Head start for Cup title hopefuls at Phoenix

Image by Lesley Ann Miller/LAT

Head start for Cup title hopefuls at Phoenix


Head start for Cup title hopefuls at Phoenix


NASCAR Cup Series teams with championship aspirations have a chance to begin building their notebook this weekend.

For the first time in the history of its playoff format, NASCAR is running a race early in the year at the same facility where the season finale is held. That, of course, had not been the case for the last 16 years with Homestead-Miami Speedway and its lone race in November.

Phoenix Raceway is the new championship weekend host, and Phoenix has two dates. That makes Sunday’s Fan Shield 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) a chance for teams to get an idea of how much work they’ll have to do for a return in the fall and gain a first impression of the lower downforce package.

“I think it will be more important, for sure,” said former champion Martin Truex Jr. “Obviously, there’s no guarantees if you run good in the first race that you’ll run good in the second one. I think a lot of guys are definitely going to be focused on (this weekend) and what they can do there.

“It’s definitely unique going to that track twice. I don’t necessarily like that. I like that Homestead was a one-off deal. A lot of guys will be putting a lot of effort in to see where they stand.”

On all short tracks and road courses NASCAR has reverted to an aero package similar to what was run in 2018. The spoiler is 2.75 inches with a splitter overhang of 0.25 inches. But the most significant changes to the car are hidden underneath.

Short track racing was often criticized last season for its lack of action, such as a combined six lead changes between the two Martinsville races. The 2019 fall Phoenix race didn’t receive rave reviews either, and this weekend is where the what’s-old-is-new-again aero package makes its season debut.

Reigning series champion and defending race winner Kyle Busch sees this weekend as two-fold. Should Busch make the championship race, he’ll be considered one of the favorites considering he’s won two of the last four races at Phoenix with his other two results being runner-up efforts.

“Obviously, it’s because it’s the first race with that lower downforce package if that’s what we call it, and people are going to want to know what to expect in the upcoming races with that,” said Busch. “I also look at it as of course it’s important — and everybody is going to feel like it’s important because everybody right now feels like they have a shot to make the final four, because it’s so early in the season.

“There should be an added emphasis by people to go out there and learn a few things, try a few things and get themselves ready for the end of the year being at the final race.”

Alongside learning about the new short track package, teams and drivers will be focusing on gaining information they hope will offer a championship-winning edge this fall. Image by Russell LaBounty/LAT

While William Byron agrees this weekend will be a test session for teams to try things before the finale, he expects the usual contenders to still be up front. Those being Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates in Truex, and the most recent winner at Phoenix, Denny Hamlin. However, Byron also said that the cars would evolve “a lot” between the first and second Phoenix races.

“Usually when you get back there in the fall the car drives better because you’ve got more downforce and you’ve got a better idea on setup,” explained Byron. “I feel like that’s the biggest thing is once you get back there, you’re in a better position to do well because you have a notebook.”

With so much at stake later in the year, starting off on the right foot this weekend could be critical. And critical is how another series champion views racing at Phoenix before everything is on the line.

“I think everyone looks at Phoenix 1 now being maybe the most important race early in the season, because it will be where you are racing for a championship possibly,” said Joey Logano. “You need to really learn as much as possible. You want to have a strong run there and learn from your mistakes there more than anywhere and make sure you are clear about everything when you are done with the race.

“It is one of those tracks that you will spend more time afterwards dissecting every little piece of it. That is what is going to be the biggest race of the year. Understanding where we have made mistakes will be important.”