2020 Nov6 Phoenix Raceway Main Image
Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

Phoenix’s debut as finale host creates a new-look title race

Phoenix Raceway has been a staple on NASCAR’s top circuit since its debut on the 1988 schedule. Sunday will mark its 49th race for NASCAR’s big leagues, but also a first of sorts — one that could tilt the complexion of the series’ championship hunt toward more of a full-contact fight.

The 1-mile Arizona track will play host to the season finale for the first time Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM), a showcase for the venerable and recently renovated venue. Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano will vie for the title after qualifying for the postseason’s Championship 4 field.

The title shift to Phoenix this season comes after an 18-year run for 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway as the finale host. With the move, Phoenix becomes the shortest track to host NASCAR’s season-ending race since the Cup Series closed the 1970 campaign at .396-mile Langley Speedway in the Virginia Tidewater.

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While it perhaps doesn’t meet the textbook definition of a short track, Phoenix has some of the same traits. The slower speeds and tighter confines should produce closer-quarters racing — perhaps not to the magnitude of a Bristol or Martinsville, but to a degree higher than the intermediate-sized tracks that dominate the schedule. “It’s somewhere in between those two, no doubt,” Keselowski says.

With the track comes the opportunity for contact — both unintentional and provoked — and the inviting prospect of creating your own title destiny by bumper.

“Obviously the opportunity for contact is up compared to what it was at Miami because cars can get to each other easier here,” Logano said. “I think the line itself is also running higher on the race track. Presents more opportunity for cars to go in low and try to pull a slide job or do whatever. Who knows.

“I’d say you’re never safe. So you just got to expect the unexpected and try to adapt to the situation around you, be aware of what’s going on around you. Like I said, also stay focused on what makes you you, right? What makes your team good, stay focused on those things more than anything.”

That said, “everyone has got their own etiquette that they play by,” says Hamlin, who like Logano noted the intensity of last weekend’s events at Martinsville. That’s especially been true recently in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series with an uptick in beating-and-banging tactics, an approach that Hamlin hinted might be the new normal, but one that he’s tried to avoid.

“The art of working over a pass is such a beautiful thing if you can get it done,” Hamlin says, noting his appreciation of “purer” racing. “And so nowadays it’s just like, you just get frustrated after two laps and you knock the guy out of the way and move on and you don’t even have to say sorry later. It just becomes expected.

“Certainly within this final four, everyone will have their own feelings about what they think is allowed and whatnot, but we’ve seen people within this group also make aggressive moves and everyone else is there watching. So it’s like, well, you can’t be mad if it comes back around to you because you’ve done it in the past. So you kind of give that open invitation when you see that.”

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Phoenix reconfigured its mile-long oval ahead of its fall race in 2018, shifting the start-finish line to what was formerly the exit of Turn 2. And the distinctive track’s races in recent years have also put the expansive apron in the dogleg before Turn 1 into play — an enticing option for those willing to make dive-bomb passing attempts, especially on restarts.

Besides the layout, other key differences from last year to this year include a shorter race (312 miles vs. 400) and a more exacting nature on unforced errors.

“It’s an absolute no-mistakes race,” said Travis Geisler, Team Penske’s competition director. “When you look at Homestead, it’s really a recoverable race track where you can go to the back, have to have a different strategy, do different things, make something out of it.

“At Phoenix, there’s really usually only one right strategy that works depending on how the race plays out. Very few opportunities to re-pit, get tires, drive up back through the field. At Homestead you can do that. If you have a tire advantage, you can make a lot of time. Not a lot of fall-off at Phoenix. All those things to me make it a mistake-free race versus to kind of recover and scramble back to the front.”