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The 'New' Phoenix International Raceway: No one knows what to expect

  Carl Edwards starting from the Phoenix pole in February...and then came that little deal with Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Treacherous. Unpredictable.
   Those side-by-side restarts? You certainly won't want to be on the outside.
   And, please, no rain. Getting rubber down on the track to break in a second groove will be tough enough.
   Will Sunday's Phoenix 500 be a thriller, or a disaster?

   And how will title contenders Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart play it? They're the only two left standing in the playoffs.
   This dramatic new pavement and some curious redesign work off the second corner and on the dogleg backstretch, should make Round Nine of NASCAR's 10-race championship quite interesting.
   It looks like Edwards versus Stewart, in a two-man duel for the Sprint Cup title these final 700 miles, here and at Homestead, Fla., next week. Edwards has only three points on Stewart, the difference of about three finishing positions.
   And the odds here are that a Chevy driver will win….just as odds are at Homestead a Ford driver will win.
   Chevy has won 13 of the last 15 here. (Edwards, last fall, and Kurt Busch in 2005 are Ford's two winners.)

   However drivers, who have all tested on this relatively flat, one-mile dusty desert track, are to a man wary of what could happen here.
   First, the new asphalt means this place will be fast, particularly down the backstretch into turn three. And the turns are tight. Think New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
   Second, Goodyear's choice of tires is apparently a high-temperature type that doesn't wear much, but does create a fine dusty that could make the track slippery. That could make for a gas mileage, track position race.
    Third, two-wide restarts could be extremely difficult for drivers, because the outside line looks like a no-go, and drivers will be fighting hard to get to the bottom inside groove. That's when Edwards says NASCAR will see if the Kyle Busch/Texas penalties will temper tempers.
    In fact, there is a nagging feeling that this race could easily wind up like Martinsville, with drivers generally going berserk and creating havoc.
    After all, except for Edwards and Stewart, everyone comes in here with nothing to lose. Crash or win.

         Carl Edwards (L) and Kyle Busch: tangled here in April, and Edwards got the worst of it. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Phoenix by the numbers looks like this:
   Edwards, in 14 starts, one win (last fall), nine top-10s. Average finish here: 13.0. Over the chase, Edwards is winless, but has a 5.625 finishing average; he has led 199 laps.
   Stewart, in 19 starts, also one win (1999), 10 top-10s. Average finish here: 11.7.  Over the chase, Stewart has four wins and a 7.375 finishing average; he has led 348 laps.

   While Edwards and Stewart battle it out for the NASCAR championship over these next 10 days or so, for most other drivers and crew chiefs, it's that time of the season to reflect on just what went wrong.
   Especially for those other 10 guys who made the playoffs.
   Maybe that's what they were doing last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, where, except for the Stewart-versus-Edwards dogfight, too many guys simply seemed to be putting in the laps, without much enthusiasm.
   Not everyone here will be simply reflecting. Some – like David Ragan, Brian Vickers and David Reutimann – are looking ahead to where they might land for 2012….and trying to make something happen.
    And just how is NASCAR's playoff championship playing to America at large?
    The latest scorecard: ESPN's Texas 500 earned a 3.4 household coverage rating, averaging 4,726,000 viewers; that's the same as last season. (The Nationwide Texas race, sans Busch, earned a 1.1, averaging 1,430,000 viewers, same as in 2010.)

   What did happen to the other 10 title hopefuls these past few weeks?
   Matt Kenseth was looking good, real good, until just 10 days ago, late that Sunday at Martinsville, when he got crashed out.
   For Kevin Harvick, it's easy to figure out -- That crash at Talladega did him in.
   Kyle Busch too flamed out at Talladega; but then he never really caught fire in this thing, despite four wins in the regular season.
   Denny Hamlin has gone through the playoffs much as he went through the regular season – very disappointing and very disappointed. He limped into the playoffs, and he's been looking at 2012 for way too long.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr. opened the playoffs with a third in the gas-mileage Chicago race, but then things simply went flat. And by the time he got to Talladega and Martinsville, two good tracks for him, he was toast.
   Brad Keselowski's downfall came at Martinsville, where he was the victim in on of Brian Vickers' many incidents; and Keselowski's hopes for a rebound came up short with a mediocre run at Texas.
   Ryan Newman looked tough all season, right up till the chase started. Gas mileage cost him in the opener, and the next few weeks he simply floundered.
   Jeff Gordon should have opened big at Chicago but got bit by gas mileage. He did rally the next week at Loudon, but then a blown engine at Kansas doomed him.
   For Kurt Busch, despite that win at Dover, he never really quite got on track in the playoffs, and then he was blindsided by reports that crew chief Steve Addington might be leaving at the end of the season. (Whether or not Addington is leaving is still unanswered. Speculation has had him headed to Stewart's team, where Danica Patrick's new team is still taking shape.)

   And what happened to Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion?
   When he followed that second-place run at Dover in late September with a win at Kansas he and crew chief Chad Knaus appeared on a roll. But that came to an abrupt end the following week at Charlotte with a crash, followed by bad rope-a-dope strategy at Talladega that backfired.
    "It is disappointing, to say the least," Johnson muses. "It is easy to find an angle: if we didn't have the speed, we had other issues. We needed speed on the 1-1/2-miles (
   "And we had our issues on pit road.
   "Last season we didn't have the speed to run with Denny, but we found a way to get it done.
    "This year in this chase we have had the speed -- on pit road and on the track -- and we just have not finished the races off like we needed to.
    "That responsibility ultimately lands on my shoulders, and to a certain degree on Chad's.
     "Crashes…strategy…different things just didn't play out. But it is sports; it's racing, and we have to learn."

   The track itself so far defies adequate description.
   "The exit off turn two is a lot more open," Stewart says. "It's a lot easier to get off turn two than it used to be."
    But the backstretch….
    "With the dogleg, it's a little different," Stewart says. "Somewhat like a roller-coaster, with the elevation change, going from the banking on the outside to down on the bottom and then back to the outside.
    "After that, the rest of the track is pretty similar to the way it was."
   Since the early October test here (when drivers complained it took nearly a day and a half of the two-day test just to get enough rubber on the track to start making decent laps), track officials have been focusing on creating a second groove.
   First, using a tire-dragging machine for some two weeks. Second, with half a dozen drivers (like Randy Lajoie) running some 3,000 miles on a softer tire compound.
   Bob Osborne, Edwards' crew chief, says "There are definitely some issues to be overcome, for track grip and multi-lane racing. Right now it is a one-lane  track. It is going to be a little scary if they don't get two lanes going."
   Last fall here Edwards dominated the weekend, fastest in all practice sessions, winning the pole, winning Saturday's Nationwide race, and winning Sunday's Cup race.

    Harvick says if the outside groove doesn't come in, it will be a one-groove track…which could test patience, something that has seemed already in short supply lately.
    Harvick says he's prepared for a "physical" race, "because it's going to be hard to pass.
    "It has the potential to be an awesome race, and it has the potential to be a disaster."

   Earnhardt, who typically has an interesting take on things, says watching the track take rubber during the test was "weird.
   "We laid down rubber, but it was in tracks -- you could see where the right-rear tires ran and where the left-side tires ran…and there was no rubber where the middle of the car was.
   "It was like wagon-wheel trail. And if you got out of that little spot, you would spin out or push or almost wreck.
    "So I don't know how the race is going to be. If you are not in those little tracks, man, you might be in trouble."
    Gordon agrees: "It is not just that there was not a second grove, it was if you got a foot outside that groove, you were either in the wall or you were going to lose a lap."

   Newman says the rubber 'dust' is an issue too.

   Kurt Busch says he's "convinced" there will only be one groove. "And it won't be very wide.
   "Restarts will be treacherous.
    "I hope if there's a late caution, I am running in an odd-number spot and can line up on the inside for the restart.  If you're stuck on the outside there, it could be a huge blow."

   Jeff Burton, who has been running strong lately, strong enough to win a Talladega, Martinsville and Texas, calls the backstretch "very odd, and unusual.
   "It's the first track I've ever been to where the straight has more banking than the corners.
    "The biggest concern every team has is double-file restarts."

    Johnson expects everyone "is going to be struggling when we unload. Where do you build faith in your set-up?
   "Hopefully the races leading up to ours will clean up a second lane so we can have good restarts and, somewhere, race side-by-side.
    "You can't make mistakes; that is how people are going to overtake you. If you make a mistake, you are going to open a door and maybe lose five or six spots, because you just can't get back down in line."
    Unless you want to try to bull your way back in…..

   Drivers seem to like the racing potential of the new design. But when will the track weather enough to live up to that?
   Paul Wolfe, Keselowski's crew chief, says "it may take a couple of years."

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