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July 30, 2014

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What’s the biggest challenge for Sprint Cup drivers at Phoenix?

Phoenix International Raceway is one of my favorite racetracks in the western part of the United States. The one-mile oval is the closest thing to a short track that West Coast fans can enjoy.

The facility has an old-school appearance with grandstands that are close to the action and a backstretch that’s not so far away that you need binoculars to see the car numbers. Even the infield possesses a certain charm with a garage that has open stalls under an aluminum roof. It gives the infield a throwback feel that reminds me of the garages you used to see at tracks years ago. There’s not much room between the cars in the cramped garage as competing team members rub shoulders while they turn their wrenches. I’d love to see a rule that feuding drivers had to have their garage stalls next to one another.

The Phoenix track also has unique characteristics when it comes to the racing surface. Many of the Sprint Cup drivers love racing at this track, but there are challenges to performing well there. Several of the drivers expressed their concerns in their pre-race comments this week.

One of the challenges at Phoenix is finding the right setup for the car so that drivers can negotiate the different turns at each end of the track. Jeff Gordon commented this week about the difficulties when he said: “I love that racetrack, but it is a very challenging racetrack. Both ends of the racetrack are completely opposite. It's sort of like a one-mile Darlington without the banking in my opinion; just in the way of it's impossible to get both ends of the racetrack to work perfectly.”

“Phoenix is a fun race track to run at, but it’s also a challenging track because you have to set up your car for two different corners,” said Jamie McMurray when asked about racing at Phoenix. “Turns one and two are completely different from turns three and four, so your car has to be balanced well enough to turn at both ends due to the unique shape of the track.”

But the corners aren’t the only concerns that the drivers have. “Phoenix races like a short track in all reality even though it is a mile… it races a lot like a short track because of how slick it gets,” Tony Stewart said.

And then there’s always the issue of the sun. As the sun begins to set, turn one becomes difficult to see for the fans in the stands. So you can only imagine how hard it is for the drivers barreling down the front stretch. "Phoenix is kind of like Charlotte in that we start in the daytime and transition into the night. The sun becomes a real issue off of Turn 3 and especially getting into Turn 1. I don’t really care so much that it’s night time, but the sun does impact how you can see,” Jeff Burton said.

Ultimately, I not so sure that the biggest challenge facing most of the drivers on Saturday night will come from the track’s configuration, the slipperiness of the racing surface or the blinding sun. It will come from the No. 48 team. Jimmie “The Dominator” Johnson has won four of the last five races at Phoenix.

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