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Driver reactions mixed to reconfigured Phoenix

November 11, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com



Driver reactions mixed to reconfigured Phoenix
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Some are excited about new-look PIR, but others fear lack of passing on Sunday

Now that Sprint Cup drivers have had four hours of practice to get acclimated to the reconfigured and repaved Phoenix International Raceway, opinions are decidedly mixed.

"I actually expect us to have a better race than what we anticipate -- than a lot of drivers anticipate."

--DENNY HAMLIN

Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 could be better than people expect. Or it could be extremely difficult to pass, especially in Turns 3 and 4.

It all depends on the racing groove, or in this case, grooves. Even after all the work track officials did to prepare the new surface before this weekend, concerns about the slickness of the new asphalt -- and how much side-by-side racing may take place -- were top of mind Friday.

"I think racing is going to be really hard," Juan Montoya said. "I think passing is going to be really hard until the groove widens a little more. Hopefully by the time Sunday comes around, we'll be pretty good."

Kurt Busch participated in the original tire test and said the difference between then and now is significant.

"The track gave us a lot more confidence this time around," Busch said. "It [was] so tough because there was just one little patch on the race track where we were running because everything else was very dusty, dirty with the oil coming up. [It] made it real slick."

The difficulty for drivers and crew chiefs was in determining how much to gamble on the setup, because as cars laid down more rubber, speeds began to climb. After the sun poked through the clouds late in the morning, overcast skies prevailed during the final two hours of practice, making for nearly perfect conditions.

Thirty-five cars were faster in Happy Hour than the track-record 137.279 mph lap that Carl Edwards recorded in February. Paul Menard topped the leaderboard with a lap of 141.121 mph, nearly a full half-mile an hour faster than Edwards' 140.724 mph. Regan Smith was the only other driver to break the 140 mph barrier.

Kyle Busch -- who lost oil pressure in his primary engine before he even completed a lap in the morning practice -- more than made up for his lack of track time in the final two-hour session. He logged 85 laps and was clocked at 139.855 mph on a mock qualifying run. However, because he had to change engines, he'll start at the tail end of the field Sunday no matter where he qualifies.

Kobalt Tools 500

Practice 1
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2.M. Kenseth139.92525.728
3.D. Ragan139.61625.785
4.P. Menard139.60525.787
5.R. Newman139.54025.799
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2.C. Edwards140.72425.582
3.R. Smith140.36225.648
4.B. Vickers139.97425.719
5.Ky. Busch139.85525.741

While Edwards seemed to find speed early and often, that wasn't the case with championship rival Tony Stewart, who struggled despite turning more than 90 laps. His best lap of 137.179 mph was only 36th quickest, and quite a bit slower than teammate Ryan Newman.

The only incident during the final tuneup for Sunday's 500-kilometer event came midway through practice, when Andy Lally slid out of the groove exiting Turn 2 and slapped the outside wall, perhaps after cutting a tire. His No. 71 Ford suffered significant right-side damage, and after the car returned to the garage area, crewmembers stayed busy trying to move parts and pieces to the backup.

Kurt Busch said the most difficult aspect about a new track surface is trying to anticipate how much additional grip may be gained by race time. Complicating matters is the possibility of rain Saturday night and Sunday morning, which if heavy enough, could wash away much of the rubber.

"Right now, you're on edge because you're trying to continue to advance," Kurt Busch said. "But the track is going to continue to get better, so you have to adjust to the changing conditions."

But will there be enough of a groove to allow for passing? Denny Hamlin thinks so.

"I actually expect us to have a better race than what we anticipate -- than a lot of drivers anticipate," Hamlin said. "I think the groove is widening out, I've seen it during practice. It's moved up probably three feet during the course of our practice. It's almost two lanes wide."

But Hamlin admits that's somewhat deceiving.

"When I say two lanes, I'm talking about cars that are glued together," Hamlin said. "We need actually three lanes of racing for cars to run two wide. It will get there. I really do believe it will get there and we're going to have a pretty good race, better than people are expecting."

Montoya said the truth will be told on Sunday, particularly at the drop of the green flag.

"At some point somebody is going to have to run up there," he said. "When we go side-by-side at the start of the race, somebody is on the outside. It is going to be one of those deals, but I think it will be OK. I think it is going to be a little slicker in [Turns] 3 and 4 than 1 and 2, so, we'll see. But it is always fun."