The every-lap tightrope-walking of Talladega and the super-fast speeds of Texas are in the rear-view mirror. Now the Chase moves to a unique track where finesse, skill and pit-road decisions move front and center.
Phoenix International Raceway is an odd stop on the Sprint Cup tour because of its flip-flop nature. The one-mile track has a typical front straightaway, but its backstretch has a dogleg “bump” as drivers exit the second turn. Turns one and two are relatively tight, while three and four are more sweeping, forcing drivers and crews to pick which end of the speedway surface they’d rather excel on.
It’s a challenging spot for Chase hijinks and therefore a good testing ground for championship challengers Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick before they move on to the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
“It’s a pretty unique race track,” said driver Kasey Kahne. “To me, it’s a neat place to race. You need good forward drive off the corner, and getting your car to turn all day off the corner will be the key. Each corner drives differently, and you really have to have your car set up well in order to be competitive.”
Hamlin, who can take a giant step toward his first Cup championship with a high finish in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, said braking and turn negotiation are important at Phoenix.
“Phoenix is a track where braking is extremely important – just like Martinsville,” Hamlin said. “You’ve got to have a car that rolls the center there extremely good, especially in turn one because it’s much tighter than it is in turn three.
“I continue to work on how quick I can get into the entry of the corners there. Obviously, the forward bite seems to get a little bit better as it starts to get dark, but, with the change in time, we’re going to have to worry about keeping the rear tires on the car.”
Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s teammate, echoed his comments about brake reliability.
“You’ve got to have a good car, but you’ve got to have good brakes,” he said. “You’ve got to have a good-turning car, and you’ve got to have a good car that can accelerate off of turn two and go fast down the backstretch. There’s a lot involved at Phoenix, but being a day race and being hot and slick, it makes it that much more interesting.
“You have two distinctly different corners at Phoenix. Turns one and two are different than three and four, and there’s also a kink in the backstretch. Being able to run well there depends on how well you can turn in the center of turns one and two and yet still have a good drive up off the back straightaway because it’s so long and fast. Then, getting into turn three, you really need to rotate. Just past the center of turns three and four, you have a little bit of a kink on the apron, where you need to be able to turn and get a good drive off the corner.
“It’s really dependent on how I like the car set up so I’m able to make a good lap time. There are plenty of tricks to that place that you need to know to be successful.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.