Nascar At Phoenix: Will The Spoiler Be The Spoiler or Someone Else?

Rusty NormanTwo interesting things make this year’s spring race at Phoenix International Raceway different.  The first is probably the most obvious and most visible.  That would be the return of the spoiler, which made its first appearance at Martinsville almost two weeks ago and it remains to be seen what kind of an effect it will have on the way the cars handle as we get to these larger tracks.

The second change is not quite as visible but will make a difference all the same.  That would be the additional 63 laps that they’re running this year as opposed to the last time and they were there.

History says a few perform better than others at the Phoenix International Raceway, but reality says anyone could win this year. Why do I say that’s important? Because it is a well known fact in the recent past, some drivers and teams have performed quite well at the track. Although it appears that everyone loves to go to Phoenix and race, most all of the teams seem to like the track but not everyone can do what it takes to win there.

The fact of the matter it is that it takes a certain amount of special talent to perform well at the one mile oval in the desert. The drivers with great car control along with a lot of finesse through the turns generally perform better at P I R and it is another one of those tracks that has a bit of difference between the way cars handle in turns one and two, and then three and four. (Did I mention the back straight is slightly elevated adding another dimension to the entry of turn three?)

Now, we know that the drivers in NASCAR are supposed to be the best in the world and I don’t disagree with that statement, but even in NASCAR, some are better than others which is pretty obvious by the way that some dominate the others and have done so for years.

It appears to this fan, that the ones that perform well at Phoenix International Raceway hit their marks more consistently on the track and that allows them to gain an advantage on their competitors. When the track conditions change, they find another line that gives them the advantage once again, allowing them to pull away from the others.

One thing I will say about the 2010 season so far is that the competition is much tighter than it was last year.  That’s not to say that there wasn’t competition, but it does appear that the R C R teams, the Roush teams and the Roger Penske Racing folks have all picked it up.  No longer is it a given that the Hendrick teams will always finish up front and I’m sure that makes many people in NASCAR very happy.  Of course, the Hendrick teams are still running quite well and do have to be considered contenders every week.

I believe the race on the Saturday night is going to be filled with action and drama. Add to the mix the altercation between Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon from last week at Martinsville and there could be some unexpected excitement should one or the other decide it is their turn to show a little muscle, (some call it paback.)  Yes, we all know they’ve talked about the incident from last week and both say they’re ready to move on even though neither one of them is going to rule out the effect that adrenaline can have on either of them.  Both Matt and Jeff are strong competitors and it seems, for some reason on these shorter tracks, they manage to find each other.  Who knows, some day they may actually become “close” friends.  As it stands for now, it appears that their competitiveness stands in the way of that actually happening for at least while.

The race at Phoenix is always a hard one for me to pick a winner at.  The track is tight and fast, mostly only one groove wide and the pits are long and narrow. So much depends on what happens in the pits and how they line up in the double file restarts that I do think track position is going to play a great part in who actually takes the checkered flag. I also think the ones that can run consistently faster times on older tires are going to be the ones running up front at the end. (Gee, has anyone talked much about this being a fuel mileage race?)

So, who will it be?  As I said before, Phoenix is a hard place to pick a winner, (at least for this fan.) I do think the Hendrick teams must be considered when it comes down to those running at the front at the end of the race. All of the Ford teams showed they’re beginning to catch up competition-wise, especially Greg Biffle.  From my observations, I haven’t seen anyone recently that is more determined to consistently finish ahead of the No. 48 team than Greg Biffle and the No. 16 team.  Of course, the No. 2 team of Kurt Bush should be considered in that mix also.  It’s just an observation, but, I think a great addition to the No. 2 team has been crew chief Steve Addington. I’m not saying they’ve arrived yet, but you can definitely see where he has made a difference.

Unfortunately, this can also be the week that someone totally unexpected, (at least  from my view) could break into the win column.  Names like Marcos Ambrose and Martin Truex Jr., along with AJ Almendinger and Kasey Kahne immediately jump to the top of my list. And of course, we can’t leave out names like Jeff Burton or Kevin Harvick. Even Carl Edwards deserves some mention here because, if anyone is due to show up in victory lane, it would be him.

Like every other week so far this year, I just don’t have a clear picture in my mind as to who I think will win.  I know I have a couple of favorites and I know a couple of dark horses that could end up taking home the trophy.  Heck, I haven’t even mentioned Denny Hamlin yet.  Judging from the way he ran in the practice sessions, he could be making it his second in a row much to everyone’s surprise since his knee surgery a week and a half ago.

OK, I’ll stick my neck out just a little bit and make a prediction.  All things considered, I still think it will come down to one of the Hendrick teams finishing up front.  Now whether that will be Dale Jr, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson I just don’t know.  I can’t rule out Tony Stewart or Ryan Newman either. I believe the night time handling capabilities of the cars is what’s going to make the biggest difference this weekend.  Although they’re running more laps during the daylight hours than they did last year, I still think the coolness of the night air is when some cars are really going to come to life.  That’s why I’m picking Hendrick team that just happens to carry the number 24 on it.

H-m-m-m, I guess that means I’m picking Jeff Gordon…

See ya next time… Rusty

All views expressed are strictly the opinion of the writer

© April 10, 2010 – all rights reserved

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