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

Andretti Autosport picks James Hinchcliffe for last 3 races of season

Andretti Autosport James Hinchcliffe
Chris Owens/IndyCar
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James Hinchcliffe will finish the NTT IndyCar Series season for Andretti Autosport, replacing Zach Veach in the No. 26 Dallara-Honda.

The team made the announcement Friday afternoon that Hinchcliffe will return after racing for Andretti at Texas Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and the Indianapolis 500.

Hinchcliffe, who also has worked as an IndyCar on NBC analyst and pit reporter, will race in the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“It’s always unfortunate to have to change drivers this far into a season, but we have to look at finishing the year the best we can for the 26 team and start evaluating and looking at options for 2021,” team owner Michael Andretti said in a release. “James has an existing relationship with our team that we’d love to build on and it makes the most sense for him to step in for these last three races. We are looking forward to seeing what he can do.”

Hinchcliffe has a season-best finish of seventh in the Indy 500. He had been working on trying to put together a deal for next season after scrambling to secure a partial schedule this year when he lost his ride at Arrow McLaren SP after 2020 with a year left on his deal.

VEACH OUT: Driver elects to vacate seat for rest of season

“I know, probably better than most, what Zach is feeling right now, and I have to say that he has handled everything about as class act as you can,” Hinchcliffe said. “I’ve known Zach as a teammate, before that as a colleague and even before that as a friend, and he is a guy that I respect in every way. I know he is a fighter and will fight back to where he wants to be.

“For me now, my focus is 100% on racing the Harvest GP and getting the best possible results for Gainbridge, for Honda, for Michael and for the team. I obviously haven’t been on a road course in a while, but at least the last time I was, it was here at IMS! Hopefully that puts us in a good position to go out there and have a strong weekend.”