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The conundrum that is NASCAR's Phoenix race

November 11, 2011 |  2:58 pm


"This could be interesting."

So summed up driver Kevin Harvick as he previewed Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the newly repaved, reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway.

As with any repaved speedway, it's unclear how the pack of 43 cars in a Cup race will behave on the new, smooth surface. But the uncertainty is heightened Sunday because it's the next-to-last race in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup championship playoff.

Carl Edwards leads the Chase by three points over two-time champion Tony Stewart, and it's widely thought that they will battle for the title. But Harvick, 33 points behind Edwards and third place in the standings, still has a shot.

Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 "could be a game-changer," Harvick said, but "in what direction, I don't think anybody knows because we have no clue how it's going to race."

"We know we can all drive around by ourselves and make good lap time and adjust on our cars," the Bakersfield native said. "But how hard it will be to pass when they drop the green flag and everybody's on the race track? We don't know." 

Jeff Burton turned the fastest lap in the opening practice, averaging 140.067 mph on the one-mile Phoenix oval, and he was the only driver to top 140 mph. He was followed by Matt Kenseth, David Ragan and Paul Menard.

Jimmie Johnson, who holds the track record with four victories on the old Phoenix surface, said, "For some reason we've had a hard time finding grip" with his Chevrolet's tires, "which is odd with brand new asphalt."

The drivers hope their practice runs, and qualifying Saturday, will help create more than one "groove" of rubber on the new surface that will promote side-by-side racing.

But the veteran Stewart, who has won the last two races and four of the eight Chase races so far, said it doesn't much matter to him.

"We're going to have four hours of practice today," he said. "I mean, we go to dirt races and we get two to three laps of practice, and you line up and qualify, so I'd like to think that I have the ability to adapt as good as anybody."


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-- Jim Peltz in Avondale, Ariz.

Photo: Tony Stewart, who is seeking his third consecutive win, climbs into his car for practice Friday for the upcoming NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway. Credit: Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images