Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway often is called the wild-card track in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff, owing to the multi-car wrecks that often occur on the high-banked speedway that can shuffle the championship standings.
But this year's Chase will include one more track that could be full of surprises -- Phoenix International Raceway -- and its race comes at a critical time. The track hosts the next-to-last Chase race Nov. 13.
Since its last race in February, won by Jeff Gordon, the one-mile track has been repaved and slightly reconfigured. The aim was to promote more side-by-side racing and give spectators in the grandstands the ability to see more areas of the track, among other things.
But the changes also mean NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series drivers and teams are essentially dealing with an unknown, because their experiences from prior races -- with the track's prior surface -- no longer apply.
"These teams will have to throw out their notebooks and start over," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. Despite being 47 years old, Phoenix International "is a brand-new facility," he said.
The raceway, nestled against the foothills several miles west of downtown Phoenix in Avondale, already was considered a quirky track on the Cup schedule because it features a dogleg on the back straightaway.
Now, "it is a really unique layout," driver Jeff Burton said after his test drive. "The exit of Turn 2 is very unique, very different. The back straightaway has a lot of banking and it's like falling into a hole."
Gordon, who's ninth in the 12-driver Chase and seeking his fifth title, said "the day started off really, really edgy and uncomfortable" on the new pavement but that "as we got halfway through the day, the grip [in the tires] started coming" and his attention shifted to "finding what you need to make [the car] go faster."
Photos: NASCAR drivers test at Phoenix International Raceway (top) in Avondale, Ariz., on Tuesday, including reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48). Credit: Norm Hall / Getty Images