NASCAR At Phoenix: Drivers Concerned About Quality Of Sunday's Race

Drivers believe it will be impossible to race side-by-side on new Phoenix surface.

Like an approaching haboob, this weekend's NASCAR race at Phoenix International Raceway has loomed ominously in the distance for quite some time.

And whether anyone likes it or not, the storm is finally upon us.

The Sprint Cup Series travels to Phoenix this weekend for the penultimate race of the 2011 season, with a stellar two-man battle for the championship between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart.

But the tight points race is threatened to be overshadowed by a brand new surface and configuration that has yet to give drivers any indication it can put on a decent race.

Like the old "Lowered Expectations" skit on Mad TV, none of the Chase drivers said they're are expecting anything but a follow-the-leader parade on Sunday.

"I would just caution everybody to be patient and not be too critical of the place when they see the first race there," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

"Unfortunately, we are all expecting single-file (racing)," Kyle Busch said.

"I think it will take it a while for it to be a racy track in the sense of two-wide or three-wide racing," added Denny Hamlin. "I think that'’s going to be years and years down the road."

Drivers are pessimistic because they tested at Phoenix last month and discovered the track, which was repaved and reconfigured since NASCAR's last visit in February, was having trouble developing even one reliable racing groove.

While the track took rubber, it did so in Back To The Future-style tire tracks.

Earnhardt Jr. compared it to a wagon wheel trail.

"If you got out of that little spot, you would spin out or push or almost wreck," he said. "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."

Ryan Newman said it took the better part of two days just to get the cars to where they wouldn't nearly spin out on every lap, and Busch said it was "really, really hard to run by yourself, let alone two-wide" when the track is dirty.

Though the grandstands are sold out on Sunday, no spectator can be certain of what they'll see. If the racing is as bad as the drivers think it could be, there's no doubt some fans will be upset.

Phoenix, though, had no choice but to repave the track. The surface was falling apart after enduring years of searing desert heat.

And with two race dates close together (November and February), the only time the track could be resurfaced was during the spring and summer.

New pavement typically means single-file racing at any track for the first few years of a new surface, because there's only one good racing groove. As the track wears, drivers can try a different line and race side-by-side for position.

Drivers believe the conditions at Phoenix may be even worse than usual for a repaved track.

"I don't know if we are really going to be able to race in all the areas on the track yet," Jimmie Johnson said. "I think from a driver's standpoint, you can't make mistakes (because) 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."

In that sense, what's bad for the drivers could be good for fans who like old-school short track racing. Restarts will be crazy, because drivers will start double-file and those on the high line will have to scramble to get back to the bottom as soon as possible.

"If the second groove doesn't come in, it will be a track position game with a lot of wrecks," Kevin Harvick said.

There may be hope, however. Phoenix has been using a tire-dragging machine to put rubber down on the track, and that could at least alleviate the drivers' concerns about what happens if they dare try a pass up high.

"It is going to be important for the track, for NASCAR, everybody to work together to try to create a second grove," Jeff Gordon said. "I am hoping they take some measures that we talked about at the test to help clean off that second grove before we get there.

"I think that is going to be very important, because it is not just that there was not a second grove, it was if you got a foot outside of that groove, you were either in the wall or you were going to lose a lap. It took that long to get back in the groove and clean the tires off and get back up to speed."

Maybe their fears are overstated. Maybe the unpredictability will make Phoenix into one of the most entertaining Chase races to date.

But the racing forecast remains uncertain.

"Nobody really knows what's gonna happen," Edwards said.
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