The next-to-last landscape upon which Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart will wrestle for stock car supremacy has been a part of NASCAR's top series for almost a quarter-century, but that means almost nothing in the context of this weekend's racing.
Phoenix International Raceway, which had been one of International Speedway Corp.'s most neglected tracks for years, got a major upgrade this year. A resurfacing and reconfiguration project that began in March has turned the track into a fresher – and probably faster – version of itself as Edwards, Stewart and the rest of the Sprint Cup field roll into the Valley of the Sun this weekend.
The one-mile racing surface has been completely repaved, a change that in itself would be very significant. But there is much more.
The slight dogleg in the backstretch was stretched to change it, essentially, into a turn. Slightly more banking was added to each end of the track. The frontstretch was widened by 10 feet, and concrete stalls were added to pit road.
It's a new spin on an old track.
"It's a whole new track, for sure," said Denny Hamlin. "The stats are going to show previous winners and all that, but it will for sure be a different race track than what we've seen in the last 15 years probably at that race track. It is, it's almost like a new race track, new facility that we go to, and it's an inaugural race as far as I'm concerned."
Speeds are expected to increase by several miles per hour, but the biggest "new" challenge might be the backstretch, where the changes are significant and the racing is expected to be more competitive because of the additional space.
"It is going to be tricky conditions," said Jeff Gordon, who won the last race at the "old" Phoenix in February. "It is dusty and sandy out there in that part of the country. It is hard to get the track cleaned off and get the rubber laid down, but one and two has changed quite a bit as you exit turn two.
"The back straightaway is completely different. There is definitely no comparison to what goes on back there to any other track. It is going to be challenging, there is no doubt about it. I am interested to see not what it does for all the competitors in the race, but what it does for the championship because it could shake things up in a big way."
Edwards and Stewart each own wins at PIR.
Gordon said it's important for a second groove to be worked into the track quickly. Three and one-half hours of Nationwide Series practice are scheduled at the track Thursday afternoon before Sprint Cup drivers have their first practice Friday afternoon. Qualifying for both series is scheduled Saturday.
"It is going to be important for the track, for NASCAR, everybody to work together to try to create a second groove," Gordon said. "I am hoping they take some measures that we talked about at the test to help clean off that second groove before we get there. I think that is going to be very important, because it is not just that there was not a second groove, it was if you got a foot outside of that groove, you were either in the wall or you were going to lose a lap. It took that long to get back in the groove and clean the tires off and get back up to speed. That is the part where I say things could be very interesting and challenging."
Hamlin said PIR will be "a fun race track. Driving it (in tests) was like – wow – this is a lot different than any other course we've been on. ... They were at a point where the track was falling apart, so they had to do something about it. Goodyear is trying to give us the best tire possible but not let us run too fast."