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The race to learn Phoenix and NASCAR’s new short track regulations is on

Denny Hamlin will lead the field to green on Sunday

NASCAR: NASCAR Cup Series Championship-Practice
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Denny Hamlin and Ty Gibbs will lead the field to green on Sunday in the NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway.

That can be said with certainty but everything else is still to be determined.

The Shriner’s Children 500 is the first short track race of the season, and the first race using a new short track rules package, but also the first benchmark for Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota teams to clear because it’s a clean reset for all three.

Ford and Toyota have new body styles for this season but both were completed before this rules package was even implemented. And sure, Chevrolet has the largest notebook to fall back on with its third-year body but those notes are not totally applicable with the new short track regulations.

Joey Logano was fastest in practice on Friday but says there just wasn’t a lot of time to digest the data.

“It was fun to work on your car and make changes but it was just as hectic after practice as it was during it,” Logano said. “They only give you about 45 minutes to make decisions and plug them into your car before going into tech last night.

“That part was tricky but it was to be able to practice and make changes during the hour.”

For everyone, this is an important race, because the Cup Series championship will be decided here amongst four deserving teams come November.

“I’m really trying to get better at this place,” Hamlin said after securing the pole. “If we want to make a run at a championship—and you’ve got to win it through Phoenix — you’ve got to get better at Phoenix.”

In the name of getting better, NASCAR gave teams a rare one-hour practice session on Friday to acclimate to the new regulations, with only one Chevrolet appearing in both the overall fastest top-10 (Chase Elliott) and fastest 10-lap average (Ross Chastain) charts.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Ford and Toyota might be the favorites but no one really knows until they actually race it out on Sunday. To wit, Chastain looked pretty fast over a long run but thought he was awful, despite being the most recent winner here.

“I was like, ‘wow, I feel like I’m 35th,’ because I just did not feel like I had the grip in the car,” Chastain said. “It’s a little bit tough though because we’re coming off the win here last year, so I feel like a lot of my memories are of the really good laps; the laps we were driving away from the field and when we were passing people.

“But as I dug back into it last night, there were a lot of times where I saw a lot of erratic steering and heavy braking from my driving traces from last fall. So, it wasn’t as good as I remembered. I had the whole off-season to think back through and dream about all the good that happened, but there were some bad. There were some moments where I wasn’t happy with the car last fall.

“We didn’t fall-off as much as some people, but we were just too tight.”

NASCAR: Cup Practice
Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Hamlin was second fastest overall in practice and 11th over a 10-lap average but believes he should contend for the win on Sunday.

“Most practices over the last two or three years, we’ve been three tenths off in practice and we end up racing between fifth and 10th, so for yesterday to only be a tenth off, it shows me that we shouldn’t be a fifth-to-10th place car tomorrow, we should be better than that,” Hamlin said. “There are certainly cars better than us but give my team some time to think about it overnight. We have some dialogue about things and how we are going to adjust. We certainly have the capability of getting there – to be the best.”

And fellow Toyota driver, Erik Jones of Legacy M.C. feels that way about the overall speed his manufacturer showed this weekend as well after posting the fourth fastest lap in time trials. He was also inside the top-10 in practice.

“That was a way better lap than I thought it would be,” Jones said of his qualifying lap. “You want to unload with speed, right? I didn’t have it at Atlanta and Vegas. We got it better by the end of Vegas so it was just really nice to have it off the truck.

“It’s a slow progress but it’s nice to have a day like today where everyone’s work pays off and it seems fast right off the bat.”

More package talk

The new short track rules package continued to be a topic of conversation on Saturday at Phoenix, one day after teams got a full happy hour to shake it down.

The general consensus was that the package was either the same in dirty air or worse, with the exception of Denny Hamlin, who called it about a 10 percent improvement from last year. He made those comments before he had heard what everyone else said about it and he doesn’t understand the widespread pessimism about it.

“I saw some of the driver comments and I understand everyone’s frustrations and what not, but I certainly believe data doesn’t lie,” Hamlin said. “It is better. While it is a very, very small amount, it certainly is better.

“The tire I think is the biggest gain over what we’ve had over the weekend. Having a tire that is faster on the short run, falls off more on the long run, so hats off to Goodyear for bringing a better tire to the race track. It needs to continue to evolve as they see what happens tomorrow, keep evolving it. Keep pushing it, keep pushing the limits of the tire. I think overall, the weekend is going to be good.”

Corey Lajoie said there were ‘unrealistic expectations’ about how big of a difference the one inch taller spoiler and simplified rear diffuser would make.

“We tried that up/down splitter and it didn’t provide the kind of racing we were anticipating so this was the next best thing we could try,” Lajoie said. “I don’t think its going to look that much different, I don’t think.

“I think a product of these cars are that they are a little bit heavy, a little bit underpowered and the way this track races has never been a thrilling kind of race product. Some unrealistic expectations in my opinion. We ran through the aerodynamic options, the different tire combinations and this is what the best to come out of that test way.”

When asked about it, Bubba Wallace asked back, ‘is this 2023 or 2024’ and when the response was ‘it feels like 2023 sometimes,’ he said back.

“Yeah it does, so there you go,” he said with a chuckle.

Once again, NASCAR has tried everything except adding more power from the 670 target the division is currently at and Hamlin is once again adamant that a marginal increase could be implemented by next week at Bristol without any additional cost to teams.

“You just call up Doug Yates (at Ford) and TRD and say we are going to go back to our old 750 plate – it can be before next weekend, and they said it wouldn’t change any of our durability we have,” Hamlin said. “It can be done with one phone call with no additional money.”

He wants it too.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think any horsepower I think you can add will make the racing better. It is hard to pass because we are all in the gas so much. You have to get us out of the gas whether through the tire or the horsepower. That combination is what makes passing so difficult. The more you can get us out of the gas, which means if we have more horsepower, we have to let off sooner, that gives us the opportunity to overtake for the cars behind. 50 horsepower, while it may not be a game changer, any horsepower gain will be an advantage for passing.”

And he still has no idea, both as a veteran driver and a team owner, why NASCAR will not relent and try even a 750 horsepower tapered spacer.

They will not answer the question with any sort of candor beyond cost, which Hamlin says is a false rebuttal.

“I’ve been in the sport for 20 years now,” Hamlin said. “I’ve been a part of all of these tests where we’ve squeezed it down, squeezed it down and every time we’ve squeezed it down, we would go in the building during the tests and say, that’s harder to pass – every time we’ve done that.

“I don’t understand –- there is obviously other reasons.

“They are trying to get other manufacturers in here and do this or do that. There is a bigger picture that I won’t understand, you won’t understand. No one will ever understand, but we don’t need to sacrifice our actual product for trying to entice someone new. I think if you put on good racing people will want to come, no matter what. We are going to continue to beat this horse until it finally gets some movement, but I don’t know if it will happen just because for reasons that we will never understand and will never get explained.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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