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