Phoenix: A speedway in short-track clothing

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What do you do when you visit a 1-mile race track that has less corner banking than Martinsville Speedway?

You take your short-track car.

That’s what Austin Dillon‘s Sprint Cup team is doing for Sunday’s Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

“We want to get as much front turn as possible,” Dillon said in a news release. “Short-track cars are also lighter. The lighter the car, the faster the car. Every car we build now is as light and fast as we can get it. There aren’t a ton of differences in the cars because we feel like aerodynamics are really important no matter what track we’re racing.”

PIR isn’t a traditional short track, and it’s not as big as most “intermediate tracks,” such as the 1.5 mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway that played host to NASCAR last weekend. But Phoenix has 11-degree banking in Turns 1 and 2 and 9-degree banking in Turns 3 and 4.

The banking at Martinsville’s 0.526-mile oval is 12 degrees.

“It has a lot to do with the angle and degree of the banking at Phoenix,” Dillon said. “Turns 3 and 4 are flat, and 1 and 2 is just a weird corner. You don’t really race anywhere like that all year long, so it’s a difficult driving track. When you have a good handling car, it helps a lot.”

After drivers navigate the 11-degree banking in Turns 1 and 2, they transition to the 9-degree banking of the backstretch. But the 1, 511-foot backstretch isn’t a straight line. At halfway, the surface curves sharply to the left in what’s called the “dogleg.”

Combined with the track’s flat apron, the “dogleg” allows driver the opportunity to dive bomb their cars in an effort to get to Turn 3 before a car in front of them. It’s the kind of maneuver one could expect at a short track or in a road-course race, which have taken on short-track tendencies in recent years.

“You just have to decide whether it’s worth it to slam your race car down on the ground,” Carl Edwards said.

Phoenix will be the third track where the Sprint Cup Series uses its new lower-downforce package. Drivers have different views as to how it will handle compared to Atlanta and Las Vegas, both 1.5-mile tracks with corner banking of 24 and 20 degrees, respectively.

“Turn 1 has a lot of banking to hold you, so that’ll be about mechanical,” rookie Chris Buescher said in a release. “You do have a lot of entry speed getting into Turn 3, and it’s very flat. So, I feel like that’s going to be where the different aero package will show up.”

Kurt Busch, a winner at Phoenix in 2005, is hoping for more of the same.

“Where you have the speed drop-off, and that the cars will handle worse, and that the driver has to work harder to maintain lap time,” Busch said in a release. “At a flat track, you really don’t get to keep your momentum up. So, it will be interesting to see how it plays out versus a mile-and-a-half track.”

The team of Matt Kenseth, a November 2002 winner at PIR, tested the 2016 package at the track last fall.

“It’s a place where passing is a little more difficult,” Kenseth said in a release. “I feel though that this package is going to help out with passing everywhere, so I’m interested to see how it all plays out this weekend. As the track surface continues to age in Phoenix, the groove moves around, the pace slows up a little bit, and I always feel that the racing just continues to get better.”