When creating a checklist of what makes for a good race, there are a few obvious points that come to mind.
Not being a one-groove track.
Tire wear. With tire wear will also be comers and goers.
Phoenix Raceway had those variables on Sunday afternoon, which helped ease a lot of fears about the track hosting championship weekend for all three NASCAR national series in November. Last year, Phoenix wasn’t high on many lists when it came to which facilities had put on good racing, so moving the most important race of the season to the one-mile desert track was concerning.
The mood now should be cautiously optimistic.
Some were eager to say all of their doubts had been removed, and NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell was pleased with the on-track action. But deep breath, one day at a time.
Many different variables helped make Phoenix a good race. From the new tire Goodyear brought that had fall-off and the aero package, even to having the PJ1 traction compound applied in the correct places – which it had not been last year.
“I think everyone in this whole facility took a sigh of relief,” said winner Joey Logano. “I’m sure all you guys reporting on a race, you want to talk about how great something is, not that it was single file and we couldn’t pass, drivers are mad that you can’t pass. That’s not a good story.
“It’s cool to see that we’re able to make changes and make a difference and really put on, what I thought, was obviously a great race. We won. Even if we didn’t win, I would have said that was a pretty cool race. When you got out front, it didn’t mean you checked out. Some did. That’s always going to happen. The fastest cars always end up in the front, always hard to pass that car. I thought there was just a lot of good racing. Restarts were still crazy as usual here. But I thought the awesome sauce (PJ1) was awesome.”
Drivers looked like they had to drive their cars Sunday. Multiple times Kyle Busch was seen coming off the corners with a Toyota that would snap loose. On restarts, driving too deep into a corner or just the slightest mistake was treacherous, evidenced by the three-car accident with Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Blaney. Keselowski also had another moment when he slid up in Turns 1 and 2 on a restart and nearly took the driver on his outside with him into the wall. Keselowski briefly lost the lead and had to fight to get it back.
And fighting back was another thing drivers could do in Phoenix. There was passing. Martin Truex Jr. started in the rear and made his way through the field. Chase Elliott did the same after a loose wheel put him a lap behind. In all, there were 2,241 green flag passes, which breaks down to 9.2 per green flag lap.
A well-deserved kudos also go to Goodyear for the tire. It can’t be overstated how wonderful it is to have a tire that falls off and results in comers and goers.
“You could definitely follow a lot closer,” Kyle Busch said of the action. “You could get up into a guy’s left rear and be close enough to their left rear and follow him close enough that you could try to make a move on them or make a run on them up off the corner. Get them a little loose to be able to make a move on them. I felt like there was certainly some positives.
“I felt like some of it was also kind of the same as what you get. When you get strung out, you get strung out. I don’t think you’re going to be able to captivate these cars close enough together for three and a half hours at a time at one-mile racetracks when your very grip limited.”
Kyle Larson was among those who said Sunday was better than what was seen at the same track last year.
“Maybe they can work on it some more and get the racing even a little better,” said Larson, “and have a great championship race to end our season.”
Undoubtedly the cars will evolve between now and the season finale as teams go to work on the package. There is no telling if Goodyear will change the tire, although why would they? Will the PJ1 be applied in the same areas and react the same way in eight months? And how different will the weather be?
Phoenix was a good race and not just by Phoenix standards. It was one of the best races we’ve seen in the NASCAR Cup Series recently, and it had everything needed to put on a good event.
I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get the same thing when it matters most.