There’s no doubt about it, Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at the Phoenix Raceway is putting a lot of stress in the NASCAR garage this weekend. See, this may be the fourth race of the season, but it’s also arguably the most important one of the year thus far – even more so than of the season opening Daytona 500.
A number of factors weigh in on why.
First, this is an entirely new racing package than what we saw in both races last year. This season so far has looked a lot like 2019 but you can’t look at Phoenix this weekend and compare it to 2019 though. The Daytona 500 in 2019 was won by Denny Hamlin. He won this year’s race too. In Vegas, Joey Logano won the last two spring races now. For Fontana, the site of last weekend’s race, Kyle Busch won in 2019 and finished second in 2020.
Phoenix this weekend will be with a package similar to 2018.
The changes include significantly smaller spoilers, splitters and other aerodynamic devices in an effort to place a greater emphasis on handling and driver input with less stabilizing downforce on those tracks. The package draws inspiration from similar rules used in the 2017-18 seasons.
Among the changes for those specific tracks:
- A significantly smaller rear spoiler, which shrinks from an 8-inch height to 2.75 inches.
- The front splitter’s overhang will now measure a quarter-inch (down from 2 inches), with approximately 2-inch wings (reduced from 10.5 inches).
- Alterations to the radiator pan, removing its vertical fencing in an effort to reduce front-end downforce. The dimensions of the pan remain the same.
But, even this weekend’s package is slightly different than 2018 in that there’s a different tire compound in comparison to 2018 as well as a right side window in the car. Furthermore, NASCAR is applying the PJ1 compound in the turns, something that they didn’t do in 2018 and in a different spot this weekend compared to where they did so last year.
That makes this weekend a major headache for crew chiefs and drivers alike.
Then, factor this – for the first time since 2000, the championship race weekend will be a return trip from an earlier visit in the year.
The new playoff era was adopted in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2004. Since that time, the season finale has always taken place at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Over the last 16 seasons, NASCAR went to the South Florida race track just once each year. That meant that Homestead was its own breed.
See, with only one visit to the race track each year, by time we got to Homestead in November, the only data we had for that race was the previous year’s. That separated the annual stop from everything else.
This year, the championship race moves west to the Phoenix Raceway. NASCAR goes to Phoenix twice a year still, including this weekend, meaning that for the first time since 2001, the season finale race will be a return trip from an early race that season.
But, what’s different about 2001 and 2020 is, that season was run on an accumulation of a whole seasons worth of points. Now, it’s just four drivers and whomever crosses the finish line first among them wins the championship.
Everything you could potentially learn from Phoenix this weekend could translate over to November too, meaning this is arguably the most important race weekend of the season. With only two practice sessions at your disposal on Friday, you need to be sure you get your notebooks full.
“I think everyone looks at Phoenix 1 now being maybe the most important race early in the season because it will be where you are racing for a championship,” said Joey Logano. “You need to really learn as much as possible.”
Martin Truex Jr. isn’t necessarily a fan of this move.
“It’s definitely unique going to the track twice,” said the 2018 series champion of a place hosting the championship as well as a spring race too. “I don’t necessarily like that. I like that Homestead was a one-off deal.”
Also, one driver is concerned that even with filling the notebook this weekend, will the compound even be used this Fall?
“There are a lot of questions I have about the PJ1,” Brad Keselowski said. “They are putting it down, but will they put it down in the fall? That could potentially make it not as important if they change what they are going to do there.”