Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway…
1. Passing Pain
Kevin Harvick is the all-time leader in wins and laps led at Phoenix, so you’d figure he’s better at passing cars than anyone here.
But after Sunday’s race, Harvick said passing was “extremely difficult” — even for him — and he struggled to get around cars that were “six-, seven-, eight-tenths slower than us at the end of the race.”
What happened? Well, it appears this version of the 2019 rules package — last year’s horsepower level (750) combined with the giant spoiler — created a combination of speed and dirty air that drivers found difficult to overcome.
“It was really, really, really, really, really hard to pass,” Joey Logano said. “You start to catch a car and you just stop. That big spoiler on the back makes it really, really challenging to even get to the car in front of you to make something happen.”
Even race winner Kyle Busch noted he wouldn’t have been able to win unless Ryan Blaney got into lapped traffic toward the end of a long run — because Blaney “had the same problems I had (when) he’s behind other cars in front of him.”
“If it’s a 10-lap run, (the win) is his,” Busch said. “If it’s 20, 30, 40, 50 laps, it’s probably his race.”
But it was a 73-lap run, and that allowed Busch to take advantage of lapped cars. Otherwise…
“You were really stuck and mired behind guys,” he said.
At least one driver aside from Busch didn’t mind the conditions.
“I mean, it’s been really hard for me to pass anyone the last year and a half or two years,” Jimmie Johnson said after finishing eighth. “I know other are guys standing here complaining more, but shit, that’s the best I’ve run in awhile. So I’m good.”
2. Restarts all the rage
But hey, how about those crazy restarts? Those were cool; certainly the highlight of the race, much like Las Vegas.
Logano said restarts “became everything” because drivers knew if they got through the first couple laps of a restart and let the race settle out, they could pretty much stay there.
Kyle Larson started 31st and finished sixth, but credited restarts for most of his gains.
“I don’t think I made many actual green-flag passes — I felt like I just had some really good restarts,” he said. “Restarts were kind of what saved us. Once you got in line, it was hard to pass until the very end of that last run there (when the tires finally wore out).”
The other reason restarts were so wild, Logano said, was because the bigger blade on the back of the car gave more grip — so drivers were “sending it off in there.”
“They were able to be more aggressive on restarts,” Logano said. “But after that, it didn’t matter how aggressive you were — you weren’t going to get there. It was too hard to catch them.”
If the first few races are any indication, eye-popping restarts should become one of the themes of this season.
3. Strategy, strategy, strategy
Another theme of this season could end up being how teams adapt to the track position game by using tire strategy or pit road strategy.
It’s not just restarts, Denny Hamlin said, but pit crews and every part of strategy that matters even more now. Drivers simply can’t afford to lose any positions, because they might not get them back (or take them a very long time to do so, like with Harvick after he pitted and only got back to ninth).
“All of that is so important because you cannot drive around someone if you’re significantly faster,” Hamlin said. “They have to actually move out of the way or you have to somehow catch them in a bad spot.”
Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said the track position game didn’t surprise him — he thought it was going to be “even harder to pass than it was.”
But he was intrigued by how some of the better cars who played tire strategy (like Johnson taking two) were able to hold onto their positions throughout a run.
“There’s going to be a lot of data for us to dig into so we can plan how we’re going to strategize the next race when we come back,” he said.
One can only imagine how many races will be won by strategic decisions that might push the envelope or seem unorthodox at the time. When the NASCAR garage is tasked with coming up with different ways to approach a race, crew chiefs and engineers usually deliver.
As for Harvick, he said the lesson was pretty simple on how to play the strategy for the next Phoenix race.
“Just restart first,” he said.
4. O, Fontana
I’m not going to lie here — I’m getting a little worried about the various forms of this package after the first three races. We’ve seen three different uses of it — at Atlanta, Vegas and now Phoenix — with ho-hum results. Certainly nothing spectacular yet.
But Fontana really seems to be a place where that could change. I have high hopes of seeing the first great race of the season, because the extreme form of the package (550 horsepower with the aero ducts) combined with a sweeping 2-mile track that happens to have worn-out asphalt…well, all the ingredients are there.
If it’s not a good race? Gulp. Let’s not think about that yet, because it could mean this might be a long season.
Maybe this means there’s a lot riding on Fontana, but if any track is going to work with this rules package, you’d think that would be one.
5. In the (Fan) Zone
After a couple times seeing the new ISM Raceway “INfield” in action, I’m convinced it’s the best fan experience in NASCAR. With apologies to the Neon Garage in Las Vegas, the new Richmond Raceway garages (similar to Phoenix) and the Daytona fan zone, Phoenix just goes above and beyond with the combination of amenities and access.
It’s not cheap — $129 for a three-day pass and $89 on Sunday only, which is on top of your regular race ticket. But damn, I would think it’s worth it.
Take practice sessions, for example. The fans are literally inside the garages, with just a waist-high fence separating them from the cars and drivers. There are no windows or barriers between them and their favorite teams, which is pretty amazing in itself.
Then there’s the race day experience, which goes as far to allow any INfield passholder into victory lane (try to get a spot with at least 50 laps to go) for the celebration.
Plus there’s stuff like a margarita bar and plenty of screens (and it’s right behind pit road, so you can see some of that action).
This probably sounds like an advertisement (sorry), but I wanted to make sure it was on your radar. In an alternate universe where I wasn’t a journalist and was just at the track for fun, I could easily picture myself spending an enjoyable, sun-drenched afternoon there with my friends.