NASCAR Pre Race Media: Drivers media availabilities takeaways from this past week ahead of Phoenix

NASCAR will remain out west this week in going from the Las Vegas desert to the Phoenix desert for the annual stop on the one-mile Phoenix Raceway. As customary, NASCAR conducted a handful of driver interviews from this past week via zoom for race week content for Sunday’s Instacart 500 (3:30 p.m ET, FOX, MRN).

Here’s some main takeaways from this past week.


1 Year Anniversary Of COVID

A year ago, Phoenix was the final stop or normalcy. While extra precautions were already beginning to combat the potential of contracting the coronavirus during this very weekend a year ago, the thing is, no one knew then what we do now. Last year’s Cup race during March in Phoenix didn’t have COVID very high on our radars still.

But, in the days following, it got real.

This past week is the one year anniversary of the time the world shut down. It was a time to reflect on just how scared we really were at this time last year when we raced at Phoenix in front of a near capacity crowd on a Sunday and five days later were hitting the pause button on the 2020 season as a direct result of a global pandemic.

“For me, the thing that sticks out the most is actually driving to Darlington and wondering whether I should be on the road or not,” said Kevin Harvick on Monday. “If I was going to get in trouble for driving and being on the road. If I was actually going to work, not going to work. Should I drive home? Not drive home? Can I stay in my motorhome? Should I not stay in the motorhome? Should I bring my helmet to the car? You had so many questions about what to do and what not to do that it was just a really strange time”

NASCAR had to adjust. If they were going to get back going again, not much with how they did things in the past would work in the midst of a pandemic. Access to drivers had to be gone. Forget pictures or autographs, they had to shield them from the outside world. Teams would have to condense. Tracks would have to hold races behind closed doors. Everything we’ve done in the past was all the sudden gone.

But, in order to get to that point, NASCAR had to act swiftly too. They have teams that are dependent on their cars going in motion, not sitting stagnant. Sit too long and the risk of having 40 cars on the race track when we did finally get back going again would not likely happen.

Austin Cindric saw that first hand. He noted that if the stoppage lasted much longer, then his Team Penske ride in the NASCAR Xfinity Series was going to get shut down. Good thing they didn’t. Cindric, won last year’s championship in that series and secured a Cup ride on a full time basis in 2022.

“We all kind of knew in the back of our minds that there were some challenges for us to continue the year if we didn’t get races early on,” Cindric said on Wednesday. “So I give a ton of credit to NASCAR. That was a huge catalyst for me to be able to continue the year last year and my team to be able to show what we were capable of. So, I’m pretty grateful for those efforts. I know it probably helped a lot of other people out too, but definitely a big deal for us.”

Fellow Penske Cup drivers in Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney remember that Atlanta weekend vividly too. Logano, said he was already down there while Blaney was at Chase Elliott’s house in Georgia about to leave for the two to head down to the race track before getting a call to hold on.

“I remember flying down to Atlanta with Daniel Suarez that we were going to do the Coca-Cola family dinner that we have every year, so I flew down there Thursday and was supposed to have dinner down there Thursday night,” Logano said. “Of course that got canceled as soon as we landed. Then we went to sleep. I remember the next morning is when everything happened. I remember being on the phone with Travis Geisler and was like ‘are you guys coming down.’ He was like ‘we’re all just waiting at the airport figuring out what we’re going to do. I was like what.’ All the sudden there was no Truck race and just a Cup race this weekend. An hour and a half later it was we’re not racing this weekend. It was like ‘what, we’re not racing this weekend? That’s what we do.’ It was just a weird feeling. My wife and I were just talking like what do we do? We just went to the beach. Where do we go?”



Lack of Practice Causing Mayhem Still

One of the things that was altered in order for NASCAR to get back going again was the lack of practice. None of the remaining 32 races of 2020 had any practice sessions. Just one, the Coca-Cola 600, had qualifying. That in turn is causing a lot of sleepless nights for crew chiefs.

That’s because you don’t have any on track work to be done during the race weekend’s anymore to get your cars dialed in. Normally, you can go through past notes and sim work to get a baseline setup to show up to race tracks with. Then, with 2-3 practice sessions given over the course of a normal race weekend in the past, you could alter that car to get it fully dialed in for the race after. Now, those past notes and sim work is all you have. If the track changed at all between visits, you could be toast.

Phoenix, is a track to where we go to twice a year. With last year’s spring race being before the pandemic and last year’s Fall race being during it, how much did the track change from March to November and how much do they anticipate it changing between 2020 and 2021?

“It’s all temperature driven,” Ryan Blaney told me. “I feel like this time of year in Phoenix and then in the Fall, it’s almost the same temperature. We’re getting there early enough in the year where it’s still fairly cool. I feel like in the Fall it’s the same way. It would be different if we were going there in August then we went back there for the championship race. It would be a different race track. But, it being the same temperature I think it pretty much puts on the same show.

“Then, with having multiple races there, I think with the Xfinity guys having this weekend and then we run after them, having 1 or 2 more races before ours in November that it rubbers the track in a little bit more so the only difference is we get to that VHT maybe a little bit quicker on Sunday’s race in the Fall than we would this weekend because the bottom is rubbered in a little bit more. I base tracks on temperatures and I think it’s going to be pretty similar.”

His Penske teammate of Joey Logano agreed. He doubled his laps led between March and November, but doubled his finishing position too from 1st to 3rd.

“I didn’t feel much different,” Logano said of his No. 22 Ford last March at Phoenix in comparison to last November. “The biggest thing that changes from time to time is how the PJ1 is applied to the racetrack. How, thick they lay it down, how it’s worked it. All those things kind of change the way the race goes.

“It seems like the temperature this time of year and when we go back in the Fall, it’s pretty close to the same. Not a whole bunch changes out there. It’s not like they go through a rough winter or anything like that where the track develops big new bumps where they went through a freeze. It doesn’t really happen out there. So it stays fairly consistent. Maybe a little bit more tire wear over time as the sun bakes on it, but not anything drastic.”

So, if the track stays similar as the case for Phoenix, wouldn’t that mean the same guys should be the ones to beat again? Well, Logano notes, not necessarily.

“You really end up setting car up similar to last year because you might change 1 or 2 things here and there, but without practice, how confident can you be coming off of something that was pretty decent, right?” Logano said to me on Friday morning. “If you weren’t very good, then it’s ‘okay we might as well try something different because we have nothing to lose.’ But, if you have a competitive race car, where you think  you can compete to win, it’s really hard to come off of that and say ‘boy we need to change 3 or 4 different things because this will make us better.’ Without trying it in practice I don’t know how confident I would feel in doing that.

“It’s a lot different these days where we used to say ‘what won last year won’t win this year.’ Well, that might be the case still but not as much as it used to be because you can really take yourself out of the running by really changing too much.”

Kevin Harvick is a prime example. He’s reached victory lane nine times in his career on the one-mile Arizona race track including a runner-up in last year’s spring race. It’s just that he’s not won on the track since they’re reconfigured it and is coming off of a 20th place finish last Sunday in Vegas, a place he used to be one of the best at.

“For me, Phoenix is a great example, you look back at the first race last year, and we had a chance to win the race and had the best car (finished second, led 67 laps). Then we go back for the second race and things didn’t go our way because it’s not what you expected (finished seventh, led no laps). That’s just part of what we do,” Harvick said.

“You guys, sometimes, see the results and look at it and say, ‘Oh, he’s gonna be this or that.’ Really, it’s just the same. It’s really no different. As you get into the meetings on Monday, the conversations may be different. But it’s the same routine week after week for me.”

Daniel Suarez is one of the guys that’s affected most by this. He’s with a new team. His new team has no data to fall back on from last year. They’re coming to the track just guessing right now.

“Listen, we’re still a new team,” Suarez said. “We have a lot of new people. We still dabbling in a lot of different areas on how to understand what we need, how to communicate how hard we should push the splitter.

“At this point of the season, I wish we were having at least a couple of practices. That would be the goal for our team right now because right now, the whole thing is brand new. We get to practice on the simulator, put our setup on the real car and go to a race track and hope for the best. If for some reason the simulator was off, we’re going to be off the rest of the day in the race and that’s exactly what happened in Las Vegas.

“Las Vegas I’m sure if we could make some adjustments to the car, we were going to be competitive similar like we were in Miami. But we didn’t have the chance to do that. We couldn’t change shocks or heights or stuff like that. It was one of those things that we’re just still learning. We’re building a notebook and learning from each other. I feel like my team has a lot of potential but we’re in the learning process at this point.”

Logano, says that he too wishes that they could get at least some sort of practice back to help work out these kinks.

“I miss practice. I miss qualifying. I miss everything that comes with it,” he said. “I don’t miss it every week. I miss working on the car and talking to the crew chief and engineers on how can we be better for the race. The moments when you go out there to qualify that your adrenaline is going so hard that you’re shaking after a lap because you’re pushing so much harder than you’re comfortable. I miss that feeling. We don’t need that every week but I miss some of that.”


Should The Championship Race Move Around Each Year?

With being in Phoenix this weekend and again for the Championship 4 for the second consecutive year, the topic of should a track host multiple championship races in-a-row was brought back up again? Since the playoff era began in 2004, the Homestead-Miami Speedway was always the spot that hosted the final race of the season. That ended after 16 straight years though in 2020.

The finale was moved from South Florida to Phoenix. Now, Phoenix gets it back for 2021. But, should it stay permanently in Arizona, or move around some?

“I said this before and I’ll say this again, that it needs to move every year,” said Joey Logano. “I think it should be like the Super Bowl where it’s something that moves around. The cities should bid on it like the Super Bowl does. I don’t see why we can’t do that.”

His Team Penske teammate of Ryan Blaney agrees.

“I’ve always said, I think it should move around each year,” he said. “I think you can give other tracks and areas different opportunities to showcase a championship race. I think it’s good for the tracks. It’s good for the community. It’s good for the you never know what you’re going to get each year. You look at every other sport, that’s what they do. You don’t get the Super Bowl in the same spot every year. They move it around.”

Both Blaney and Logano also agreed that if they do rotate the final race of the season, that they’re also limited in how many places that they can do so at.

“I know we’re kind of limited. That time of year you can’t really have it east or north,” said Blaney. “You’re kind of limited to some of the track that you can go to. I’d like to see it move around.”

“Obviously being late in the year kind of ties our hands to some of the more northern race tracks can’t do that unfortunately but I think it should move around,” said Logano. “That’s something that the fans would like to see. I think bringing the championship race to them. As we keep adding more and more race tracks to the schedule that are bringing the races to the fans, lets bring the championship race to the fans too.”

As far as should they visit the race track from the Championship 4 multiple times a year, neither driver thinks that is an issue one way or the other. Homestead, annually had one stop each season on the calendar, so from 2004 through 2019, the Championship 4 stood out on its own since that was also their first stop to the 1.5-mile track on the season too. But in Phoenix, when they show up in November to compete for a championship, they can rely on past notes from the spring race too.

“I do like racing there (Phoenix). I don’t mind if it’s racing there once or racing there twice for a championship race track at least,” Logano said on that topic. “Homestead we only went to once a year and that went fine. Last year we went to Phoenix twice and that went okay too.”

“I’ll tell you right now, every single team is really focused on Phoenix this weekend just because if you do make it to the Championship 4 then you need a pretty good notebook on going back there,” Blaney said. “I think it’s pretty neat that you go to the championship track earlier in the year because you can kind of focus on it.”


Can Harvick Get 1st Phoenix Win On New Configuration?

Kevin Harvick said during his preseason media availability prior to last month’s Daytona 500 that when looking back on his 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, that there was no time to sulk. They couldn’t get hung up on feeling sorry for themselves over how the final few races of last year ended.

Despite having a series-high nine wins in 2020, Harvick wasn’t even in the Championship 4 at the Phoenix Raceway. He went the entire second and third rounds of the playoffs without a victory, which with how tight things are in NASCAR’s premiere series these days, even having nine wins in his bank wasn’t enough to allow him to just skate on by to a final round spot.

Still, Harvick wasn’t going to sit around this past offseason and mull on how disappointing the end was. It was time to focus on 2021 and ensure he’s not in that position again. He felt like no one on his Stewart-Haas Racing team would be looking back either. It was all about moving forward and trying to win a championship during the upcoming season.

Well, he’s in another position of trying to move forward but also learn on how he can learn from what was left behind.

Harvick, started 2021 off looking like a silent title contender again. No one was talking about him after scoring finishes of fourth, sixth and fifth respectively. But, we’re talking about him now following a disappointing 20th place result in last Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It was a rough afternoon overall for the SHR camp as none of their four cars even finished on the lead lap.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 27: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John’s Ford, looks on during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on September 27, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“You can’t just step back,” Harvick said of last week’s result. “You have to push buttons. This is not an abnormal situation for any race team. You’re gonna have those particular weekends, and you have to be a source of information (for the team). You’re not gonna fix it. Like, I have no chance of fixing it. I’m merely the source of information for what happens in the car.

“It’s way too technical, there’s way too many engineers involved, and you have to be confident in the things you’re saying and feeling to deliver that information, then ask enough questions to make sure the direction and the magnitude of your suggestions is put into the proper channels – to make sure it’s delivered in the appropriate way as an emergency, or just an isolated problem, or whatever the scenario is.”

One thing is, as Harvick notes, that you have to look at everything in order to ensure your setup is right the next time around.

“You have to look at the things you did that led to this particular road,” Harvick continued. “Is it your simulation? Is it the set-ups that your engineering group put in the race car? Did you do things right on the seven-post? Do you need to go into the wind tunnel?

“You have to try and tie all those pieces together. But Vegas in general, it’s a real balance between all those things from mechanical grip and aerodynamics and aerodynamic balance and bump stop loads and spring choices … It’s just a difficult race track to get all of those things right.”

Next up is the Phoenix Raceway. It’s the perfect place for Harvick to get his No. 4 Ford right again. Harvick, has reached victory lane nine times in his career on the one-mile Arizona race track including a runner-up in last year’s spring race.

“For me, Phoenix is a great example, you look back at the first race last year, and we had a chance to win the race and had the best car (finished second, led 67 laps). Then we go back for the second race and things didn’t go our way because it’s not what you expected (finished seventh, led no laps). That’s just part of what we do,” Harvick said.

“You guys, sometimes, see the results and look at it and say, ‘Oh, he’s gonna be this or that.’ Really, it’s just the same. It’s really no different. As you get into the meetings on Monday, the conversations may be different. But it’s the same routine week after week for me.”

The thing that Harvick is looking to focus on though is, out of his nine Phoenix triumphs, none have come since the reconfiguration. He won the race on the old configuration in March 2018 but when they came back that November, things were different. He’s finished fifth, ninth, fifth, second and seventh respectively in that span.

While those are great results, he actually was way better on the previous layout.

Harvick, had eight top two finishes in his previous 11 races before the configuration currently in place began. In, fact, from March 2012 through March 2018 (13 races), he finished worse than sixth just once with nine top two’s. He’s only had one top two in the last five races on this configuration.

While a top 10 is almost certain this weekend, can he vie for the win?



Blaney Hoping To Keep Momentum Going

Ryan Blaney finally got over the hump last Sunday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Team Penske driver notched his first top 10 of the season with a fifth place result in the Pennzoil 400. It was big in the sense that Blaney was reeling after three races run. He was marred deep in the NASCAR Cup Series points standings and moving further and further back.

With who’s won races so far this season and how the wildcard spots are legitimately going to come down to some big named drivers/teams, Blaney couldn’t afford to keep digging a deeper and deeper hole. That’s why it was so crucial of him to score a pair of top five finishes in each stage as well as scoring a top five in his No. 12 Ford in the end. That has boosted him all the way up to 15th in the standings, as he currently sits +3 in the playoff standings heading to Sunday’s Instacart 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) as the Phoenix Raceway.

Now, can Blaney hold onto this newly found momentum?

“This is really your 1st short track race,” Blaney said on Phoenix this weekend. “The only other 750 horsepower track we’ve had this year was the Daytona road course and that was drastically different. We’ll get a good feel on where your team stacks up. Every team in the offseason tries to improve from last year and the thing is, you don’t know where you’re going to stack up. That’s kind of the beauty of racing is that you don’t know where you stack up until you unload on a certain weekend.

“That’s a big thing on where you think you’ll be. If you’re behind the eight ball leaving Phoenix, you know you’ll have a lot of work to do.

“I’m really looking forward to Phoenix. We were really good there in the race in November last year and not being in the Championship 4, we ran 5th or 6th all day long. Our short track program we put a lot of emphasis on as a whole group for Team Penske so I’m looking forward to that. Hopefully we can build on our solid run there last year.”

Phoenix, has been a track that he’s recently exceled on though. He finished third in both races in 2019 and was sixth in last year’s playoff race. He did come home 37th last spring, but that’s only because he was caught up in an early race crash in Turn 3.

Blaney, rolls off from the eighth starting position on Sunday and is looking for earn at the very least another top 10 to keep inching his way forward.



Suarez Trusting The Potential

Daniel Suarez is motivated. He’s eager to show the racing world that we can’t overlook him as a relevant driver in NASCAR. While his career started off quick in the sport, it also worked against him. Following an Xfinity Series title in 2016, he was a last minute addition to the Joe Gibbs Racing camp in the Cup Series for 2017. He had a little over a month from signing a deal from his promotion to joining the premiere series in NASCAR.

Suarez, had no past Cup experience at that point either, so as you can imagine, it was a steep learning curve. Unfortunately, Suarez was a victim of his own past success. He did really well with Toyota/JGR coming through the ranks, but his momentum stalled out in Cup. See, he needed a little while to gel, but was never given the time to do so.

With Erik Jones and others having similar success to Suarez in those same lower ranks, they were ready to come up and needing places to go. Suarez was squeezed out after just two seasons because of that.

He then moved to Stewart-Haas Racing on a one-year deal for 2019. That too wasn’t long enough to get him acclimated to driving for a new team, with new people and a new manufacturer. He wasn’t retained and went to a small team with the Gaunt Brothers last year.

Now, he’s got himself in a ride that could be seen as a perfect fit. Sometimes when one door closes, a better one opens. Maybe it took the previous three doors to land him in the perfect room.

Suarez, 29, is with Trackhouse Racing Team. They’re one of NASCAR’s newest organizations. While that could be seen as a detriment for Suarez, it’s actually quite the opposite. This team values Suarez. This team is giving him the resources that he needs to compete as well as the time to get to the front. This isn’t a one year venture to find someone else. This is Suarez’ ride for the future and they’re putting the pieces together to get him to being a contender.

That has Suarez seeing the potential for this operation. He says the pit crew is one of the best that he’s had in Cup and even though they make some mistakes, they’re all new to this together and have the time to figure it out. The pressure to succeed immediately isn’t there from up top.

“I’m the kind of person that always tries to focus on the things that are bad, instead of the things that are good,” Suarez said. “I see that things are good, and I say, ‘Okay, that’s good. Now let’s work on the things that are not so good.’ I’ve been working very hard … to try to be better in communication with the spotter and the whole group, because it’s a brand new group.

“I feel the potential is there. But there are a lot of little things that we’re going to have to clean up to be able to be consistently in the Top 15, top 10, and eventually, hopefully, be knocking on the door to race for wins.”

In terms of his cars, he says that the speed right now is better in some areas than he thought but also off in some areas that he thought they’d be better at too.

“Daytona was better than I thought we were going to have,” Suarez told me. “Miami was a little bit better than I thought we were going to have. In Vegas, it was a little bit worse than I thought we were going to have.”

Suarez cites all of this to the new team again. Part of the reason as to why the newness isn’t sped up yet is due to the lack of track time on race weekends. See, we’re still just showing up and racing again. There’s no practice. There’s no time to have a weekend to get your car dialed in. It’s race what you brought. For a new team with no past notes, if the sims are off just a little bit, it sends them down a wrong path which could ruin a race.

“Listen, we’re still a new team,” he continued. “We have a lot of new people. We still dabbling in a lot of different areas on how to understand what we need, how to communicate how hard we should push the splitter.

“At this point of the season, I wish we were having at least a couple of practices. That would be the goal for our team right now because right now, the whole thing is brand new. We get to practice on the simulator, put our setup on the real car and go to a race track and hope for the best. If for some reason the simulator was off, we’re going to be off the rest of the day in the race and that’s exactly what happened in Las Vegas.

“Las Vegas I’m sure if we could make some adjustments to the car, we were going to be competitive similar like we were in Miami. But we didn’t have the chance to do that. We couldn’t change shocks or heights or stuff like that. It was one of those things that we’re just still learning. We’re building a notebook and learning from each other. I feel like my team has a lot of potential but we’re in the learning process at this point.”

Suarez, heads to Phoenix this week where he had a top 10 finish in each of his first two years in Cup during this race. I suspect his No. 99 Chevrolet can be a top 20 contender this weekend as another solid outing can help this teams potential even further down the road.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s