AVONDALE, Ariz. — Phoenix International Raceway had become like a comfortable old chair for NASCAR drivers over the past 20 years: cracked and creaky, yet familiar and fitting.
This weekend, it’ll feel more like something fresh out of the box.
Repaved and reconfigured, the mile oval at PIR will look and feel vastly different for NASCAR’s second race at the track this season than it did just nine months earlier.
And with this being the penultimate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, it’s going to add a whole lot of extra intrigue, not to mention some guesswork by the teams and drivers.
“With two races spread out the way that they have it, I guess they felt that during the offseason wasn’t going to be right for them,” said Jeff Gordon, eighth in the Chase, 81 points behind leader Carl Edwards. “I’m sure it’s something that many of us would disagree with, especially with how much it is going to change things for the championship, but I think it’s their choice and their decision. We don’t know all the input that went into making that decision, so we live with it.”
PIR was built nearly 50 years ago and has been a regular stop for NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the inaugural race there in 1988. The track is quirky, with vastly different turns at both ends, and had become bumpy and cracked since its last repave 20 years ago.
Despite its flaws and eccentricities, PIR had become a place the veteran drivers felt comfortable, particularly since it started hosting two races a year in 2005.
The problem was that the track had become too worn down. PIR officials use an aggressive approach to track maintenance between races and on race weekends, but the track was brittle and breaking apart after 20 years of racing.
“It just got to the point where we were just patching patches,” PIR president Bryan Sperber said. “The last weekend we had in February, we had the track break apart in four or five different places and had to go in at night to fix it. To have a track come apart on a race weekend, that’s the last thing you need.”
The concern, at least for the teams, was the timing of the changes.
It’s one thing to have a new track surface at the start of the season, but doing it near the end of the Chase puts added pressure on teams that they didn’t necessarily want with so much on the line.
Normally at a track such as Phoenix, teams have a deep data base of what kind of setups have worked and the drivers know which racing lines will work. With the repaving and the alterations to the banking and dogleg, they’re nearly starting anew.
PIR held a tire test in August and a two-day test for teams in October, but that’s still not a lot of time for a sport that relies on so many calculations by teams and the feel from the drivers.
“They did a really nice job with the work they’ve done here, so it’s just a matter of us trying to figure out what we have to be good for the weekend now,” said Tony Stewart, three points behind Edwards in the Chase. “After this weekend, when we come back in the spring, we’ll have a lot better idea, but it definitely does put a little more emphasis on trying to get it figured out and get caught up.”
Many of the drivers would have liked the changes to have come in the offseason, but there really wasn’t much choice because of the timing between races.
Track officials started tearing up the track immediately after the Feb. 27 race and spent the next six months working to push the dogleg out 95 feet, increase the banking and set the new asphalt.
The Chase race wasn’t until November, but the track had to be nearly complete for a test in August so Goodyear would have time to get tires ready. Workers needed almost every minute of those six months to get the work done, so trying to redo the track between Sunday’s race and the next one in March wouldn’t have worked.
Weather also worked against PIR trying to do it during the offseason.
Asphalt sets better in the heat and there are few places hotter than Phoenix in the summer. Had PIR officials tried to do the repaving in summer, they would have risked the temperatures dropping too low — yes, even in the desert — which would have kept the asphalt from setting right and led to cracking.
“You’ve got to go with the hand that you’re dealt,” Sperber said. “There was just no other alternative because of the time it takes to do it because there’s no way it could have been done during the offseason. Which is the lesser of the two of evils: you have a wild card race or you have it break apart during the race. Those were my options, so it was kind of an easy decision.”
PIR did its best to break in the track.
In addition to the tests in August and October, the track ran a tire dragging machine that spun 80 tires over the track for more than 90 hours. It also had a group of drivers, including Nationwide Series champion Randy Lajoie and ARCA champion Frank Kimmel, turn laps the past few days in an attempt to widen the upper groove. Combined, the cars ran more than 3,000 miles at the track.
The Cup drivers got four hours of practice over two sessions on the new surface on Friday, but they would have liked more — a whole lot more.
“It’s a little frustrating and presents a challenge with you and your team, but that’s what the sport is about, I guess,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., seventh in the Chase standings. “It’s not something I enjoy, but it’s part of the playing field, part of what you’ve got to encounter while you are out there trying to get your car going.”
In other words, it could take them a little while to get comfortable with this new version of PIR.