of last year. Joey Logano would win the race and his second NASCAR Cup Series title.
But there were only three leaders among the field who led more than one lap in this final race. Chase Briscoe who led 11, Ryan Blaney with 109 and race winner Logano who led the most laps on the day 187 of the 312 total.
That didn’t mean the match was boring, not by a long shot. But the race that day was less than ideal.
NASCAR is constantly looking for ways to improve its on-track product, and perhaps as a sign of that, for this trip there will be a new short track package making its debut in the Cup Series.
The new package includes a 2-inch spoiler (down from the current 4-inch), removal of three diffuser strips and engine panel overlays, which officials said will result in a 30 percent reduction in downforce. All the changes were tested during an organizational test in Phoenix in January.
The new package will be used at tracks where rain tire area is permitted: Charlotte Roval, Chicago Street Course, Circuit of the Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Martinsville, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix, Richmond, Sonoma, Watkins Glen and Of course, Phoenix. For the short ovals, rain tires are also new for this season and will only be used in wet conditions.
While Sunday’s race will not determine a champion, there will still be a race winner. The winner of that race will be eligible for the NASCAR Playoffs and could finally be back here in November among the final four vying for the NASCAR Cup Series season title.
Of course, with this new package comes a new set of unknowns. And those unknowns include drivers who have no idea how the cars will race.
“I guess we’ll find out,” driver Corey LaJoie said, adding with a laugh. “I don’t have a PhD in aerodynamics like a lot of the guys who actually pull the trigger on these things. I don’t claim to be smarter than people who have degrees in such things.
“I think we have a lot of guys with high school diplomas like me who drive race cars and make a lot of money. Sometimes they think they know more than doctors and aerodynamicists. So I guess we’ll really see who’s right.”
NASCAR shared the information with the teams from the January test, and unlike most other weekends in the post-Covid NASCAR world, NASCAR has made Phoenix Raceway an “extended practice” weekend. Added a 50 minute workout scheduled for Friday.
“This 50-minute practice session is going to be critical,” said driver and Arizona native Michael McDowell. “I don’t want to say you take your best guess, but you take the numbers that are presented to you and try to account for everything and hopefully get the balance right.
“The good thing is that we have this practice and probably more important than just practice is the ability to work on it after practice. What I mean by this is that on a typical weekend the cars are held back – the springs, the dampers, the geometry, the settings are pretty much set – but on Friday night after practice we’ll be able to change the springs and suspension to really maximize all we have can for Saturday.
“I’m looking forward to getting behind the wheel with the new package and figuring out what it will take to make this work.”
This short practice, however, may not be enough.
“I don’t know if you’re actually going to go out there in a team and set up a mock race or something like that,” driver Kyle Busch said. “We’re all going to do our normal training where we go out together, stretch out a bit and go. I don’t think we’ll really have a chance to predict what our cars will be like in traffic until we line up for the race and go.
“As far as practice goes, I’m just trying to get a feel for what the pace is going to be, what the feel is going to be a lot slower or the car going to have a lot less grip, all of that. That’s the biggest thing you’ll prepare for.”
The great unknown, even with training, will remain Sunday’s match.
“It should make dirty matches a little better,” LaJoie said. “I don’t know if it’s going to have the opposite effect where you rely so much on fresh air because you have so little downforce. If it’s going to make a bigger improvement for the guy in front since he has fresh air than someone behind you who doesn’t. These are the things I don’t know.
“It will make cars a little more difficult to drive.”
And making cars harder to drive in traffic is NASCAR’s goal.
“I think this is what we hope are more difficult cars to drive,” said driver Chris Buescher. “More movement that will probably come at the expense of some cornering speed, mid-range speed, which is fine. The straight speeds will come back, so I feel the idea is to try to make the race better.”
With the increased ability to pass, where you start may not be as important as before. The advantage of starting in front in fresh air could diminish, but Saturday’s qualifying session will still be important.
“I think for this particular race with everyone who doesn’t know much about the package, they’re probably going to open things up a little bit, just because we don’t know all the intricate details of what it takes to make the car go fast enough yet.” said Kevin Harvick, who leads all active drivers here with 9 wins. “This won’t take long. Obviously, we know a lot more about the car than we did before, but it’s still different and I think that opens the window for possibly more passes.
“I still think you’re going to have problems in traffic, so qualifying will be important, but I think the door is open for us to get the set-up right and to be able to pass better than we have in the past. “
If the changes work and the product on the track improves, then the new package will be considered a success. If not, don’t be surprised if NASCAR decides to try different things to make sure their on-track product is as good as possible by making the cars harder to drive.
“Because the cars have good handling, they have a lot of traction,” LaJoie said. “And I think the cars now are heavier. So the horsepower-to-weight ratio is lower and it has more rubber touching the ground making more grip. That’s just going to make the cars heavier, lazier, have more grip. I think there are some things that NASCAR is working on in terms of tires and hopefully they are looking at some horsepower options, but that is a lot of red tape.
“It’s always a balance, and I’m glad I don’t have the NASCAR job of trying to figure it out. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be the same for everybody and you have to think about how to get your piece of metal going faster to the next guys.”