Sprint Cup drivers typically don’t look forward to tracks being repaved because their notes from past races become meaningless, leaving them less comfortable on a track that typically has more grip but also can be slick thanks to the new asphalt.
So while they were looking forward to testing Tuesday and Wednesday at the newly repaved and reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway, they know when they come back in November, they will face an unpredictable race that will set the stage for the season finale the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The Phoenix track widened its frontstretch from 52 to 62 feet, extended the dogleg on the backstretch by 95 feet – shifting the apex by approximately 200 feet – and added 1 degree of graduated banking to the corners.
“There are some opportunities here for some problems that we haven’t seen at this race track,” said Carl Edwards, who is tied for the series points lead. “Double-file restarts with 20 to go here, second race from the end of the Chase, there’s no telling what is going to happen. That’s not necessarily good for the racers. It’s good for the fans. But it’s going to be a little stressful.”
The whole point of the new layout is to encourage passing, and each position could be critical with Phoenix as the next-to-last race of the season. Typically repaved tracks have only one groove until the track settles from the weather and having race cars on it. The new Phoenix pavement is no exception.
Five drivers tested at the track in early September to help Goodyear select a tire, and 33 drivers tested Tuesday. A final day of testing was scheduled for Wednesday.
“When we come here to these tests, we're all trying to learn things, get laps, do our own thing,” Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon said. “We're not racing. We're not getting side by side with other cars.
“So naturally you're just going to see one groove built in there. It is a very narrow groove right now. I hopped outside of it on more than one occasion today, and it was exciting to say the least.”
Edwards said he was told that driving schools and Goodyear plan to bring softer tires to the track over the next month and log laps in order to try to get a second groove worked in. Edwards said the track was treacherous when he was on it a month ago but has gotten better with more rubber on it.
“Whenever you introduce something new like this new surface and new track layout, there are going to be guys that figure it out quickly and there are going to be guys that struggle – and it’s not necessarily the guys you would expect,” Edwards said.
“This race, I think we’re all going to come here with a little bit of nervousness, a little trepidation of do we have the right setup? As a driver, I have to ask myself if I am driving the right way around this race track. The way the surface is, it’s unforgiving so there could be some accidents and some things happen that we don’t usually see.”
The track also has an elevation change where the drivers go downhill coming off the dogleg. Gordon said Turn 1 is the same as the old layout but then it changes dramatically.
“The left front tire gets real light as you sort of crest that hill, as you get down in the banking [in Turn 1 and] once you get to the middle, you just put your foot in it,” Gordon said. “You have so much room off there. Actually the engine lugs quite a bit because you're slowing the car down so much getting in there, so it lugs quite a bit.
“Then you just have this run down the backstraight. It's kind of like a roller-coaster ride back there. You have all that space out there. It drops down. The car compresses into the race track, touches a little bit with the splitter, then you come back up out of that hole as you get to Turn 3.”
After seeing video taken from Jimmie Johnson’s car during the test, Gordon was that the backstretch would be too narrow, but he didn’t feel that way after driving it.
“I haven't run side by side with anybody back there,” Gordon said. “But just looking at it and driving it, it's a lot of fun. I mean, it gets your attention the first couple times you go through there. Other than that, you know, it's a heck of a ride.”
Jeff Burton led the Tuesday practice session with a lap of 134.590 mph, nearly three miles an hour slower than the pole speed in February.
“The exit of [Turn] 2 is very unique, very different,” Burton said. “The back straightaway has a lot of banking. It’s like falling into a hole. It’s a really unique feeling. It’s pretty cool.”
It might be cool, but like most newly paved tracks, it’s slick.
“There’s not a lot of grip in the tires, so the more we run, the more rubber on the track and the better the tires feel. But to move out of that lane, it’s going to be really difficult,” Kasey Kahne said. “Hopefully Goodyear really looks at it and brings the right tire to the race and the track rubbers in the right way and we have a good show.”
Edwards said he thinks the drivers at the tire test gave enough feedback that Goodyear has selected the best tire for the November race.
“We’re in a box here,” Edwards said. “With these new surfaces, they have so much grip and you need a tire that doesn’t wear excessively. You need a tire that can handle the heat.
“You end up with a little bit of a hard tire that is a little difficult to drive, and that makes it tough. There’s no way around it. Until these tracks really age, they’re kind of tough to drive.”