Phoenix Raceway holds the keys to the NASCAR Cup Series championship as the site of the season finale, but that race date sits some eight months down the road from the circuit’s first visit to the 1-mile track this weekend.
“The championship race is so far away that things will progress, and there’s really nothing in my mind other than this week,” says Kevin Harvick, a nine-time Phoenix winner.
The title hunt will wait, but Cup Series drivers and teams will get their first taste this weekend of a new rules configuration for the tour’s shorter ovals and road courses. Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be run with aerodynamic tweaks made to the Next Gen platform, which is still early in its second season of Cup Series competition.
NASCAR officials mandated a reduction in the number of downforce-producing aero devices underneath the car, dialing back on diffuser strakes, engine panel strakes and the diffuser’s outer fencing. The more visible update is a smaller rear spoiler, trimmed from a 4-inch height to 2 inches for road circuits and ovals measuring 1.058 miles (New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s length) and shorter. In sum, those aerodynamic alterations should result in roughly a 30-percent decrease in downforce, said Dr. Eric Jacuzzi, NASCAR Vice President of Vehicle Performance.
Six of the 36 chartered Cup Series teams tested versions of the configuration at Phoenix in January. Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell said Wednesday that NASCAR officials and fellow Ford teams have shared data from that two-day session, but this weekend will mark most teams’ first real-world experience with the new package.
“Without having our hands on it and being on track with it, I honestly don’t know what to expect,” said Cliff Daniels, crew chief of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet for Kyle Larson. “You know, there’s several other teams that didn’t have car representation there, and so we’re all going to kind of be learning for the first time when we show up to practice. So, hope to have a good practice and, yeah, make the best of it.”
Practice will be expanded for the Cup Series this weekend, with a 50-minute session added Friday (6:35 p.m. ET, FS2) in place of the shorter grouped warm-ups just before Busch Light Pole qualifying. Those Saturday time trials are expected to remain a strong performance predictor; eight of the last nine Phoenix winners have started from the first three rows on the grid. But Harvick said that the first-time uncertainty with the new rules configuration could upend some of the conventional performance wisdom.
“Qualifying is still gonna be important,” Harvick said during a Wednesday morning video call. “I think for this particular race, with everybody not knowing a lot about the package, is going to probably open things up a little bit, just because we don’t know all of the intricate details of what it takes to make the car go fast quite yet. That won’t take long. Obviously, we know a lot more about the car than what we did before, but still different, and I think that opens the window up for probably more passing. The package, in general, is intended to help the cars in traffic. I still think you’re gonna have issues in traffic, so qualifying will be important, but I think the door is open to be able to hit the setup right and be able to pass better than what we have in the past.”
Harvick indicated that with many single-sourced parts and pieces on the current-generation racer, finding a window for performance gains is a smaller opening than it has been in years past. The latest changes to the car, he added, should keep teams and drivers on their toes, but he appreciated the measures and direction that NASCAR officials have taken to make enhancements.
“I’m very interested,” Harvick said last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “I love the fact that they’ve been aggressive with it in trying to fix it. And I think that’s as part of the collaboration between NASCAR and the drivers and believing in each other, that they’re going to do something, and they believe what we’re willing to say. And I think as long as everybody collaborates and keeps continuing down that path, the racing can get better.”