Friday 5: Multiple changes have crew chiefs ‘starting over’ at Phoenix

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Although their drivers have combined to win three of the last four Cup races at Phoenix Raceway, crew chiefs Rodney Childers and Adam Stevens enter this weekend uncertain of what they’ll see.

NASCAR’s low-downforce package, which will be used at road courses and tracks less than 1 mile, debuts this weekend and is paired with a new tire that has the championship crew chiefs for Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch aware that if their setups are off in Friday’s opening practice, it could make for a long weekend.

Add that Phoenix Raceway hosts the championship race in November — the first time in the playoff era that the title race will be a track that hosts more than one Cup race a season — and this will be a busy weekend for drivers, crew chiefs and teams.

“I think the biggest thing is just making sure that you get out of the first race what you need to and learn as much as you can,” Childers told NBC Sports about this weekend. “It’s going to be about taking probably the best notes that you’ve ever taken before (at the track). Just being really precise about the things you may need when you come back.”

Kevin Harvick celebrating his 2018 win at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

No one has been better at Phoenix since 2014 when Harvick and Childers joined Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick has won five of the 12 Phoenix Cup races since 2014. Harvick has never finished outside the top 10 at Phoenix with Childers as his crew chief.

Harvick’s most recent win there was in spring 2018 — with a package that is viewed as similar to the short track package NASCAR is using this season that creates less downforce with a significantly shorter spoiler than last year.

One driver who has challenged Harvick in recent years at Phoenix is Busch, who has won two of the last three races there, scoring victories in the 2018 fall race and last year’s spring race. He also has scored nine consecutive finishes of seventh or better at Phoenix.

Such success doesn’t comfort Stevens.

“Going into it there’s so much new that it’s almost like starting over or back to an older aero package that is not the same as 2018 but very close,” Stevens told NBC Sports about this weekend. “We’ve got a new tire combination with softer tread compounds so that the tires are going to wear out more throughout the run. Durability is a concern (at Phoenix in the past). You see a lot of right fronts giving up in the long run, so that might be more of a concern now.”

And the track will have PJ1 traction compound added again but lower in the corners than last fall’s race. Drivers generally felt that the PJ1 traction compound was too high on the track to be effective.

Crew chief Adam Stevens says of this weekend at Phoenix with so many unknowns: “It’s almost like starting over.” (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“There’s so much new going into it, everybody is going to be scratching their head a little bit,” Stevens said of this weekend. “So you’re going to see quite a bit of discrepancy in speed off the truck than you normally would. Some guys are going to be a little closer (to the right setup) than the others. Maybe that gap will close up as the weekend goes. There’s a lot of learning to do and only two 50-minute practices to do it.”

With such limited practice time, teams can’t afford to be far off on speed.

“You can’t just change all four springs and all the heights and all the bump stops and stuff like that and go out and try something,” Childers said. “There’s just not enough time (to make all the adjustments in those sessions). If you have something that is pretty close, you kind of have to work around it and make it the best you can.”

While teams can do much prep work through simulation, there remains the question of the tire and how it will react to a team’s setup. Stevens calls every tire change a “wildcard” because teams don’t do their own tire testing.

“If your understanding of the tire is just a little bit off, then all of your setups and sim results are wildly off,” Stevens said. “So you have to understand the tire completely to get good results out of the sim.”

Childers has another question entering this weekend.

“We’ve never raced the Mustang with a little spoiler on the back, so we have no idea what we’re getting into,” he said. “Obviously, the new Chevrolet body, they’ve never raced it with a small spoiler on the back either. We’ll have to see how that part goes.”

2. What to take of this weekend

One of phrases likely to be stated often this weekend is if a team is slow, they have eight months to get better before the series returns to Phoenix for the championship race.

Yes, that’s true … but there’s a catch.

Looking back at 2018 — since that season’s package is similar to what is being run this weekend — shows that many of the strongest cars at Phoenix in the spring were among the strongest eight months later.

Examining the best 10 consecutive lap averages in final Cup practice shows that five of the top seven in the spring also were among the top seven in that same category in the fall.

Harvick was the fastest in that category for both the spring and the fall. Harvick won the spring race and finished fifth in the fall. Busch was sixth on the chart in the spring and fourth in the fall. Busch finished second in the spring race and won that fall race that year.

“I honestly think that the short tracks, I would call Phoenix one of them … the actual setup themselves haven’t evolved much,” Childers told NBC Sports. “I think if you found something that worked for you in 2015, it’s still going to work pretty good in 2020. The things that evolve the most are the cars and the aerodynamics and finding downforce.”

Stevens said teams are still learning and even if the results don’t show significant change over time, much has taken place.

“The thing you have to realize is everybody is developing and everybody is trying to get better,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to close that gap because … if you start behind, generally everybody is processing it and makes it tough to really close that gap. That gap isn’t just car potential, it’s in driver capability and certain drivers are better at certain tracks. Then there’s a certain group of drivers that are pretty at almost every track.”

3. What drivers say

Here is what some drivers say heading into Phoenix:

Brad Keselowski: “There are a lot of questions I have about the PJ1. They are putting it down, will they put it down in the fall? That could potentially make it not as important if they change what they are going to do there. That should be pretty interesting to see how it plays out. I think we would all like to believe that if you go out and win the Phoenix spring race that you will go out and win the fall race but a lot of things can change between now and then.”

Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s definitely unique going to (the track that will host the championship) twice. I don’t necessarily like that. I like that Homestead was a one-off deal. …  I felt like since the repave (between races in 2011), it’s taken a little bit for us to get our arms around it. I feel like we’re getting better there and that’s a good thing. Some good runs there the last couple years.”

Joey Logano: “I think everyone looks at Phoenix 1 now being maybe the most important race early in the season because it will be where you are racing for a championship. You need to really learn as much as possible. You want to have a strong run there and learn from your mistakes there more than anywhere and make sure you are clear about everything when you are done with the race. It is one of those tracks that you will spend more time afterwards dissecting every little piece of it.”

Kyle Busch: “I look forward to Phoenix, it’s always fun and a good place for us. Lately, we’ve been able to really pick up on some things that help us there that have made us better there the last few times and now this package is different. I think that will lend itself back into a couple years ago I guess. Felt like we were just kind of hitting on something there and was a bit racier through traffic and such. We’ll see how all that goes.”

4. Three in a row, but …

Kevin Harvick is the only Cup driver to score a top-10 finish in each of the first three races this season. Going back to last season, Harvick has scored eight consecutive top-10 results. He’s placed fifth in the Daytona 500, eighth at Las Vegas and ninth at Auto Club Speedway this season.

Crew chief Rodney Childers looks at what could have been.

“I felt like Daytona we had the best we’ve had there probably ever,” he said. “We didn’t ride around up front and show a lot of speed, but I think in the duel we showed that we had a lot of speed. We got some damage in the 500 that hurt our speed late in the race. Overall, it was a good weekend and got a top five out of it.

“Vegas was kind of disappointing at the end after running so well all day. We had a short-run car, which is what we planned. … It just didn’t work out at the end. Maybe I should have stayed out (instead of pitting) and taken a shot at it. I would had never thought that many were going to stay out. Overall, not getting a top five out of that was disappointing.

“This past weekend (at Auto Club Speedway) was just kind of a dud I guess you could say. Kind of took the wrong car and the wrong build. Just fought and fought and fought all weekend to make something out of it. No matter what you did to it, it was just kind of a one-speed (car) and just couldn’t get through the corners as fast as we needed.”

5. Interesting request

Early in last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Kyle Busch asked his team if they could look at his throttle trace from last year’s race (which he won) to compare with his throttle trace to see where he was off.

With the telemetry available, all teams can look at such items and any other team’s telemetry.

“We haven’t had a conversation like that, so that was kind of interesting,” Stevens said. “We weren’t as good as we needed to be, and we were really good (there) last year. I think from the seat he was having a hard time figuring out where his weakness was. The easiest thing to do was to compare back to last year, which everybody had that data. Anybody in the field could have given him that answer.

“Normally we wouldn’t look back toward a race that was a year prior even though the rules were the same because of the track conditions are different, they did tweak the tire. … We were able to do that quickly.

“I think it just confirmed what he thought.”

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