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Nationwide cars get first crack at new PIR surface

December 05, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Nationwide cars get first crack at new PIR surface
AVONDALE, Ariz -- After Thursday practices, drivers conclude passing on high side will be difficult

Early Thursday afternoon, Nationwide driver Steve Wallace became the first competitor to circle the new Phoenix International Raceway on a NASCAR event weekend. He made a pair of tentative laps around the 1-mile oval before returning to the garage area, and the track fell silent again for a long stretch before two more brave souls -- Jason Leffler and Ron Hornaday -- ventured out.

It was that kind of day, as Nationwide drivers tip-toed around a facility most were seeing for the first time since it was resurfaced and reconfigured following its February event weekend. This is a very different track than most remember, given that the asphalt was replaced, the backstretch dogleg kicked out and narrowed, and progressive banking added in the turns. After the project was completed, cars from the Richard Petty Driving Experience ran more than 3,000 miles on the surface, and a machine dragged tires around for 12 days -- all of it with the intent of rubbering in the track and widening the upper groove.

"It's just very, very slick. There's just a lack of stability."

--BRAD KESELOWSKI

Thursday, though, the race cars arrived for real. And the idea of passing seemed about as unadvisable as wandering through the nearby Sonoran Desert.

"Heck no," Elliott Sadler said. "I just tested that. I got to the 82 car [of Reed Sorenson], which was about a half a second of a lap slower than I was. I got to him, and really couldn't do anything with him. I didn't want to make a move under, and definitely not on the outside to try an make a pass. Not with the lanes of traffic we have with the one-groove track."

Very quickly, it became evident that the high lane was something of a no-man's land. "It's just very, very slick," Brad Keselowski said. "There's just a lack of stability."

Although Sprint Cup teams tested for two days at Phoenix last month, Nationwide programs did not have that opportunity, so a pair of practice sessions -- which did not determine qualifying order -- were added for Thursday. Keselowski said the surface was better Thursday than it was at the Sprint Cup test, although teams continue to fight both a dirty track and a hard tire, two elements that don't necessarily work well together. It's just going to take time, Keselowski said, for the track to come in. But how much time?

"It might take a year or something. It might be this weekend. I don't think any of us really know," he said. "I hate to make a guess, because I've never been in a situation like this. It's a big, vague question mark."

Sadler said the two Sprint Cup practice sessions and Nationwide final practice on Friday will help. So will warm desert weather. "We need no rain," he said. "We need as much sun and hot weather as we can get to try and grab the rubber of the tire and put it into the asphalt and create some good racing here. The track is definitely getting some more grip as we move on, which is good. It's definitely getting blacker. Now we've got to figure out a way to get in another half a groove or full grove to create the kind of racing we want to see."

"We need no rain. We need as much sun and hot weather as we can get to try and grab the rubber of the tire and put it into the asphalt and create some good racing here."

--ELLIOTT SADLER

Venturing into the outside lane, though, is an adventure. Sadler said the Sprint Cup drivers who had tested at Phoenix gave him some advice. "Stay in the groove," he said. "If a car's running in front of you, stay in his tire tracks and you'll be OK. That's kind of the lesson I'm abiding by today."

That doesn't necessarily bode well for passing, but Keselowski said drivers will find a way. "I think we're all worried about what's going to happen. But I think at some point, we've all got to man up and race, and make it happen," he said. "There are obstacles every weekend. This is just a new set of obstacles. ... The facilities change every week, and that's part of what keeps it fresh and makes it unique."

For those with championship hopes on the line, though, those obstacles loom substantially higher. Phoenix will play a pivotal role in deciding a pair of close championship hunts, a Sprint Cup contest in which three points separate Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, and a Nationwide tilt where 17 stand between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Sadler. "We have been fearing this race for the last three months, because this is such an unknown," Sadler said.

"When you have a restart with 20 laps to go, and you're on the outside, and you only have a one-lane race track, you're going to have some issues, whether you're running for the championship or running for the win. For us, Phoenix has kind of been circled on our schedule for the last two months, wondering how it was going to be when we got here. Is it going to open up to be a two-groove race track, or is it going to carry the type of characteristics that first-time race tracks carry? And that is, one groove, you've got to bump the guy ahead of you to move him, if you get in the outside groove there's a pretty good chance you're probably going to wreck."

Which all leads back to the primary question -- how is anyone going to pass? "I've got an idea for that, but I don't want to share it yet," Keselowski said. "You'll just have to watch."