When the green flag waves for the United Rentals 500 at Phoenix Raceway, NASCAR Cup Series teams will be left with more questions than answers as they prepare to tackle the desert mile. Consequently, this should make for a highly entertaining 312-lap affair.
Going into the final stop of NASCAR’s West Coast road trip, teams knew they’d be faced with the task of adapting to a new short-track package, which was designed to enhance racing by decreasing downforce.
In an effort to familiarize teams with the aggressive changes of the new seventh-generation stock car package, a 50-minute practice session was held on Friday and paced by 2021 champion and Phoenix winner Kyle Larson with a 27.427 second-lap.
Coming out of Las Vegas, this appeared to be the only sense of normalcy to start the weekend festivities, given Hendrick Motorsports’ 1-2-3 finish in Sin City. But the speed was not without controversy.
NASCAR confiscated the hood louvers (vents) from all four HMS teams following practice for further evaluation. While there is a chance penalties could be issued to the Chevrolet powerhouse, they wouldn’t be dealt until next week at Atlanta.
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New louvers were clearly no problem for the No. 5 team, after Larson dominated the headlines — and speed charts — once again by qualifying on the pole with a 27.642 sec. (130.237 mph) hot lap around Phoenix.
“Qualifying is really important here,” Larson said. “We got the pole in ‘21 and that really helped us win the championship race. I think that number one pit stall means a lot. (I was) happy to be quick in practice and have that translate to qualifying.”
While Larson clearly has no issues navigating the nuances of the new rules package, this was hardly the case for other teams throughout the Cup garage.
The general consensus is the cars are much more difficult to drive, due to the lack of grip in the turns. In decreasing downforce, the cars aren’t as grounded to the track, making for looser (slippery) handling.
The new package garnered widely positive reactions throughout the garage, as drivers will be forced to search for grip by running in different lanes — a stark contrast to the one-lane track Phoenix had become over the past few years that prevented maneuvering outside of the “racing groove.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind, this is the right direction,” reigning champion and race winner at Phoenix, Joey Logano, said. “Is it the fix? I don’t know if I’d call it (that), but I think it’s definitely the right direction to make the racing better on the short tracks. It’ll make it a lot more fun for the drivers and I think more entertaining for the fans.
“The cars are harder to drive and you’re forced to move around the race track more, which opens up opportunities to find clean air. Last year, everyone ran the same lane. We saw it in practice, cars were already moving up into the second and third lane, so it’s pretty clear that’ll happen during the race.”
Although drivers have a baseline of knowledge for what they can expect in the main event, clouds literally casted a shadow of uncertainty across the Cup Series garage.
During practice, everyone turned laps under overcast conditions, which cools the track surface and actually enhances grip inside the race car. While any time spent on testing this new package is worth its weight in gold, it wasn’t very accurate in simulating how the cars will handle on Sunday.
The forecast in Avondale calls for 100% sunshine and a high 80 degrees, which means the track temperature will likely hit triple digits. The significance of this, if the fact that warmer conditions make for a slicker racing surface with more tire wear.
“It’s hard to judge and gauge where the track is going to be on Sunday, because it’s the middle of the day and it’s going to be hot,” Ryan Blaney, who rolls off eighth and was second-fastest in practice, said. “I expect more (tire) falloff and the cars should drive worse. It is kind of tricky, but you have to rely on your previous experiences here and try to guess it the best you can I suppose.”
If drivers had their hands full under cooler track conditions, they should be living on the edge from the drop of the green flag at 12:30 p.m. in the United Rentals 500.
Denny Hamlin will join Larson on the front row as the 2021 champion looks to keep Chevy undefeated this season. However, Glendale-born Michael McDowell hopes to have something to say after a career-best qualifying effort of seventh at his home track.
“Personally, this is awesome because Phoenix has been a struggle for me over the last (few) years,” McDowell said. “Last year, we were so strong at a lot of tracks and had a really good season, but then we’d come to the short tracks and get our butts kicked. It’s nice to have some speed and potential in our race car”
Among other storylines to watch — “King of Phoenix” Kevin Harvick hopes to ride off into the sunset by scoring a 20th consecutive top-10 finish at the one-mile track starting 15th, as Tucson-born Alex Bowman looks to notch his fourth top-10 of the season starting 18th.
Tyler Reif, 15, wins ARCA race; Frankie Muniz 6th
Tyler Reif, a 15-year-old from Las Vegas making just his third ARCA start, won the Menard Series/Menard Series West General Tire 150 Friday night at Phoenix Raceway after a pair of green-white-checkered restarts.
The win in his series debut didn’t come easily for Reif, who was involved in a crash on Lap 11 that damaged the rear of his car. Quick work by the Lowden-Jackson Motorsports crew kept him in the race.
“Got in a racing incident at (Lap 11), got turned, no big deal,” said Reif, who is racing full-time in both the ARCA Menards West and East series this year. “Kept our heads straight and fought back to the lead. This team is so good to get this car hooked up. I’m happy, there are just no words to describe this.”
Landen Lewis led at the white flag but couldn’t hold off Reif on the final lap. Bradley Erickson, a 16-year-old from Phoenix, finished third.
Actor Frankie Muniz, who lives in Scottsdale, recovered from an early race spin to finish a career-best sixth in his second ARCA Menards Series start.