The stars and cars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will head west this weekend as the series descends on Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500k, Round 2 of their 36-race season. After an utterly boring Daytona 500, at least for this sportswriter there is hope that the uniquely shaped one-mile Phoenix facility will deliver a scintillating race. Of course, the biggest story heading into this weekend will be how the still new Gen-6 cars perform in the series’ first non-plate event, and needless to say, many of the questions surrounding the car’s race-ability will come a step closer to being answered.
And who could forget about Jimmie Johnson?! After winning the biggest event in modern-day American motorsports (sorry, IndyCar fans) can Johnson carry his momentum into the heart of the Arizona desert? Here are some main storylines we’ll be watching…
*1. Will Phoenix be as dull as the Daytona 500?*
I don’t usually like to dwell on past events in this column, but I feel it’s important to address the elephant in the room here. This year’s Daytona 500 was pitiful. Although we have finally gotten to a point in which plate racing is free of the gimmicky tandem pushing (a much needed step in repairing the the sport’s product on superspeedway tracks) there is still much work to do in improving the race-ability of the new Gen-6 cars there. NASCAR knows this problem and has an action plan in place to address those issues. But what about this weekend’s race in Phoenix? Will we see more of the same this weekend?
Of course we won’t. Many fans I’ve talked to this past week have expressed their worries over the quality of the racing that the new Gen-6 car will provide due to the bore-fest that was the 2013 Daytona 500. For all of you who have those concerns, let me assuage those fears. Phoenix is an entirely different type of track than Daytona, and the cars will be using a completely different aero package than the one used last week. What you saw during Speedweeks will not apply for the rest of the races this season (well… at least until we get to Talladega). These new cars are super-gripped to the track due to all of the downforce the new car makes, and all of the drivers raved over the offseason about how much closer they can race to one another since the Gen-6’s race better in traffic than the old CoT.
At worst, this weekend’s race will be probably be no different than last year’s events at Phoenix (both of which were damn good at times) and at best, the racing could be better because of the (reportedly) improved race-ability of the new cars, along with the uncertainty that comes with racing a new car on a track for the first time. So rest easy, ladies and gentlemen; the Daytona 500 was a poor indicator of what these Gen-6 beasts can do.
*2. Can any drivers be labeled as favorites given the uncertainty of the Gen-6 cars?*
It’s always tough to pick out a winner for a race on a given weekend in NASCAR. With upwards of 20 drivers usually capable of winning, it’s extremely difficult to pick someone when so many guys are competitive. Throw in all of the other variables (wrecks, weather, equipment failures), and you can see why Vegas bettors often stay away from stock car races.
Now, given that there hasn’t been a single non-plate race contested with the new Gen-6 car, all of those difficulties in picking a winner become multiplied. We have absolutely no idea as of yet of what team and/or manufacturer has the edge in terms of aerodynamics and setups. All we have to go by in forecasting this weekend’s driver performance is past success at Phoenix, and three drivers stick out more so than any other: Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, and Kevin Harvick. These three guys have swept the three races that have been run on the new Phoenix track configuration since the end of 2011. Since the new cars are so untested and filled with unknowns, I really think this race is simply going to come down to who has this track down the best, and these three guys have it down better than anyone else as of late.
In the past four races at Phoenix (one of those was on the old pavement, bear in mind), Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have a staggering 6.5 average finish, which is best among all active drivers. Kahne is no slouch, either, boasting an 11.25 average in that same time frame. As always, it’s tough to predict anything in this sport, but if I was forced to put down money on a winner this weekend, it would likely be placed on one of those three men. Oh, and there’s one more guy you may want to keep any eye on as well…
*3. Will Jimmie Johnson’s momentum carry over into Phoenix?*
You bet it will. Jimmie Johnson, while far from being a slouch when it comes to plate racing, is not exactly the pied piper of Daytona and Talladega either. To give you some perspective, Johnson hasn’t even finished on the lead lap of the Daytona 500 since 2006. Call it bad luck, call it a feast or famine approach to plate racing, but the fact is that Johnson tends to be at his worst on the sport’s biggest tracks. That, my friends, is what makes Johnson so scary heading into this weekend, and into the rest of the year as a whole. If Johnson is winning races at some of his worst tracks (i.e. Daytona), what on earth is going to happen when he gets to his bread and butter ovals, such as the one we are at this weekend? Utter domination, perhaps?
While I wouldn’t go quite that far, it is clear that this No. 48 team is once again on top of its game. Johnson historically tends to put up huge numbers when he has a lot of momentum following him, and he will have that in spades this weekend in Phoenix. Expect Johnson to be one of the main contenders all race long, and expect crew chief Chad Knaus to be working extra hard in getting his car to Victory Lane. Knaus loves to use these early season races as a sort of way of establishing dominance (see: 2010), as doing so will send a strong message about who has the handle on these Gen-6 cars.
Just when you think the No. 48 team is gone, they strike back like cockroaches. Expect to see Johnson up front quite a bit in Phoenix.
*4. Can the sport’s momentum carry over into Phoenix?*
I know television ratings are not the most exciting things to keep tabs on, but considering how much they influence this sport, it is something to know. For those of you not aware, last weekend’s Daytona 500 pulled a 10.0/22 overnight and a 9.9/22 final Nielsen rating, averaging roughly 16.8 million viewers nationally. That’s a 30% increase (!!!) over the 2012 running of the event and the best rating for a NASCAR race of any kind since 2006. Those numbers are fantastic. Whether it’s because of Danica, the new Gen-6 cars, or just a genuine increase of interest in the sport, NASCAR is on the public radar again (even though it never really left it — these things are cyclical anyway). It just goes to show that the sport really is, in fact trending back upwards in terms of popularity again. But the big question is whether or not that momentum can be maintained. Can Phoenix help things out in that regard?
I believe it can. Phoenix is an excellent race track that usually always puts on a good show. The race will have next to no competition in terms of viewers and it has a cushy, late-afternoon race start which should help rope in more midday East Coast channel surfers. Danica-mania is still at full blast due to her sterling performance at Daytona, and Jimmie Johnson is still very much in the public’s consciousness due to the media circuit he has been on this week. All of the pieces are in place for NASCAR to gain more momentum this weekend. If Phoenix delivers a good race (which I believe it will, see question 1) the sport could benefit greatly due to the events of Daytona and interest in NASCAR still being fresh in the mainstream public’s mind. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but the fact remains that this weekend is another golden opportunity for the sport.
Here’s hoping they don’t screw it up.