NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Phoenix International Raceway
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.