Kyle Busch has led 289 laps in the last four races at Phoenix International Raceway. He was one blown engine, one crashed car, two top-10 finishes and not a single sprayed bottle of champagne to show for the often-dominant effort.
A year ago, Jimmie Johnson entered the penultimate Phoenix race up seven points on Brad Keselowski. He started 24th, but was sixth with less than 100 laps to go. Then his right front tire blew. He smacked the wall and finished 32nd.
It cost him a sixth championship.
Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer were sucked in to the most talked-about brouhaha of 2012 when the tight confines of the one-mile track brought the two together one time too many for Gordon’s liking. Gordon intentionally crashed Bowyer, igniting a garage scuffle. Joey Logano, in line for a top-10 finish, couldn’t avoid the mess.
He crashed, too, and finished 27th.
Go up and down the grid of Sunday’s race at Phoenix—the Advocare 500—and the concerned refrain of drivers and teams will be common. Phoenix is a tricky track, and the unexpected lies at every turn.
Credit a lot of the hesitancy to the reconfiguration of Phoenix’s one-mile oval in the summer months of 2011. In between the two events it hosted in the 2011 Sprint Cup season, Phoenix received a new layer of pavement, a steeper banking in Turns 1 and 2 and redesigned backstretch with a more pronounced kink that offers the normal route around along the banked section or a Mario Kart-like shortcut.
The backstretch is now a bit like a roller coaster. And the turns require more short track-like bulldogging of a race car than the flip-and-go of a corner entry at the faster 1.5-mile tracks. In turn, the increased demands on tires and brakes open the door for problems to develop.
“If there was one guy sad to see the old configuration and asphalt go away, that was me,” Johnson said. “We just had something that worked there and fit my driving style and we were able to win a lot of races.
The new track construction is constantly evolving, says Kevin Harvick.
“You really have to have an understanding of the track,” said Harvick. “Every time we go back, I feel like we learn something different.”
There’s another concern many teams will have in Sunday’s race, should they avoid any trouble: pit stops.
In the February race, Carl Edwards won the race off pit road during the final caution flag and final pit stop of the day. He was untouchable the rest of the way thanks to tendencies of the Gen-6 car to give an aerodynamic advantage to the leader. In fact, the lead changed during green-flag racing just once in the final 200 laps.
|Kenseth vs. Johnson: Since 2011 Phoenix Reconfiguration|
|Top-5s||Avg. Finish||Laps Led||Laps in Top-15|
|Matt Kenseth||0||17.0||50||951 (80.3 %)|
|Jimmie Johnson||2||13.0||56||831 (68.1%)|
|NASCAR Statistical Services|
“In the spring race at Phoenix, the biggest thing that helped us was our pit crew,” Edwards said. “We had awesome pit stops and kept coming out three or four spots ahead of where we were running and that ultimately is what won us the race.”
What won Edwards the race may be exactly what loses it for another. Even one bad pit stop that drops a driver eight or 10 spots during a yellow-flag pit stop could be insurmountable if the track provides the same limited passing opportunities as earlier this year.
All of the questions and tumult about Phoenix could play a large factor in the championship race that, for now, features two main contenders: Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Johnson holds a seven-point on edge on Kenseth—the exact number of points he led Keselowski by last fall.
For either driver, a slip, a poor pit stop or an overly aggressive competitor could be the difference between season-ending victory celebrations in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finishing the 2013 season disappointed.
Quotes obtained firsthand from NASCAR and team press conference transcripts.