Sunday’s FanShield 500 NASCAR Cup Series event was the first to feature the revamped 2020 short-track and road-course package, which heralds a shorter rear spoiler (from 8 to 2.75 inches), a front splitter overhang reduction from 2 inches to 0.25 inches and alterations to the radiator pan.
After 316 laps of racing at the Phoenix Raceway, I’d say this altered package passed it’s first test with flying colors.
“I think you certainly want to see a lot of what we saw today: a lot of lead changes. And this comes from a lot of work from the entire industry, going back to Nashville (Tennessee), getting everybody together, talking about what could we collectively do for the good of the sport and specifically for this race track,” NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said on pit road after the race. “The race teams came together, the drivers, Goodyear and I think all that played a part today. Not only tire wear, PJ1 that was applied but the rules package as well. We saw a lot of different things happen during the race, some emotions run pretty high, which is what you want. A lot of comers and goers and ultimately a really good race.
“I think you saw some dominant cars for sure, but not only were drivers and teams able to catch the leader but even when someone was passed for the lead, they were able to go back and re-take the lead, which is always something you like to see and multiple cars were able to do that.”
The top five wound up with familiar Phoenix names – Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer – but the top 10 was in flux seemingly the whole race.
Pole-winner Chase Elliott had the dominant car early, leading a race-high 93 laps before a loose wheel sidelined his car during green-flag runs … and he wound up seventh. Brad Keselowski had arguably the car to beat, but a decision to stay out on slightly-used tires relegated him to 11th after 82 laps led.
The “Cactus King,” Harvick, then had his turn at the front of the pack, swapping the lead back and forth with Logano to the tune of 67 laps led, and NASCAR potentially could have seen a neck-and-neck finish had a string of late cautions not come and the race stayed green.
Heck, for quick minute there, even rookie Tyler Reddick was outpacing Harvick and gunning for a legitimate top-five finish and putting on a show while doing it.
Drivers were pleased with the direction the package has short-track racing headed in, as well.
“You could definitely follow (other cars) a lot closer,” Busch said. “You could get up into a guy’s left rear and be close enough to their left rear and follow them close enough that you could try to make a move on them or make a run on them up off the corner. Get them a little loose to be able to make a move on them. I felt like there was certainly some positives.”
The only question that remains is where things go from here and how does NASCAR build off a successful first run with these rules. There’s a long way to go before the Cup Series field is back racing in the desert nearly nine months from now.
“We’ve got the best engineers in the world, so they’ll go back and study what worked and where they maybe could make a difference,” said O’Donnell. “Lot of racing to go, but certainly this is a good platform to start off our short-track package and what we wanted to see this weekend. So we’ll head off to Martinsville (Speedway) and Richmond (Raceway) and see what we can do there, but all in all, thought it was really good.”
I mean, we saw the fifth closest finish in Phoenix history (.276-seconds). We saw 20 lead changes, tied for fourth most. There were 28 in Feb. 2011, 25 in March 2012, 23 in Nov. ’13 as well as Nov. ’00 to go along with as many as today in Oct. ’93, April ’06 and April ’10.
We saw an overtime finish for the third time in the last five years and sixth time in the last eight that the final green to checkered run was 15 laps or fewer. The only two times it was more were the two races run on the old package last year.