Oh, what a Speedweeks it was. NASCAR and its Sprint Cup Series have a tough task ahead of them this week as the sport attempts to replicate the excitement of one of the best Daytona 500s of this era. The stars and cars of the sport have arrived in Phoenix, Arizona to accomplish just that, taking the plates off but putting on the pressure of high expectations.
Already, with a full set of practice and qualifying sessions in place, we have a pretty good idea of who will have speed and what the race will look like. Will Kevin Harvick get his first win for Stewart-Haas Racing? Can a rookie phenom steal the show? What will become of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? NASCAR Nation is asking these questions and more as Race 2 of the 2014 Sprint Cup Series looms just a few hours away.
1. How will the new rules package affect the racing?
Today’s race will offer a great bit of insight in terms of answering one of the most pressing questions of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season: how will the new rules package affect the on-track racing product? The drivers were incredibly tight-lipped when asked for their thoughts. Most simply said that fans should not view Sunday’s product as being necessarily indicative of what the rest of the season’s unrestricted races will look like.
The higher spoiler will more than likely provide a bit more stability for cars deep in traffic, but there is really no telling how that spoiler will affect the racing once cars get separated and into clean air. With the new front-end ground-clearance rules, the effects of clean air could really go either way, and frankly, it is something that will ebb and flow throughout the season. So, don’t read too much into what you see on Sunday. The teams are learning and the racing will change from week to week.
The one very important thing that most drivers have been saying all weekend is that the new rules (especially those regarding the no ride height clause) will greatly increase innovation and create more speed disparity throughout the field. On an unrestricted track like Phoenix, this should in theory lead to more passing since many cars will be going different speeds. All told, it will be a key item to watch on Sunday.
2. Will the tires wear out? Will there be blowouts?
Anytime new chassis and aero rules are implemented on a car, the tires are directly affected. With the new rules expected to raise speeds, this naturally will increase the load on the right front tire as the car attempts to work through Phoenix International Raceway’s relatively flat corners, corners which happen to be notoriously hard on right fronts. You can probably see where this is going…
Tires are going to be an item to watch on Sunday. The drivers have been reporting throughout the weekend that the tires have not been wearing out very effectively, which is understandable given Phoenix’s relatively fresh pavement. But when that lack of tire wear is coupled with high speeds on a flat racetrack, problems can ensue.
We saw it in this very race last year when multiple teams experienced tire failures due to the unprecedented speeds of the 2013 Gen-6 car. The situation is very similar this year: teams are dealing with unprecedented high speeds due to the new rules, and no one quite knows how that will affect the cars on long runs.
Keep an eye on the tire situation Sunday, as blowouts could have a major effect on the outcome of the race.
3. Could rookie Kyle Larson be a factor?
One of the most underreported stories this weekend has been the impressive speed exhibited by rookie Kyle Larson in practice and qualifying. Larson came out of the gate strong in Friday’s first practice, placing the 6th fastest lap in the session and occasionally leading the practice for a few brief moments. Larson shined once again in group qualifying, easily making the Fast 12 and placing ninth in the final results. Larson continued to show speed in Saturday’s final practice to boot, placing an impressive second before jumping in the Nationwide Series car and running comfortably inside the top 5.
Is a breakthrough close at hand? After a rough performance in the Daytona 500, Larson seems to have shaken off the rookie jitters and looks ready to step up to the plate. The challenge, of course will be racing as effectively as he has practiced. Everyone knows Larson has speed, and his Ganassi machines have been fast since winter testing. If Larson can keep his cool, driving a safe race, he could be an incredibly intriguing factor towards the end of the event.
4. Is this going to be Kevin Harvick’sSHR coming out party?
Kevin Harvick seems to be adapting nicely to his Stewart-Haas Racing digs. Harvick was in another zip code during Saturday’s final practice, delivering laps that were often .4 to .5 tenths faster than anyone on the race track. Everyone in the garage area pointed to Harvick’s No. 4 car as being the unchallenged favorite to win on Sunday, and I have no intention of arguing with them.
Between Harvick’s recent Phoenix success (he won the November race), plus his raw speed all weekend long, he has positioned himself as the driver to beat. As for his challengers? The Penske cars look fast, with both drivers sweeping the front row for the event. My guess is that your winner will be one of those three.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 The Profit on CNBC 500:
Kevin Harvick dominates the event, delivering his first win for Stewart-Haas Racing.
1. 4 – Kevin Harvick
2. 2 – Brad Keselowski
3. 22 – Joey Logano
4. 88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
5. 42 – Kyle Larson
6. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
7. 1 – Jamie McMurray
8. 20 – Matt Kenseth
9. 18 – Kyle Busch
10. 55 – Brian Vickers