By: Cole Cusumano
Photo By: John Harrelson | Nigel Kinrade Photography
AVONDALE, Ariz. — The time has officially come. A race weekend that the sport’s best have had circled on their calendar since the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series schedule was released. Thirty-eight of the world’s best athletes will prepare to do battle in the Valley of the Sun with the goal in mind for Championship Weekend in November – this is Phoenix Raceway.
After 2019 left the NASCAR community and its stars dissatisfied and overall bored at the Arizona-based track, the sport’s competition directors knew something would have to be done to improve the racing for fans and drivers alike. After all, you can’t have a bland event for a state of the art facility that recently underwent a $178 million renovation that needs to be seen to believe.
As a result, the sport’s higher ups began listening to input from the driver’s association and started to implement an assortment of possible strategies to boost the competitive edge and watchability of the 312 Lap contest at the one-mile track.
The first change came in the form of a modification that was put in place in the Fall of last season to improve the racing; more application of the PJ1 traction compound. The previous November, the sticky substance was laid down all around the track. The problem? It was ultimately too high in the corners that it really didn’t play a factor into the event.
After a pair of practice sessions and qualifying, drivers are finding out that the traction compound will indeed play a factor in Sunday’s race.
“If you miss the bottom by a few feet I think your rights are going to be in it,” Ryan Blaney told POPULAR SPEED.
“In the Cup race, we always seem to find lines that the other series really don’t. There’s enough experience where people know and trust it. I think it will be a factor, especially with it being slightly lower,” Denny Hamlin added.
The biggest difference maker between this year and the prior is that the compound was moved significantly lower in turns three and four. Looking back at last season, it was virtually non-existent in these corners.
“You know darn well that is going to be a massive change in the grip level of the race track and what that brings to your car,” Clint Bowyer said.
The most notable change that NASCAR revealed in the off season was that he sport’s highest level will now be using a new low downforce short track package. The setup shortened the spoiler significantly, brought in the front splitter overhang and removed the vertical fencing from the radiator pans to aid in reduced downforce.
While many thought this would be a game changer, we’ve seen quite a mixed bag of reactions to how the package handled in practice and qualifying. A majority of the drivers were in favor of the adjustments, saying that the cars drove similar to the 2018 setups.
“It was pretty much impossible to pass, but that is why we made these changes,” Bowyer explained. He also wanted to make it clear that it’s a blessing that a professional sporting league is able to develop these methods to improve competition within less than a year. “We all want this to be a good show. We need this to be a good show. This is an awesome race track and killer fan base and we need to put on a good show for them.”
Another driver in favor was the 2019 breakout driver of the year, Matt DiBenedetto.
“The package is a million times better,” the driver of the No. 21 exclaimed. “You can get closer to people, you’re sliding around more, you have less aero-grip and that puts more emphasis on the tire so we can race closer.”
But for drivers like pole-sitter, Chase Elliott, the new package isn’t a massive change.
“I don’t think that it really changes a lot from the car-side of things, or the setup-side of things, or who’s going to be good,” the two-time Most Popular Driver said. “I think the same crowd is always going to be tough, that’s how it is. I don’t think it matters how big the spoiler is, so hopefully the racing is better for people watching,”
The third and final factor that NASCAR sprung in the drivers was a new tire being used this weekend, and this seems to be the thing that has everyone on edge the most. Goodyear has brought yet another new tire to Phoenix and the sport’s best are noticing a difference in the sidewall. As a result, rubber is being laid down quicker and they are noticing quite a bit of fall off.
“The tire just feels really, really hard,” Bowyer revealed. “That thing is stuck and then the minute it’s not, it’s absolutely broke loose and it’s like you are on ice. It doesn’t have a side wall that is forgiving that lets you lay into the grip of the tire. It is rock hard. The minute it shears, it really shears.”
While the four Goodyear rubbers can prove to be a challenge for the field on Sunday, most of the drivers have responded positively to the changes. They believe the added element of uncertainty will lend itself to great and strategic racing throughout.
“These tires fire off quick – which is good – they have a lot of grip and then they fall off real fast and lose a lot of grip,” DiBenedetto shared. “You can’t just go out there, be mindless driving, and get the car to run the fastest lap,” Ty Dillon chimed in. “Things are coming back into play in taking care of your tires again, being a smart driver with your equipment.”
Between the new Goodyears, low downforce package and the PJ1 traction compound, drivers are going to have their hands full at Phoenix Raceway. From a competitive standpoint, they’re confident that the racing will improve and differ from 2019.
“You are going to see a different thing,” Bowyer said. “You won’t be able to just drive that thing in there three or four-wide comfortably like we could with all that downforce on the restarts. Who knows. Maybe there will be more chaos.”
Only time will tell if these changes that were implemented will affect the racing itself at Phoenix Raceway for the better. But fans can be assured that the drivers will have their hands full and that there is a high emphasis to perform well at the sight on the 2020 Championship track.