By Cole Cusumano
AVONDALE, Ariz. — Phoenix Raceway is often viewed as a one-mile venue labeled a short track that races like an intermediate, but with what was on display in the NASCAR Xfinity Series event it certainly looked like one. Different players, varying strategy, even flared tempers highlighted the 200-lap thriller in Arizona. What we saw in the Call 811 Before You Dig 200 was arguably one of the best competitions in the track’s 57-year history.
This could be chalked up to three main themes – tire management, the PJ1 traction compound and overall execution from teams throughout the day.
Being only given four sets of Goodyear Eagles presented a multitude of challenges. Aside from the accustomed emphasis on conservation while trying to maintain track position, there was a heightened sense of frenetic pace due to the race length.
This give-and-take in the later stages of the event proved costly for many frontrunners who exhausted their resources too soon, but also lent itself to career days for two drivers — Brandon Brown and Bayley Currey, who placed third and seventh respectively.
“Limited tires are the double-edged sword,” Brown told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Overall, I’m a proponent of it. I think it keeps costs down on teams; it makes teams work a little harder. The crew chiefs have to think a little harder, the drivers have to know how to kind of give a little bit mid-run and save something for the end.”
Another synthesized product that’s played a large role at Phoenix over the last two years proved to be an even more critical element — the PJ1 traction compound. Race winner Austin Cindric is someone who’s always had a good handle on the substance, but today he called it different and “a little less usable.”
Only Cindric and Noah Gragson could comfortably utilize the PJ1 out of the 40-car field, and even they had difficulty maneuvering around it at times. This could be due to the slick track conditions courtesy of the 60-degree weather and cloud cover. Regardless, it’s a variable that all competitors had to deal with due to the heavy application that narrowed the racing surface.
Finally, team-wide execution may have been the biggest trend of the day. There were expectations heading into Phoenix there would be carryovers in performance from Las Vegas Motor Speedway from Joe Gibbs Racing and JR Motorsports.
Both organizations showcased evident speed all throughout the race, but it was an all-around sloppy day for the Chevrolet and Toyota stables. Early on it appeared as if JGR picked up where they left off with their stellar pit program. Then after the first set of stops, other teams began to step up and the drivers had to get aggressive on pit road to maintain track position.
Over the course of the day, four top-10 contenders — Jeb Burton, Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Josh Berry — all got penalized for speeding on pit road during routine yellow flag stops. This in turn put all these drivers in unfavorable positions and all got into trouble at some point in the race.
Here’s where things got heated.
Well on his way to another promising finish, Berry was charging his way through the field when Santino Ferrucci pinched him against the wall in 15th and ended his day. The late model champion showed his displeasure to the driver of the No. 26 by flipping him off as he drove by with a smile on his face.
Jones, who led laps in this race, was surging his way through the field after serving a speeding penalty when A.J. Allmendinger misjudged a jump to the high line and wrecked him. The driver of the No. 19 voiced his frustrations in the Kaulig Racing driver, saying he’ll remember this moment in the future.
When it was all said and done this truly felt like a short track race, but with the event being so condensed and this being the sight of the championship, the pressure seemed much more prevalent than your average short track event.
In what may have been the biggest story of the event, Ty Gibbs followed up a dominant ARCA Menards Series win the night prior and his Xfinity debut with a runner-up finish in the Valley of the Sun. The 18-year-old has proven to not only be one of the brightest talents in NASCAR, but a specialist in Arizona. In five starts at Phoenix, Gibbs has two wins, an average finish of 1.8, 361 laps led and failure to place lower than third.
The driver of the No. 54 said the night prior there was still a mission to be accomplished before enjoying his string of success. After finishing second in his Xfinity oval debut, you’d expect Gibbs to be overjoyed, but that wasn’t totally the case.
“I’m definitely satisfied with a second-place finish, but not all the way,” Gibbs told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I feel like in life you really can’t get comfortable no matter what the situation is and I’m thankful to be in this spot […] But at the same time, if you want to be the best — and I’ve watched the baddest dudes to do it — they’re not satisfied completely with second. You’re the first loser.”
The day ended with a battle of two desert titans, Cindric and Allgaier, with the No. 22 team prevailing and becoming the first repeat winner this season in the Xfinity Series. Between the hell that broke loose on the final restart, the varying trends and strategies, in addition to the unexpected performances and racing overall, this event will be remembered for years to come.
It will be hard to find anyone who wasn’t satisfied with the product provided at Phoenix Raceway in the Xfinity Series, and the great news is this should serve a sample for what to expect for the championship race come November.