The heavy hitters were back up front again in the NASCAR Cup Series. For the second straight week, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske put nine combined cars in the top 10 of the final finishing order.
After a wild start to the 2021 season where we saw winners like Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and William Byron, the last two weeks have looked more normal.
“I think the 750 package is harder to drive,” Joey Logano said bluntly. “I think experience probably comes out more. There’s different techniques that I think the experienced guys have learned over the years racing cars that don’t have much downforce, a lot of horsepower.
“When you come to a short track, there’s comers and goers. Knowing how to go fast on a short run versus a long run, Denny (Hamlin) is probably one of the best at figuring that balance out. I think probably that experience behind the wheel helps, kind of knowing what you need in your race car to go as fast as possible.
“Probably experience comes into play more just because it’s something we’ve done a lot the last forever.”
Denny Hamlin agreed.
“I mean, most of the experienced guys, the guys that have been around for four-plus years, ran this whole package in 2017,” said Sunday’s third place finisher. “If you have less experience than that, this is kind of a new thing for you, other than we cut the spoilers off on the short track last year.
“I agree with Joey. You kind of build a notebook on it. You understand how to manipulate the car when it’s not handling perfectly. You can move your line around and change some things. That’s stuff that takes experience.
“I think experience in this sport is just so underrated simply because you see so many things. We’ve all been through tire changes, car changes, aerodynamic changes, track changes, that we’re ahead of the game, I guess you could say. Especially now that we have no practice, I mean, it lends itself even more to experience.
“Definitely agree with that take.”
Plus, JGR really improved their 750 horsepower program too.
It’s early, but after the first five races, Joe Gibbs Racing has showed their promise on the 750 horsepower package. We’ve had two races with it and JGR has won both of them. Christopher Bell won on the Daytona road course and Denny Hamlin was third to give JGR two cars in the top three that day. In Phoenix, Martin Truex Jr. won and Hamlin was third again for JGR to take two of the top three spots. Christopher Bell’s ninth place result put three JGR cars in the top 10 at the end of the day and gives Hamlin some confidence in this horsepower package for them now.
See, they struggled on it a year ago and so far out of the gates in 2021, their improvement this offseason on this package is showing.
“I think today was important because we knew at the end of last year we needed to work on our short track program,” Martin Truex Jr. said following his win. “I think there was a lot of effort focused on that in the off-season. Coming here, I don’t know that we were real sure exactly how it was going to look. Who is going to be strong? Are we going to be strong?
“I think to answer some of those questions is good, and to have a good, strong base is good, something we can build on. A lot more short tracks coming up this year and a lot of races with this particular package this year, including road courses. It’s an important one. It’s good to have a good day starting the first one off.
“You still continue to work and try to find things because everybody else is.”
Hamlin, was equally as happy to see that progress too.
“I mean, the 19 has had a good car. Their short track program, I think they stand out to me as one of our best short track teams at JGR. I mean, it was encouraging for me that we did run in the top five all day,” Hamlin said. “The 19 ran in the top five all day. We were not good on the short tracks last year. In 2019 I think our worst finish in the 11 on a short track was fourth, maybe fifth. We had all top fives at every short track.
“Last year, if we could run sixth or seventh, it was probably a decent day for us. Hopefully this is a sign that we kind of worked on the right things and are heading in the right direction.
“But good for him for winning. I wish it was me.”
Penske had the top cars on these tracks last year. That’s why it’s not shocking that by Lap 80, all three of their drivers had led at least one lap in the race.
Logano, led a race-high 143 laps and was first off pit road on Lap 284. He in fact passed his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski on Lap 273 and looked like he’d be the one to beat for a second straight year in the spring Phoenix race. While a caution came out for Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain on Lap 281, even the pit stop couldn’t slow Logano down.
The thing is, Martin Truex Jr’s car was improving as the race went on and just that much better at the closing stages of the race.
Truex Jr. started off Sunday’s Instacart 500 not in a very good position though. He was losing spots quickly and even got into the wall at one point in his No. 19 Toyota at the Phoenix Raceway. The team elected to make major changes between his car last year and this since they weren’t a top five car a year ago. It didn’t start off on the right footing.
But, they were able to get it all dialed in as the race went on though.
Truex, faded to 17th in Stage 1 and they came around during the second stage. He came all the way up to finish second. He’d in fact take over the lead on Lap 223 and lead all but 25 laps the rest of the way en route to his 28th career Cup Series victory including his first in 31 starts at Phoenix.
“Well, that run right after that, it still wasn’t great,” Truex said after the first round of changes on Sunday. “It was the next pit stop, more adjustments on the car, that it felt like now we’ve got something. I didn’t really know it was that good until I got up. We got deep into that long run, I think I got up to about fifth, and I could see the next couple guys in front of me, I’m like, Dang, we came from like 17th or 18th on that restart. That’s when I knew it was pretty good.”
Truex, was going to restart second alongside of Logano following the final caution and final round of pit stops. Some questioned on why Logano chose the bottom lane for that final restart, but he said that he was batting 100% in that decision of the low line to restart from though.
“I chose the bottom because I’ve chose the bottom every time I’ve been the leader, and it’s worked every single time,” Logano said. “I was batting a thousand on the bottom the last, I don’t know, two years here. I was kind of actually surprised that Truex was still out there. Felt like I created enough distance down there on the bottom shortcut in the dogleg that typically I can have someone at my quarter to where I can control them.
“Looked down, gosh, he’s still door-to-door with me. Their car accelerated really well, surprisingly well. Didn’t see that one coming.”
Truex, also said that he’s not shocked Logano chose that lane either. He would have done the same.
“I was not surprised he chose the bottom because he had chose the bottom on every restart and got the lead,” he said. “If I was the leader, I probably would have chose the bottom as well.”
Truex noted that generally on new tires for a lap or two, the bottom is a little bit faster. It just happened that he felt like he got a really good jump, side-by-side with Logano going into one.
“I think he got tight or something,” Truex continued. “He ran way up the racetrack. I was turning kind of to the right, letting my car go up the hill as well, to keep him from running into the left side of me.
“I’m guessing he just drove in, got tight. We both ended up pretty high on the track. When that happened, I was able to grab the PJ1 with my right sides and get the thing turned, get on the gas pretty early. That’s really what made the difference.
“I think if he wrapped the bottom, he might have been able to clear me. I’m not sure what happened, if he just got tight or overdrove the entry.”
Logano, said that even if he held Truex off on that restart, he didn’t feel like his No. 22 Ford would remain in the lead for much longer anyways.
“They just had a fast car all the way through,” said Logano of Truex. “They had a fast car from the get-go. Once they tuned it in the end of the second stage, they were lights out.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure even if we got in front of him in that last restart, I’m not sure I’d have been able to hold him off or not. Would have been a hell of a battle. He probably would have gotten me eventually.”
Truex would lead the final 25 laps en route to the win as he crossed the finish line by 1.698 seconds ahead of Logano.
“Just got a good jump, was able to stay side-by-side with him getting into turn one,” Truex said of that final restart. “That’s really the key. Then he drove into one and kind of slid up, slid us both up the hill. Once that happened, I was able to grab the PJ1, get a good run off.
“If he would have drove in, maybe wrapped the bottom better, maybe he would have cleared me. Like I said, he drove in deep, I drove in deeper. We both slid up the track. That’s usually the way it goes. Luckily I drove in deeper than he did.”
Truex, led 64 of the final 89 laps, so his car came around as the race went on while Logano’s fell off a bit due to a weird vibration that came and went.
“It’s frustrating in some ways, and in other ways you got to look at the positives and move forward,” Logano said after leading the most laps again but not winning in Phoenix. “I’m usually the one that’s going to probably beat myself up a little bit on the parts where we missed it, but the positives will keep the momentum going. We need to just move on after we figure out where we made mistakes today.
“Yeah, definitely keeping me up right now. I wish I knew what it is. A lot of times you change the tires, it goes away. It’s not a loose wheel. We don’t believe it’s a misbalanced tire or wheel either. Not sure what it is.
“When it happens, the lights shut off for a little bit and the car goes backwards quickly. It cost us a championship. It didn’t cost us the race today, but we lost some track position in the beginning of the final stage here.
“I don’t know. I wish I knew what the answer was on that. I don’t know. Maybe we can take a look at it, cut the tire apart. I don’t know how you fix it. I’m not a tire engineer. I don’t know if it’s consistent through the field, if other cars have the issues or not. I know a lot of cars had it in the fall race. I know my teammate had it in the fall race as well.
“Just something we need to look into, at least try to find the answer. I don’t know if we have the capability to fix that. I think it might be out of our hands. At least try to help find it.”
As to why the race looked the way it did on track, the VHT had a hand in that.
Some drivers say that the traction compound isn’t necessarily needed on race tracks anymore. While it’s there to help the betterment of the show, there’s times to where it’s more of a detriment than a welcomed addition.
On Sunday in Phoenix, the VHT was questioned again. Is it better to have it at Phoenix, or not? In one way, since it’s been on the 1-mile Arizona oval, the fastest race cars still won the race. On the other hand, has it really helped the show? Are we to a point to where we even need it anymore?
“The tire has a decent amount of falloff which presents an opportunity for some strategy, as we saw today, if the caution comes out five, ten laps into a run, creates quite the questions on what to do,” said second place finisher Joey Logano. “That’s a good thing, where it’s not just a no-brainer type of pit call. I like how that kind of splits the field up. That part’s good.
“I think fastest car is able to win the race. I think that’s happened probably the last three or four times here, the fastest car has won. I think that’s fair. That’s what we all want. But it’s the opportunity to make something happen if you’re in the hunt towards the end, have a good pit stop, a good restart, you can do some big moves as well.
“I think the track is pretty racy. I think it definitely evolves throughout the race as the traction compound wears off. That definitely changes what you need in your race car as you tune your car.
“And the tire itself, like I said, it has some falloff. I still get these weird vibrating runs, I don’t know what that is, that one cost us a championship, and I got another one today. We definitely have to look into the tire, for sure.”
Drivers can pass through the field, but as Denny Hamlin notes, in order to do so, they still need long green flag runs to get there.
“I’m more of a probably a purist on these short tracks,” he said. “It’s the dominant lane. Originally when PJ1 came out, it was meant to be an option when you come up on lap traffic or when you come up on a car and you’re faster, it’s an option to try to get around. It’s the dominant lane here at this racetrack. Again, you run in and out of it at times, but still if it doesn’t wear off, it’s the fastest way around the racetrack.
“The first time here, they had it higher. We used the bottom mostly, just used the top every now and then. They sprayed it just a little bit lower for the championship race, I believe, and I don’t know, take some still pictures of pretty much all the races, everyone is kind of running in a train up top.
“I don’t know. I also agree with Joey, as well, the fastest car has won for the last handful of races. But if you put Martin in traffic, he might have gotten around, I’m not sure.
“I guess I’m indifferent on it is the long answer. I’d prefer it to be probably a little bit higher and less grippy.”
Truex, as the winner, said he’s not so sure the PJ1 affected his win or not.
“I mean, it’s hard to say honestly. I mean, if you have no traction compound, everybody races around the bottom. If you have traction compound, everybody tries to use it to the best of their advantage.
“Either way you look at it, you have a preferred groove. It just so happens that now with PJ1, it’s up the racetrack. Without it it’s at the bottom.
“I thought the PJ1 today for whatever reason maybe wasn’t as sticky as the last time we were here. I don’t know if it’s because the Xfinity cars wore it off some yesterday and they didn’t reapply it. We’ve seen guys being able to work the bottom. I worked quite a lot of guys underneath them when they were in the PJ1 to make a pass.
“To answer your question, it’s hard to say without knowing. It seems like every race here is a little bit different. It just would have been everybody fighting for the bottom if there was no PJ1.”
“It’s tough to say,” said Hamlin. “I think if you get the lead and you have the next-fastest car behind you, the next-fastest car has to wait 20 laps, 25 laps for the pace really to lose a half a second. Again, the dominant line is run around the top in PJ1. It’s very difficult.
“When we were running around the bottom here, you could force the guy off the bottom. You could pack air and really kind of force the leader off the bottom, you could get position, next thing you know you’re on the bottom in three and four, that’s where you want to be, you complete the pass.
“Here you have to run in their wake. Most of the time you’re just worried about losing a position if someone is right behind you. You don’t even want to make a move to run low and make a move on the leader because you’re likely to lose a spot.
“The fastest car can get to the front, but he needs long runs to do it.”
Logano, says that the biggest adjustment other than PJ1 has been the racing package. The lower downforce stuff works best he notes.
“That’s probably the million dollar question trying to know that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the last time we ran without the traction compound, we had big spoilers on the car. It was bad. I think the thing we fixed the most was taking the spoiler off the car, creating smaller wake, being able to manipulate other people’s cars by stacking air on them or whatever, that created a lot of passing.
“I think the biggest adjustment, the best adjustment has definitely been taking the spoilers off the car for the short tracks and adding horsepower.
“What would it be like if you didn’t have the traction compound? I don’t know.
“It’s either your dominant lane is going to be on the bottom or up in PJ1. Pick your poison. I don’t know. You’ve got to eventually look at it and say, Was the racing good today? Yes. Did the fastest car win? Yes. That must mean there must be some passing out there. Yes, you’ve got to be patient because if you make a move and you’re not able to clear, you’re probably going to lose a spot. But that’s part of the game.
“I’d be hard to say that we shouldn’t have it. I’m kind of a fan of it personally, thinking that it actually — I think it helps the racing, widens the group out. Towards late in the race, it’s pretty good.”