From Daytona to the desert

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This weekend marks the start of the grind for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Preparing for and running the Daytona 500 is very much like a season in itself. But with “The Great American Race” in the rear view mirror, the fight for the Sprint Cup can truly begin.

The next battleground is decidedly different from Daytona’s sprawling superspeedway. Phoenix International Raceway is shorter (one mile) and has less banking, which will create a much bigger focus on downforce and handling this weekend.

Phoenix will also begin what should be an interesting few weeks of maturation for the new “Generation-6” cars. While it can’t be said that they put on a really exciting show last Sunday at Daytona, the drivers were also understandably playing it safe until the final stages.

“We’ve all crashed so many times and have torn up so much stuff that a lot of that falls on the driver’s shoulders,” said Daytona winner Jimmie Johnson on Sunday. “…I just believe a lot of the competitors just wanted to get to that last pit stop and race for it.”

But we’ve yet to see how the new cars will race on short and intermediate tracks.

March’s schedule has four facilities that fit this particular category: Phoenix, Las Vegas (1.5 miles, variably banked), Bristol (.533 miles, high-banked) and Fontana (two miles, mid-banked). If the Gen-6 cars can put on a good show in these upcoming events, NASCAR should take it as an encouraging sign of progress.

Another thing to keep an eye on: The tempers. One wonders if last Sunday’s post-race Twitter war between former Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (now with Penske Racing) will continue to play out on the track.

If it does, it wouldn’t be the first time Phoenix has played host to controversy. The last time NASCAR visited in November of 2012, the post-race headlines didn’t focus on Kevin Harvick’s victory, but on a brawl between the crews of Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon after the two drivers had tangled repeatedly during the final laps.

When all the dust settled, track president Bryan Sperber dubbed the race as the greatest in PIR’s history. Talk about a tough act to follow.

Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix International Raceway
Sunday, 3 pm ET

Track Specs
1-mile oval
Turns 1-2: 11 degrees of banking
Turns 3-4: 9 degrees
Frontstretch: 3 degrees
Backstretch: 9 degrees

Race Distance: 312 laps/312 miles (500 kilometers)

Defending Race Champion: Denny Hamlin

Marco Andretti confident that fewer tests won’t hurt Andretti Autosport

Photo: IndyCar
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A small point of debate around the 2018 aero kit has been the manufacturer test days that took place through the Fall of 2017 and into the beginning of 2018. Chiefly, the debate has centered around teams who hadn’t participated in those manufacturer test days and if they’re starting the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season at a disadvantage as a result.

Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing, and A.J. Foyt Racing completed test days for Chevrolet, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing doing so for Honda.

That left teams like Andretti Autosport out of the mix, with some voicing concerns as a result.

However, in a press conference during testing at ISM Raceway last weekend, Marco Andretti explained that he thinks Andretti Autosport should be able to catch up on development, citing the team’s resources – they’re the only IndyCar team with four full-time cars in their stable – and the fact that everyone is still adapting to the new kit.

“I feel like it’s early enough days that, yes, we can catch up,” Andretti said at ISM Raceway. “When there is anything new, a new car, new aero kit, at-track days are huge. We can sim all these things we want. To really get out there and confirm what we’re learning back at the shop is another thing.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay during testing at ISM Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Andretti continued, “Yeah, I don’t think we should look at it like we’re behind the eight ball. With a four-car team, that’s where we can use it to our benefit. So far so good.”

Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, echoed Andretti’s sentiments, adding that while the situation is not perfect, they will need to adapt to it in order to remain competitive.

“Any time you have a new car, to put it into perspective, we’re on track three days on a road course before we get to (the season open in St. Petersburg). That’s a very short amount of time. It’s obviously not ideal, but we’re just going to lace up our boots and get on with it. That’s all you can do.”

Andretti Autosport will have one more team test, at Sebring International Raceway later on in February, before the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

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