AVONDALE – Plenty will be different Sunday from the last time NASCAR came to Phoenix Raceway. The biggest change of all, though? NASCAR’s Next Gen car.
It has been tested in plenty of ways in the first three weeks of the season. Daytona tested its superspeedway ability. California’s Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas tested its ability on longer oval tracks. It’s an adjustment
“My right butt cheek was on fire after two laps because I don’t have the muscle memory for this car,” Austin Cindric, the 2022 Daytona 500 champion, said about his experience in practice at Las Vegas.
Additionally, the preseason Clash at the Coliseum gave the new cars their first short track run on a quarter-mile track.
Sunday’s Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway is the first on a one-mile track. With the championship race coming back to Phoenix in November for a third straight year, it may also be the most important.
Even though some teams came to Phoenix in January to test the Next Gen car, Sunday will be the only chance between the spring and November’s championship to gain real-race data.
Cindric said this race will build a “solid foundation” with the combination of real-race data with the new car and previous track experience.
Kevin Harvick, the most successful active driver at Phoenix with nine wins, said previous races have built up his confidence level with what he would prefer to call “the car.”
He saw progress this week as well even before he got any on-track time.
“We actually got a car through tech this week and that was a good hurdle this week,” Harvick said.
Martin Truex Jr, the defending spring winner at Phoenix, agreed that experience provides more of a path to comfort.
“It’s just a learning process of getting more comfortable with it every week,” Truex Jr. said. “Finding that edge, feeling where the car wants to be, figuring out exactly how the tires react, it’s been a bit different.”
In this season’s three previous races, drivers have seen positive signs, particularly in the first two stops on NASCAR’s West Coast swing.
Michael McDowell, one of two Arizona natives in the NASCAR Cup Series, said California and Las Vegas answered plenty of questions about how the Next Gen car will race on longer non-superspeedway ovals.
He said this particular track is only going to provide better racing in the Next Gen car.
“This car lends itself more to road courses and short tracks,” McDowell said. “It’s got big brakes, it’s got a bitter tire, all those things that will help on those race tracks that you can really attack.”
However, just because the car provides better racing and experience offers more lessons, it does not mean drivers are feeling too comfortable driving in the car just yet.
“The cars in general are pretty edgy,” McDowell said. “You don’t let your guard down for sure. It can snap around really quickly.”
Some drivers are having to slightly adjust the way they like to race in order to gain comfort in the new car.
“I used to live off of the right rear tire and be really free every week and these cars are really uncomfortable in that scenario,” Tucson native Alex Bowman said.
This week, in addition to drivers gaining more comfort with the Next Gen car physically and mentally, provides the challenge of Phoenix’s dogleg. The dogleg, which is located just beyond the start/finish line, provides thrilling racing as another option to try and gain positions, especially during restarts.
The theme from drivers before qualifying was one of not wanting to take a chance that can end up damaging their cars.
“I saw some guys cut left rear tires going into the apron at California and the dogleg here is a much harsher transition than that,” Bowman said. “I’ll let somebody else figure that out first, I guess.”
Saturday’s qualifying session saw many drivers decide not to use the apron in the dogleg. Sunday’s race, though, could be an entirely different story.
“I don’t know that you’ll necessarily give up spots not going down there, but I think at some point in the race, there becomes a time where you have to hold position or maybe to improve,” Truex Jr. said.