News & Media

Track Smack: 'New' Phoenix track stirs debate about contention

November 10, 2011, ,

Can anyone catch Edwards and Stewart on new surface, configuration at PIR?

1. The Sprint Cup tour heads to Phoenix, which has been resurfaced and reconfigured since teams last saw it in February. Will this track be enough of a wild card to let anybody back into the championship hunt?

David Caraviello: Listening to drivers, it seems everyone is bracing for Phoenix as if it's the surface of the moon. They're calling it a brand-new race track, saying it will be a very wild wild wild card, giving the impression that the unpredictability factor will go through the roof. And while that may be the case to a certain extent, it's still a race track, and I still expect the teams that do well most every other week to do well here. If anything, these changes probably benefit stronger teams, who have more people and resources and are better able to adapt. So if it's a shocker -- I'd be shocked.

Dave Rodman: I am the king of possibilities, but ... wait a minute, I'm not gonna be a hypocrite. Hell yes, it could -- because the configuration of this race track and the level at which Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart are gonna race each other could lead to a perfect storm, particularly at the level at which Kevin Harvick's performed here in the past, and how he tested here. So I'll drag that tire into the middle of this debate.

Jarrod Breeze: Kevin Harvick better hope so, but despite the perceived uneasiness some may have racing on a repaved track for the first time, it's still a level playing field, as it were. Advantage: Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. But it doesn't take much for things to go awry in a hurry. I think we'll know the answer early on. If Stewart and Edwards get through the first half of the race unscathed, then third through everyone else has no chance.

David Caraviello: Dragging is appropriate here, Dave, given that the track has rigged a machine to drag tires around the track in hopes that a second groove will come in. Drivers seem to believe anyone caught in that less-grippy high lane during restarts will be a sitting duck, and Brad Keselowski even went as far as to say the championship could be decided by a restart at Phoenix. All I know is, I remember everyone saying how perilous the low lane at Kentucky was because of the bumps, and how nobody wanted to be down there -- and guys ran down there all night. So we'll see.

Jarrod Breeze: My thought is these drivers have raced on repaved surfaces before, and have to know, is some way, what to expect. And they will be given ample track time to get a feel. I guess it also depends on if the tire-dragging machines and driving-school cars made enough laps to put in a second groove.

Another wild weekend?

Fantasy Preview breaks down this week's favorites, dark horses and underdogs at Phoenix International Raceway.

Dave Rodman: If this was anywhere else, any other time I would have already been doing my best Don Meredith impression: "Turn out the lights..." Let's take a worst-case scenario for Edwards and Stewart, and let's say Harvick excels. Depending on when the leaders take themselves out -- and that's a big if -- let's say Kevin's hooked up and puts piles of people laps down. That might mean a last-minute disaster wouldn't hurt Carl and Tony as much.

David Caraviello: To Jarrod's point, granted, Tony has always loved this place, always kind of thrived at it, and he is facing a completely new configuration, so it clearly won't be the Phoenix he came up with. But the good teams are the good teams because of their ability to perform anywhere. Phoenix's reconfiguration doesn't change the fact that Stewart has won four times in this Chase, or that Edwards hasn't finished worse than 11th since August. They've both done it on all kinds of race tracks, and this is another one, and I'd be stunned if one team flat-out missed it because of the changes in the surface and design.

Jarrod Breeze: I agree with David -- these stronger teams, such as those of Stewart and Edwards, won't be hampered by a raw race track. Where they will find any problems is if they are racing near teams that don't have the experience on a repaved surface, and get caught up in some other drivers' mess. You have to expect at some point both Stewart and Edwards will get caught up in lapped traffic. I thought Matt Kenseth was sitting pretty at Martinsville, then all of a sudden, his hopes were dashed. Repaved or not, you just don't know what trouble is lurking at the next turn.

Dave Rodman: JB, that's why I laugh at all the crap I take for pointing out that "stuff" certainly can happen. I've seen enough events in my time to know it can. The percentage chances of bad things happening at Phoenix (and I'm picking 'em from my back pocket, which is right close to you-know-where): Harvick receives a miracle, 10 percent; melee removes one contender before the championship goes to Homestead, 40 percent; Eddie Gossage gets request to ship fight paraphernalia to Homestead, 50 percent.

David Caraviello: JB, at a relatively small track like Phoenix, that's a given. But, man -- Harvick has an awful lot to chew off. He's 33 back, and if memory serves me correctly the most Edwards has given back in one race is 31 at Pocono, when he blew an engine. Pocono puts a lot more stress on the engine than Phoenix, which isn't necessarily a horsepower track. Engines can blow anywhere, but the Desert Mile isn't exactly conducive to that sort of thing. Kevin is going to need some back-marker to go sideways in front of the points leaders, which is no guarantee.

Dave Rodman: Yes, 33 points is a lot to make up. I really think it might be more likely that one of the contenders, heaven forbid, gets caught up in one of these restart melees that a lot of people seem to be predicting. And if that happens, it would absolutely ruin Homestead. Having said that, even though Edwards y Stewart, mano y mano is something I wouldn't miss -- it's far from being the Ford Championship Finale I predicted earlier in this Chase. Sorry about that.

Jarrod Breeze: Talladega was a wild card. Martinsville was a wild card. Now, repaved Phoenix is a wild card. Really, aren't they all wild cards because that many cars are racing at those speeds, can't anything happen?

More: PIR's plan to lay rubber in second groove | Resurfacing wasn't a debate, but a necessity

David Caraviello: Amen, JB. Can we banish the phrase "wild-card" from the NASCAR lexicon as it pertains to race tracks? All that said, I like the fact that we have this wild ca-- um, unpredictable new track coming this late in the championship race, which only adds to just how much fun this is to watch right now. I'm sure crew chiefs and engineers have been lying wide awake at night worrying about this place, but from simply a viewership perspective, anything that stokes the drama is welcome. Not that there's not plenty enough already, mind you, given the points situation and the interplay between Tony and Carl. But the changes at Phoenix simply elevate that. Given how strong the Roush cars always are at Homestead, it's a cool little wrinkle thrown into the mix.

Jarrod Breeze: Homestead will be interesting. Pretty mundane racing there, for sure, but it's been a while since a championship really came down to the final race. That makes it as much of a wild ca-- um, as unpredictable as Phoenix.

Relive all the highlights from this year's earlier race at Phoenix:

2. Late last week, Michael Waltrip Racing dropped David Reutimann and added Mark Martin in a partial schedule for 2012. Was this a move the team needed to make?

Jarrod Breeze: Hard to say right now. Martin hasn't exactly lit the world on fire the past couple of years at Hendrick, and is a two-headed Martin/Waltrip better than a steady presence in Reutimann? I mean, is it better to get feedback from just one person who drives the car on a regular basis, or from two (or more) drivers? And talk about your seat adjustments -- isn't Waltrip like a foot taller than Martin?

David Caraviello: I guess any time you have the opportunity to get one of the all-time greats like Mark Martin, you have to grab it. The guy was a threat to win races in a limited schedule with Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. a few years ago, and could very well be again next year with MWR. That said -- what an awful turn of events for Reutimann. Here he is, the only guy who's ever won Cup races for your race team, and you're cutting him loose. That's a very difficult thing to digest.

Martin to MWR

Mark Martin opens up about taking over the Michael Waltrip Racing No. 00 in 2012.

Dave Rodman: The harsh reality of sport is they had to do something. As David says, getting Mark Martin could elevate every ship MWR has floating -- and crew chief Rodney Childers has won races, so a couple of Ws next year for the 00 is certainly possible.

David Caraviello: Yes, Reutimann was having a tough year. After two straight seasons in the top-20, and toying with the idea of Chase contention, he kind of bottomed out this year. But here's the thing -- MWR as a whole has suffered the same fate. Both Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. are outside the top 20 in points. The struggles this year on the No. 00 car seem part of a larger organizational issue, which is why MWR aligned itself more closely with Toyota, made some changes in the front office, and jumped at the chance to grab Clint Bowyer. They've had some issues, and they know it, so to single out Reutimann here would be kind of unfair.

Jarrod Breeze: I'm not buying into Martin being the "savior" of MWR. Yes, his track record, and the experience that goes along with it, speaks for itself. But he continues to get older, not younger, and maybe age is finally catching up with him when it comes to results. Two top-fives this year, winless the past two years. His 18.3 average finish his worst since 2003.

Dave Rodman: But here's where -- being around 30 years or not -- I just don't get it. Since David was under contract for next year and better get paid, I think I would have tried to finagle something to keep everyone in-house and do a partial schedule with Mark. The thing that's toughest to swallow is what an above-the-top-shelf individual David Reutimann is, and the guy's the only one who's ever won a Cup race for your team. Seems to me you ought to look somewhere else for the solutions to your problems. Though I must say, Scott Miller is a pretty good start.

David Caraviello: This has to be sponsor-driven. It just makes it all too easy to put Martin in a part-time car, with backing from the same company that had been behind your full-time effort. And Dave, there probably wasn't sponsorship available to do another, part-time car. And if you don't jump and grab Martin right now, he ends up at Stewart-Haas or somewhere else. So it seems they had to do the deal this way, if they wanted to do it at all. I guess you cut your losses with Reutimann, write him a check, and move on. Man, that's brutal. Emphasizes yet again this is a business first, last and always. The "family" aspect of this deal only works until somebody decides you have to go.

Jarrod Breeze: I also agree with David -- what exactly has Martin Truex Jr. done that Reutimann hasn't? Of course, we're not privy to inside information, or at the shop on a regular basis, but Reutimann, to me, was the face of the team, in it's flagship car. Sad thing is, probably for Reutimann, chances of finding another full-time ride won't be good. With Red Bull (presumably) going away, we're suddenly finding more drivers available than rides. Then again, Danica needs a partner, if sponsorship can be found.

Dave Rodman: Martin has shown some real signs of snapping out of his funk, no question; and I think 2012 is potentially a pretty good season for he and crew chief Chad Johnston. MWR's new technical direction will help.

David Caraviello: JB, I would guess the answer to your question is, Martin still has NAPA behind him. At least, it seems that way. And in this sponsorship climate, that counts for a lot.

Jarrod Breeze: Yep , yep, yep. Sponsors pay the bills, they make the calls. Safe to say Reutimann won't be shopping at Aaron's any time soon? Would he be that petty?

David Caraviello: And Dave, I will admit, I have all the faith in the world in Scott Miller. The guy is one the smartest dudes in the garage. The driver hires grab the headlines, of course, but Scott is going to be key to everything MWR does going forward. He worked wonders at RCR, and I don't doubt he can do the same in his new gig.

Dave Rodman: JB, Stewart-Haas would be a great place for Reutimann to land; but the money is the issue. If I were SHR what I would be trying to sell is a sponsorship package that would include Danica as a spokesperson, associate representation on her car for her 10 races and making that overall package better. It might work. I think David would have the potential to do really well -- read that, race into the top 35 by the fifth race of 2012 -- if SHR doesn't do a deal to guarantee the car into the 500 already.

David Caraviello: And yet, Dave, if you just need someone to keep the car in the top 35 -- I wonder if Reutimann might be too good. As in: You can find cheaper drivers who can run 25th and just maintain a points position for Danica. Then again, if Stewart-Haas wants someone who might be able to make some noise in that car, you could do much worse than Reutimann. It's a tough market right now, boys. I don't envy these guys looking for a ride.

Dave Rodman: Everything hinges on money. It's incredibly tough. Reutimann said it best -- and this speaks wholly to his high character -- when he said he wasn't keen on booting someone out of a ride so he could have it. If Steve Turner has the money I could see David landing in a full-time Nationwide gig there, which would be a championship contender, I think.

Jarrod Breeze: Really, outside of a possibility of the Danica car running full time even when she isn't in it, what opportunities are going to be out there for Reutimann, and other drivers such as Brian Vickers? Maybe they will have sponsor/driver by committee in the non-Danica races. In other words, that week's sponsor chooses the driver!

David Caraviello: Heck, that's basically how JR Motorsports did it in the No. 7 Nationwide car this year. You never know.

Jarrod Breeze: After all, NASCAR is sponsor-driven. (Get it, driven?)

David Caraviello: Yes, unfortunately.

3. Richard Childress Racing has announced that Austin Dillon will indeed be bringing the No. 3 with him into the Nationwide ranks next season. How will fans react, and what should RCR do with the number if Dillon reaches the Sprint Cup level?

David Caraviello: OK, I know some fans have this visceral reaction to Austin Dillon driving the No. 3 car at NASCAR's national level. But let's face facts here. The kid is on the brink of winning the Camping World Truck Series championship in a No. 3 truck. He may very well win races -- I wouldn't put it past him, given how good he is -- in a No. 3 car next year on the Nationwide tour. He does all that ... he's making the number his own, people. He's earning it. And it would make it much more palatable should Dillon one day make the jump to NASCAR's highest level, and take that number with him.

Dave Rodman: Let's take that step when we come to it. Last weekend at Texas it seems to me Richard told our own Smacketeer Joe Menzer (missing Smacking you around Joe) that the "stylized 3" wasn't on the table in the Cup Series. That being said, Austin's NASCAR identity is built around that number and I think people have responded to it well.

Jarrod Breeze: Earnhardt didn't make a name for himself driving the 3 car in the Nationwide Series. So, much as Dillon has done in the 3 in Trucks, it shouldn't cause too much of an uproar from old-school traditionalists (is that redundant?). The pressure that comes with that number, though, is undeniable, regardless of series.

Richard Childress has been protective of Austin Dillon and the No. 3, but Childress knows the iconic number is in good hands. (Autostock)

What's in a number?

For a former race car driver and longtime car owner known to take chances, Richard Childress has been awfully careful in helping guide and nurture the budding careers of his grandchildren.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Dave but RC's kind of hedged on that before. It's Childress' number, ultimately. He drove it first. That's how Dillon sees it, as his granddad's number. I like that, that they're keeping it in the family. I mean, if it's ever going to be revived, wouldn't you want it to be with someone who understands and respects the lineage, and what it stands for? Austin's a really good kid with a lot going for him, including the fact that he knows where he came from. That should stand for a lot.

Jarrod Breeze: Also, it's not like Childress just took some driver off the street and gave him the 3. As strongly as Earnhardt and Childress were linked, Dillon is family. And that means a lot in NASCAR.

David Caraviello: JB, I will admit, I occasionally get emails from hard-liners who swear they're never going to root for Austin Dillon because they can't get past the fact that he's in the No. 3. That's terribly short-sighted and unfair. He's doing everything right to uphold the legacy of that number, and needs to be applauded for it rather than derided.

Jarrod Breeze: I think a lot will depend on how Dillon fares in the Nationwide Series. He appears to be an emerging star, but we've seen other up-and-comers in the Truck Series really never progress any further. It's hard to imagine Dillon not succeeding in the Nationwide Series, but let's see how next year goes. To me, driving the 3 in the Trucks and Nationwide is one thing, driving it in the Cup is quite another. But eventually, Dillon will need to get a Cup race or two under his belt ... and that's when the big question will come into play. Could RCR revive the 07 for a start here and there, until the day Dillon is ready for Cup on a full-time level?

David Caraviello: I think Austin is the real deal, gang. No question, he got a lot of guff in the early-going for being Childress' grandson, and there were a whole lot of doubters about the kid when he sparked that big accident in the Truck Series opener at Daytona last year. But I think he can drive. Who knows if he'll win in the Nationwide Series, given all the Cup guys that traditionally hog Victory Lane on that circuit, but I'd be shocked if he didn't do well. He's clearly being positioned for a future Cup ride at RCR.

Dave Rodman: JB is right. Any use of the number in anything beneath the Cup level is irrelevant to anything. Jay Sauter won races in the Craftsman Truck Series with the 3 and Austin's done the same in Camping World. The Truck Series' 3 belongs to Childress. Dale Earnhardt Jr., not his father, created the identity for the 3 in the old Busch Series -- though the black car with the 3 on its side is cool wherever it appears.

David Caraviello: Given that RCR is making due with three full-time cars next year in Sprint Cup, and if Austin does have a successful 2012 season in Nationwide .. I can completely see a scenario where Dillon gets slotted into the now-vacant No. 33 car at RCR for 2013. That all depends on sponsorship and performance, of course, but it's possible. And that would give Austin a chance to "retain the 3" -- at least in a way -- while not causing riots among the fan base. Of course, it would also render this conversation moot ...

Dave Rodman: Well, the bottom line is the kid is a diamond right now, if you take into consideration his demeanor, attitude, respect for the sport and where he is in it -- not to mention he can flat-out wheel a race car and truck. He has already logged multiple top-10s in the Nationwide Series so his arrival in a Nationwide Victory Lane will definitely happen in 2012. His Cup number can wait.

Jarrod Breeze: Yeah, a Double 3 could be enough to appease the Earnhardt fan base, yet let him stay connected to the digit is some way. And yes, Dillon is where he is because of who he is. But he is paying his dues, and he's doing quite well doing so. Whereas Danica is getting a chance to start in the Daytona 500 without ever having competed in a full Nationwide Series because, let's face it, of her ability to turn heads, Dillon is turning heads, too.

David Caraviello: JB, you sound like you're going to be keeping a Dillon vs. Danica scorecard in the Nationwide Series next year.

Jarrod Breeze: I don't think a scorecard will be needed.

David Caraviello: Suddenly, I can't wait for 2012!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.