AVONDALE, Ariz.—For the top drivers and teams in NASCAR’s Cup Series, FanShield 500 weekend at Phoenix Raceway is one big test session.
Sure, there’s still gravitas in winning the race and qualifying for the Playoffs, but now that the Cup Series championship has been moved to the one-mile track, developing a baseline for the Nov. 8 title bout takes on a whole new meaning.
“We’ll do the best thing for us, setting ourselves up for when we come back here in the fall and hopefully have a chance to race for a championship,” said defending Cup champion Kyle Busch. “You have to get here first. This race means everything for everyone in the garage, because this time everyone right now has a shot. In our reality, there’s only going to be four guys that come back here that have a shot. Hopefully we’re one of those four.”
Busch, 34, is being modest. He has advanced as a final-four title contender in each of the last five years and won the championship twice. And since NASCAR modified the format in 2014, the title has evolved into a winner-take-all between the four anointed drivers. But during Busch’s 16 seasons in the sport, the stand-alone race at Homestead-Miami Speedway has served as the finale. NASCAR teams always had to rely on notes from previous years to develop setups, whether there were changes to the cars or not.
Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, won the fall race at Phoenix to lock into the Championship 4 last year. Not surprisingly, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is thrilled to return to the desert to battle for the title.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Hamlin, who qualified third for Sunday’s race. “It’s always good knowing that this is going to be the championship weekend. To have a car that’s good right off the bat allows us to have a baseline setup that we can always go back on if we ever get lost on championship week.”
PASSING WITH FLYING COLORS?
William Byron is the most recent driver to shake down the Gen 7 car.
He remained at Auto Club Speedway last Monday to test the NASCAR prototype, which will become the official vehicle for the Cup Series in 2021.
But the exercise did not go as planned for the 22-year-old Hendrick racer, who spun during the test session.
“Honestly, with that car with the sidewall being so much smaller than what we have now, it’s kind of like your street tire,” Byron said. “So when you get loose, the combination of that plus no side force, it just makes it a lot different when you get loose. That’s what I noticed so far. I’m sure it’s going to be a lot different once we actually race it.”
“I haven’t really spun out like that before. It was different, for sure, but it’s a long way from the finished product and they said they’ve learned some things from that. It wasn’t like I was driving super hard or anything like that, so you just learn from it and move on.”
REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD?
When Stewart-Haas Racing announced this week that Tony Stewart would come out of retirement to race the inaugural Pennzoil 250 on the Indianapolis Grand Prix Course on July 4, the organization wasn't forthcoming with his support crew for the event.
But as long as Smoke is coming off of the bench, why not enlist his long-time crew chief Greg Zipadelli as well?
Zippy is still the competition director at SHR, and together the pair scored 33 Cup wins and two championships.
“We’re talking about it,” Zipadelli said. “We’ll see what happens. We’ll see where we’re at, what we’ve got for people and we’ll just do it. It would be fun if we do it.
“He and I had a long conversation about it (Thursday). He’s pretty excited about it. It will be fun. We’ll see.”
KEEPING IT CLEAN
With the NHL altering its media policy in the wake of Coronavirus—which now precludes reporters entering locker rooms in favor of formal press conferences—other sports are expected to follow suit.
NASCAR drivers, who are known as some of the friendliest athletes among professional sports, are taking pro-active measures on their own.
Kevin Harvick has changed the way he approaches race weekends and personal appearances.
“Just not using anybody else’s pens, trying to keep a little bit of distance—to help with both of us, no handshakes, no knuckles,” Harvick said. “Just a lot of the same types of things.
“Those guys (stick and ball athletes) don’t do many appearances anyway.”
NASCAR isn’t making any policy changes at this time, but a source told RacinBoys.com that a representative from the sport will take part in a conference call regarding Coronavirus with 22 additional leagues on Monday.