NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers gave the new Phoenix International Raceway a collective thumbs-up following an open test but many expect the track may spring a few surprises when they return for the penultimate race of the Chase.
Most of the Cup field ran during two days at the Arizona track, which has been repaved and reconfigured, throwing in an element of huge uncertainty at the venue that will host one of the final Chase races of the season. Among the changes are a new, smoother surface, a new pitlane, wider front straight, reconfigured back straight and additional banking built into the turns.
Two-time Phoenix winner Jeff Gordon, the last driver to take victory on the track's old surface, said he liked the changes to what NASCAR officials called a "a brand-new facility."
"What happened is Turn 1 is about the same," Gordon said. "You drive in really deep using a lot of brake. The left-front tire gets real light as you sort of crest that hill, as you get down in the banking. All that's basically the same. Once you get to the middle, you just put your foot in it. You have so much room off there.
"Then you just have this run down the back straight. It's kind of like a rollercoaster ride back there. You have all that space out there. It drops down. The car compresses into the racetrack, touches a little bit with the splitter, then you come back up out of that hole as you get to Turn 3. I haven't run side-by-side with anybody back there. But just looking at it and driving it, it's a lot of fun. I mean, it gets your attention the first couple times you go through there. Other than that, you know, it's a heck of a ride."
Joint Chase leader Carl Edwards, who won at Phoenix last year, believes the new surface and configuration may potentially generate unexpected situations that will make championship contenders wary as they hope to get to Homestead still with a clear shot at the title.
"Whenever you introduce something new, like this new surface and new track layout, there are going to be guys that figure it out quickly and there are going to be guys that struggle, it's not necessarily the guys you expect," said the Roush Fenway driver. "This race, I think we're all going to come here with a little bit of nervousness, a little trepidation of, 'Hey, do we have the right setup?' As a driver, I have to ask myself, 'Am I driving the right way around the racetrack?'
"The way the surface is, it's unforgiving, so there could be some accidents and things happen that we don't usually see at Phoenix. To me it's going to be pretty amazing to be the penultimate race and have all those opportunities for something crazy to happen – it could shake everything up."
Kyle Busch, also a past winner at Phoenix, placed emphasis on Goodyear's tire selection for the race weekend as being key to how the race turns out as he reckons grip was at a premium during the two-day test. Officials are expected to work on trying to rubber-in the new surface during this month before NASCAR returns for the race weekend.
"It's going to be kind of exciting to see how [the track] races, which is pretty cool," said Busch. "I'm looking forward to that. There's not a lot of grip in the tires, so the more we run, the more rubber on the track, the better the tires feel, but I still feel to move out of that lane it's going to be really difficult.
"Hopefully, Goodyear really looks at it and brings the right tire to the race and the track rubbers in the right way and we have a good show. I think the track is great, I think what they did with it is really nice."
Besides testing for the penultimate race of the season, the Hendrick, Penske and Waltrip teams ran fuel-injected cars as they continue to develop the system before its fully implemented in 2012. The test was the second for Cup cars at the venue, after a few teams ran a Goodyear test last month.