NASCAR's Gen-6 to face new challenges in Phoenix
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Phoenix International Raceway
By: Athlon Sports | 2/28/13, 6:20 PM EST
Jimmie Johnson must re-focus. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Gen-6 downforce track debut
NASCAR's two weeks of warm sunshine in Daytona Beach provided the first on-track action of the much-acclaimed new car in the Sprint Cup Series. It proved to be amicable, handing drivers more input in restrictor plate-style car setup. In the race, it proved to be just a little too dominant as a lead car.
But for all that teams now know about how these cars race with the throttle essentially taped to the floor, none of that matters when the track opens for practice Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Fortunate or unfortunate as that may be depending how Daytona went for specific drivers, Phoenix invites a weekend where the Gen-6 platform will reveal quite a bit more about its racing ability and character. The proverbial NASCAR onion is destined to expose several more layers.
"This weekend will be one of the most difficult and challenging ever," said Alan Gustafson, crew chief on Jeff Gordon's No. 24. "Our new Chevy SS has significantly more downforce than last year's car. With the new Gen-6 car, the new rules, a new tire compound and new inspection process, we don't really have anything that we can base this weekend off of."
In the Toyota camp, Martin Truex Jr. predicts a weekend with "a lot of things that come up that we didn't expect" while his teammate is ready to take a swing at NASCAR's qualifying record books thanks to increased downforce from the old car.
“I think when we get in these cars at Phoenix they are going to stick like glue," Mark Martin said. "These new Gen-6 cars are going to break a lot of track records in 2013 and I think that could start as soon as Friday in Phoenix."
Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, however, thinks the biggest leap for the new piece is still a week away. Viva, Las Vegas, he says.
"I feel when we get to Vegas, we will have a downforce track under our belts," said Johnson, "We'll have a chance to see an amazing race at Vegas — great side-by-racing that everybody will want to see."
2. Can Johnson re-focus after a taxing week?
Johnson may also be looking ahead to Las Vegas because of what a week's worth of responsibilities as winner of the Daytona 500 has done to him. His public relations representative Kristine Curley tweeted Wednesday night that Johnson will have made stops in eight cities for interviews, events, media appearances and more since popping the champagne corks in Daytona's Victory Lane.
"It's going to be hard to re-focus," Johnson said. "There's such a high that comes from winning the 500 — and then the type of racing that starts now is so different than what we just had. It will be a challenge."
Johnson’s first Daytona 500 win in 2006 didn’t hamper his efforts a week later, however. He finished second to Matt Kenseth at Auto Club Speedway. Still, this week Johnson is putting a bit more on the shoulders of crew chief Chad Knaus.
“I know Chad's been buttoned up and the guys have been back at the shop all week, but from my side I've been very detached from my normal routine in preparing for the race,” Johnson said, detailing how he’s missed a debrief with Knaus and the entire Hendrick team. “I'll have to play catch-up as the week goes on and we get in to the weekend.”
It shouldn’t be terribly tough for the five-time champion: Johnson has four wins at Phoenix and also owns the best average running position of any current driver at the track. He’ll also have extra seat time this weekend as he’s racing the Nationwide Series event — the first oval event in that series he’s raced since 2008.
Tony Stewart looks to rebound. (ASP, Inc.)
3. Looking for a rebound
Forty-two other drivers haven’t been celebrating this week, dismayed from not winning NASCAR’s crown jewel. A select group, though, is looking for a staunch rebound from crashes and failures that dropped them from even having a shot at Johnson’s place in Victory Lane last week.
“If I told you I wasn’t heartbroken, I’d be lying to you,” Tony Stewart said after being caught up in Daytona’s first crash that collected nine cars and zapped contenders like Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne from a shot at a win.
Kahne, of course, has to be wondering if 2013 is starting with a bad case of déjà vu. A crash wiped him out of last year’s Daytona 500, too, and set him on a trajectory that left him without a top 10 until the season’s seventh race at Texas.
The mood is similar in Carl Edwards’s Roush-Fenway Racing camp. Last year’s Daytona polesitter couldn’t have left Daytona any worse after catching damage in five crashes during Speedweeks.
“I haven’t wrecked a car for a couple of days, so I hope our luck has changed,” Edwards said this week before Phoenix. Edwards will be looking for a solid finish using chassis RK-802, one used in Phoenix last fall by Matt Kenseth.
The timing of the Phoenix return should be good for Kevin Harvick. He’s the most recent winner in the desert, taking the checkers the very weekend that reports first leaked of his now-confirmed departure from Richard Childress Racing when 2013 wraps up.
One driver who won't be finding that redemption from Daytona in the Sprint Cup Series is Trevor Bayne. The Wood Brothers' No. 21 will be back on track in a week at Las Vegas.
4. Redemption for Kyle Busch?
Kyle Busch may be the driver raining on the parades of those looking to take a win after a Daytona defeat. He’s coming off his own bitter disappointment after his engine failed while running second in the 500.
Last year, though, Kyle Busch was marvelous around the Phoenix one-mile. He led 46 percent of the laps contested in the two Sprint Cup visits to the desert in 2012, but watched wins fall away from his grasp.
“I ran really well at Phoenix in both races last year, but I chose the wrong lane on the restart last November and ended up third,” Busch said. “It was devastating to be that dominant and not come home with the trophy.”
His teammate, Denny Hamlin, snared the victory in the spring race last year.
“The best way to get over the disappointment of the Daytona 500 is to get back in the car and have another chance at winning the next one,” Busch said.
5. Getting a grip
Along with the new car, Goodyear is bringing a new tire once again to PIR. The tire supplier tested at Phoenix last October with the early editions of NASCAR's Gen-6 race car to develop the best compound for a track surface heading for just its third Sprint Cup race weekend.
Goodyear will bring tire compounds for both left and right side tires that have never been used in competition before and that are designed to give cars more grip.
Phoenix has been a bit tricky for the tire manufacturer thanks to the increased speed and new pavement not providing ideal passing situations. However, the 2013 car test last year featured a heavier driver rotation than usual with Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Paul Menard, Regan Smith and Carl Edwards representing each of the sport's major teams.
Tire tests, of course, don't provide a team with free range on setup testing and other R&D but they can provide a baseline for setting up a new car. Those drivers who tested should have somewhat of a leg up this weekend — especially if Goodyear's chosen compound is similar to what was tested.
"We were fortunate to take the Miller Lite Ford to Phoenix for a Goodyear tire test last year and I came away feeling positive about how it will race," said Keselowski. "On top of that, Phoenix has had a couple years to cure so we should see the groove widen out a bit. I’m expecting a good race.
“I think we’re all anxious to see how the car performs this weekend when we all get on the track together. It’s our first true test.”
by Geoffrey Miller
Follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
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