News & Media

Happy Hour: Drivers feel lessons learned as they return to PIR

March 03, 2012, Jarrod Breeze,

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Stewart, Truex pace practices as some still learning track's new layout

When NASCAR last visited Phoenix International Raceway, drivers were met with a new track of sorts, as PIR completed a repaving project between its February and November races that also included a reconfiguration, notable among the changes a widening of the frontstretch, readjusted dogleg, and progressive banking in the corners.

Between a tire test, open test and practices, drivers had ample opportunity to acclimate themselves to the new racing conditions. But nothing prepares you for the real thing than does the real thing itself -- which is why drivers are eager for their second go-round at the new-look PIR.

Practice crashes

Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell both had problems in practice at Phoenix and will have to go to a backup car.

"I feel like we have learned a bit and can apply some things to the race car to take on the track this time," said Jimmie Johnson, echoing a similar refrain among drivers.

Johnson, of course, had his streak of 10 top-five finishes at Phoenix, including four wins, snapped with a respectable but, for PIR, un-Johnson-like 14th-place finish (one lap down) in November.

"The tough thing here -- just to summarize a race run, the car gets tight relatively quick so you need to start the car really loose at the beginning of a run to be good over the long haul. That difference makes it tough," Johnson said. "Your balance of the car from the start of the run to the end of the run, there is a huge swing in events there and that is what we fought so badly here in the fall. I feel like we know where to go this year."

Others weren't as fortunate as Johnson, chief among them his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, who followed a victory in February with a 32nd-place finish in November, when he was plagued by mistakes and brake issues.

"Somebody sent a tweet to me this week saying, 'When did preparation for Phoenix start?' I said, 'Since the last time we were here and we stunk so bad.' Obviously, we learned a lot the last time we were here. We were not very good, we didn't qualify very good, we weren't very good in the race," said Gordon, who posted the fifth-fastest speed in final practice (138.244 mph) Friday, covering the 1-mile track in 26.041 seconds, and his 59 laps in the session was the most of all drivers in the top five.

Johnson made 63 laps -- second-most in the practice to Kyle Busch's 64 -- with a top speed of 137.799 (26.125 seconds), good for seventh on the chart. Among the 22 drivers who ran 10 consecutive laps in the final practice, Johnson was second with an average speed of 135.758 mph. Only new teammate Kasey Kahne was better (136.451 mph).

"It just takes a little time to figure out race tracks from time to time. We have always been good at adapting and I think that this weekend we will run a lot better than we did in the fall," Johnson said.

Martin Truex Jr. led final practice with a speed of 139.481 mph (25.810 seconds). He was followed by Clint Bowyer, Juan Montoya and Kurt Busch. Montoya, who was sixth in the first session, and Ryan Newman were the only drivers to post top-10 speeds in both sessions.

"Obviously, we learned a lot the last time we were here. We were not very good, we didn't qualify very good, we weren't very good in the race."


Newman, however, used the final 90-minute practice to get acclimated to his backup car after wrecking between Turns 3 and 4 during the closing minutes of the first session.

"I opened my entry up a little too far. I got a little aggressive and just got loose getting in, and that was it," Newman said. "We'll just plug in the same game [to the backup car] and we'll be all right."

Newman was fourth-fastest in the first practice before the accident, and his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Tony Stewart, led the session, giving Newman and Stewart confidence in the No. 39 backup.

"Like I told him, that is why we bring two cars to the race track," Stewart said. "The second car is just as good as his first one is. It will be fine."

As for the track, Stewart is the proverbial exception to the rule, and doesn't view a return trip to the track as any kind of advantage. And he backed that statement by posting the third-fastest 10 consecutive lap average (135.534 mph) in final practice.

"You know we got to do the Goodyear tire test here and then the open test and then the race. By the time the end of the race weekend was over it was our third time on the new track," said Stewart, who finished third in the race. "I think we probably made our biggest gains between the tire test and the open test and then the open test to the race. More so than what we did coming back here in the spring.

"It is not changed much from when we were here last fall."

Stewart's ease has to be of extra comfort for Gordon, who is looking for all the help he can get when it comes to setup. His newest teammate, Kasey Kahne, will have much to add to the conversation. Driving for Red Bull, Kahne won the first race on the repaved surface.

"We got a lot of information from our teammates including Stewart-Haas that we share data with of what they had in their car, as well as now [crew chief] Kenny Francis and Kasey Kahne being at Hendrick -- we feel like we've got a lot of really valuable information from what we learned as well as what they learned to come back here and be a lot more competitive," Gordon said.

Besides Newman, other drivers forced to backups are Matt Kenseth, Brendan Gaughan and Michael McDowell. Kenseth and Gaughan each had trouble in final practice.

Kenseth, who sat on the pole in the first race at repaved PIR, got in only 10 laps in the session and only mustered a top speed of 135.186 mph, more than 4 mph slower than Truex. Kenseth side-swiped the wall coming out of Turn 2; the car sustained severe damage to the right-front corner.

The only other incident in final practice came 53 minutes into the session when Montoya made right-side contact with the wall but was able to return after repairs.

In the first practice, McDowell hit the wall along the frontstretch, requiring his car to be towed to the garage. He was brought to the infield care center, where he was examined and released. He'll go to a backup. McDowell, who must make the race on time, did not turn a lap in the final session. He was the second-slowest of 44 cars in the first practice.