From sand and seashells to tumbleweeds and cactuses, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Avondale, Arizona for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. The second race of the season will give us a clearer picture of which drivers are expected to show strength this season; it will also allow us to recover from the shock that came with Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500.
Here are some questions on my mind heading into Phoenix...
How well will the new qualifying procedure go? … Beginning this week, final practice speeds will be used for the starting lineup should inclement weather cause qualifying to be cancelled. If weather conditions cancel practice then the starting lineup will be set according to current points standings. The qualifying order will be determined by practice speeds, with the slowest cars going out first. Unfortunately, NASCAR may need to resort to using this procedure because there is a 60% chance of rain in the forecast for Saturday's qualifying.
Does Phoenix need to be repaved? … Following this Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway, construction will begin on a new asphalt surface for the racetrack. It will be the first repaving of PIR since the initial race there back in 1988 with NASCAR driver Alan Kulwicki debuting the "Polish Victory Lap" after his win.
The change is said to “promote side-by-side racing” - apparently something some folks feel the racetrack lacks.
Some of the repaving changes will include the following: widening of the frontstretch from 52 to 62 feet; addition of concrete pit stalls due to pit road reconfiguration; pushing the dog-leg curve out 95 feet which will tighten the turn radius from 800 to 500 feet and implementing variable banking. The variable banking will have this effect on the various turns - 10 to 11 degrees between Turns 1 and 2, 10 to 11 degrees in the dog-leg, and 8 to 9 degrees in Turn 4.
The changes in banking are supposed to ensure that there will be at least two racing grooves all the way around the racetrack which should result in more competitive, exciting racing.
Currently, the degree of banking in the first two turns is 11 degrees and 9 degrees in the final two turns. The frontstretch is banked at 3 degrees and the backstretch is banked at 9 degrees.
How will the points look after the race? … Because of the new 43-to-1 points system NASCAR implemented over the offseason, no one is really sure what to expect as far as a points shakeup is concerned.
For instance, several 2010 championship contenders got off to a rough start last weekend in Daytona. Does the slow start really matter or will they be able to recover with a strong finish at Phoenix? Will it be a tough climb back to the top or can it change in a matter of laps?
The consensus seems to be that it will be harder to make up points with this new system but we won’t be sure until we see it put into action. At the very least, we know we’ll probably see a Sprint Cup Series regular in Victory Lane.
Did Bayne make the right decision to stick with Nationwide? … Over the offseason, NASCAR had drivers choose which of the three national series they wanted to run in for points and compete for a championship. When Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne filled out the form for his 2011 NASCAR license, he chose to run for the championship in the Nationwide Series piloting a race car for Roush Fenway Racing.
After winning the Daytona 500, Bayne was told that he could switch his points over to the Sprint Cup Series; this would have allowed him to compete for a chance to make it into the Sprint Cup Chase. However, Bayne opted to stick with the Nationwide Series and run for the championship there.
As mind-blowing as Bayne’s win was, it wasn’t a guarantee at stardom. We’ve seen drivers have flashes of brilliance only to fall by the wayside and never be seen again. I’m not saying that will or won’t happen to Bayne but expecting him to contend for the championship after running only two Sprint Cup Series races, regardless of his results, is unfair. Bayne has shown more than enough potential in the Nationwide Series and needs to develop his skills there before jumping fulltime into the big leagues.
Wood Brothers Racing needs to stick to the plan of running 17+ races with Bayne so this can allow him to gain some more experience in the Sprint Cup Series while continuing to thrive in the Nationwide Series.
Will the race winner be eligible for points in the series? … In all three series last weekend, the winner of the race was not eligible for points in that specific series. However, restrictor plate racing is known for its unpredictability and tendency to produce surprise winners.
In the Camping World Truck Series race, Michael Waltrip and Elliott Sadler finished 1st and 2nd respectively; however, both of them didn’t receive any points. Waltrip is only eligible for points in the Sprint Cup Series while Sadler is only eligible for Nationwide Series points. Clay Rogers who races for Ricky Benton Racing grabbed the points lead after finishing third and gaining 42 points.
In the Nationwide Series race, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer finished 1st and 2nd respectively; however, they both are only eligible for points in the Sprint Cup Series. Landon Cassill was the first eligible driver for Nationwide Series points after finishing third and gaining 41 points. Currently, he has the points lead in the series right now but surprisingly doesn’t have a ride for the upcoming race in Phoenix.
In the Sprint Cup Series, Trevor Bayne was only eligible for points in the Nationwide Series; therefore, Carl Edwards picked up the points lead with his second place finish and gaining 42 points.
Daytona is the biggest race of the season so there are several drivers participating in the race who normally don’t compete in the series or only drive on a part-time basis. Additionally, the draft races usually give less funded teams a better chance at the victory.
Most likely, we won’t see an ineligible driver winning another Sprint Cup Series race again for a while, if at all, during the remainder of this 2011 season. However, both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series may see that sort of thing occur several times throughout the rest of the current season.
Bonus questions: Has anyone had a taste of the Trevor Bayne Sundae Sundae Sundae? … Has Carl Edwards checked us out yet? … Why is there a forecast for rain in the desert?