Two races to go in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and this week we head to a track that may be the biggest juggernaut of them all, Phoenix International Raceway. After an extensive facelift this summer, PIR will prove to be a handful for the 43 drivers that take the green flag on Sunday.
[media-credit name=”phoenixinternationalspeedway.com” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]A year ago, International Speedway Corporation and the Avondale City Council announced the plans for a $100 long-term improvement for PIR. The plans included a $15 million dollar repaving project (the track’s first since 1990) and the construction of a new media center. Along with the new pavement came a reconfiguration of the famed “dogleg”, a widening of the front stretch to 62 feet, addition of concrete to the pit stalls, as well as progressive banking in the turns.
The dogleg renovations included; pushing the corner out by 95 feet, changing the radius of the backstretch bump to 500 feet, and adding progressive banking to the dogleg from 10-11 degrees. The corners of PIR are now progressively banked from 10-11 degrees in turns one and two, and from 8-9 degrees in turns three and four. The new track has been described almost as a “rollercoaster-like drive” due to the elevation changes as the drivers dip down into the dogleg, rises on exit, and dives back down into turn number three.
Passing has been a bit of controversy in PIR’s new surface’s short history, as many drivers are finding it difficult to find grip outside the one loosely held together groove. PIR has made numerous attempts to foster passing on the new surface including “tons of laps” by driving schools on soft tires.
After a testing session just yesterday at PIR, Elliot Sadler expressed his concerns about the new surface and the racing this weekend, “I actually got to the 82 (Reed Sorenson) that was about a half a second of a lap slower than I was. I really couldn’t do anything with him. I didn’t want to make a move, definitely on the outside, to make a pass.”
Defending NASCAR Nationwide Series Champion, Brad Keselowski also weighed in on the underdeveloped second groove following Thursdays test session: “It found me and I found it. We weren’t looking for each other. It’s just very, very slick. There’s just a lack of stability.”
This weekend’s Kobalt Tools 500 may or may not prove to be exciting to watch, especially if Kyle Busch ends up in Victory Lane. (Joke’s on you M&M’s)
It was the Texas Shootout that everyone was looking for last weekend in the Lone Star State, and the guys in the noontime dual couldn’t have been any more storybook.
Carl Edwards entered the AAA Texas 500 with the championship points lead, and also left with the lead, only a bit slimmer margin over race-winner Tony Stewart. We’ll cut to lap 265 when Edwards and Stewart restarted side by side on the front row following the final caution of the race. Stewart felt confident in holding off a late race surge from Edwards, should he overtake the No. 99 on the restart.
Stewart’s scenario played out on the final restart, resulting in my Winner Pick being the first to suck in the fumes left behind by the No. 14 Chevrolet on his way to his fourth victory of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Edwards spoke after his runner-up finish last Sunday: “Tony (Stewart) and those guys stepped it up and I’m proud of my guys for hanging on and for still having the point lead,” Edwards said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to the final two races. Although we would have loved to have won today in our Aflac Fusion, to be three points ahead and then to have the third and fourth-place guys farther behind, it looks like it’s truly going to come down to Tony and I, and that’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to get pretty exciting and I’m just glad Tony and I are out there and we can race for this thing.”
Marcos Ambrose, last week’s Dark Horse pick, was on the right track to score a Top-10 going into the final restart, but struggled throughout the last 70’ish laps to find grip. A two-tire call late in the race was the call from Crew Chief Todd Parrott, a call that would not sit well with the Tasmanian’s race car.
As the lights came on at Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday, a group of cars moved up in the running order, and a group of cars began to fall in the running order, struggling to find grip on the 1.5-mile quad oval. Unfortunately for me, Marcos Ambrose was in the group of cars struggling to keep pace with the front-runners.
It wasn’t for lack of effort that Ambrose finished in 11th as he raced his way all the way up from 26th on Lap 302, but for the third straight week I end the weekend without any Dark Horse points.
Dark Horse Pick
I’ll start with my Dark Horse pick this week, as I feel fairly certain that most of my readers may not think of this guy to actually in this weekend at PIR, until you see the practice speeds posted from earlier today. He came close to a win last week, but lost his gamble on fuel strategy late in the race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Oddly enough, Jeff Burton was the fastest car on the track last month in the Goodyear and EFI testing session at PIR. 36 teams took to the track on October 4th, and Jeff Burton was on-track for 125 laps. He was fastest on the speed charts during that testing session, and coincidentally was fastest earlier today during NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice.
It’s not really fair to use previous finishes for my defense of this pick because of the recent transformation of Phoenix International Raceway, so the data I have collected and referenced has come post-new-dogleg era of PIR. On the second day of testing back in October, Burton ran another 120 laps in his RCR Chevrolet, peaking out at 136.747 MPH on the speed charts. For his efforts, Burton was awarded 6th place on the leaderboard out of 35 teams.
This is the first time I’ve picked Burton for any pick this season, and I’m hoping a new face to Matty’s picks will bring me some late-season luck.
This marks my 6th time picking Jimmie Johnson as a Winner Pick this season, right on par with his winning percentage across the past 5 seasons at Hendrick Motorsports. I’m beginning to wonder if I am slowly becoming a closet Jimmie Johnson bandwagon’eer at this point, but all I have to do is point to past finishes at PIR to justify my pick this week. An average career finish of 4.8 at PIR has me exited this week, even though I said earlier I would NOT use prior finishes as justification for a pick…
If there’s one guy that can adapt to change, its Jimmie Johnson, as he showed in his two days of testing at PIR back in October. At the end of Day 1 testing, the No. 48 Lowe’s team was shown 10th on the speed charts after running 85 laps. Chad Knaus went back to the drawing board with the top of the charts on his mind. Though Johnson did not reach the top of the speed charts on the second day of testing, he did manage to find another 8-tenths of a second around PIR on Day 2 of testing. Those 8-tenths were good enough for Johnson to be shown second on the board.
The only thing that has me nervous about this pick is Johnson’s less than impressive speeds earlier today in Sprint Cup Practice. The No. 48 Car was shown 33rd best after the first practice today, and qualifying that far back in the field could prove to be no-man’s land come Sunday afternoon.
That’s all for this week, stay tuned next week for the 2011 season finale in South Florida.
Until Next Time…You Stay Classy NASCAR NATION!