Track, tires ready for title roles

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Phoenix International Raceway is on the brink of celebrating its 50th anniversary, but the PIR hosting Sunday's AdvoCare 500 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN & WatchESPN) is a long way removed from the mile oval that opened in 1964.

A complete reconfiguration of the track in mid-2011, featuring new pavement, re-profiled corners and variable banking, made PIR essentially the newest track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.

Only four Sprint Cup races have been run on the "new" circuit, meaning teams and drivers don't have an abundance of historical data to work with. With only two years of seasoning on the new asphalt, Phoenix presents a significant challenge to crew chiefs and to tire supplier Goodyear.

On top of that, the weekend schedule has given the Sprint Cup competitors less than an hour of practice time during the time of day that Sunday's 334-lap race will be run. Although any track time can be used constructively, data gleaned with track temperatures some 30-40 degrees cooler than expected in the race can sometimes lead a team down a blind alley.

NASCAR gave the Sprint Cup competitors an extra hour of practice Friday and an extra set of tires, but the additional time was not in the 1-5 p.m. window the race will be run in.

"When you're out there at 9:30 in the morning, the track is a lot cooler and it seems to camouflage a lot of the handling of the car," observed Kurt Busch, who paced the Saturday morning practice session in his Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet.

Sprint Cup championship leader Jimmie Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet certainly was hooked up in the morning session, running the fastest 10-lap average and the third-quickest individual lap. Johnson proclaimed his car "fantastic" in those conditions, and he also was quick in the 22-lap run he started the afternoon session with.

Clint Bowyer paced the afternoon session, which gave teams their closest approximation to what Sunday's race conditions will be, and Kevin Harvick posted the fastest 10-lap average then.

Johnson said he was disappointed he and the No. 48 team did not participate in a recent tire test at PIR but denied that it would hinder their preparation for the crucial penultimate round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

"We would have loved to have been here and get some current data on the current tire, but, when it gets to the end of the year, NASCAR and Goodyear are very selective of teams they bring," Johnson said.

"From what I understand in the conversations we have had with Goodyear, it's not a ton different -- a small change, I guess, to the left-side [tire]. I wish we could have been here, but just didn't get that chance."

Johnson's championship rival Matt Kenseth, who entered the Phoenix weekend seven points behind Johnson, struggled in the morning session but improved to run fifth in the afternoon.

Kenseth discounted the notion that the track and the tire will be radically changed from the Phoenix spring race, when he finished eighth to Johnson's second.

Johnson has the superior record at Phoenix, with four Cup Series wins to Kenseth's one. That one win came back in 2002, and Kenseth's only top-5 finish at PIR since then was in 2007.

"The track, I don't think it's changed a lot," Kenseth said. "The tire changed a little bit. I would think, from February until now, that everybody has learned a lot about this car and they've changed their setups and their theories and all that kind of stuff. I think it will be different, but I don't know that, necessarily, that the teams that ran good here won't run good here again. It seems to be the same basic group of guys."

For Johnson, the scenario in the quest for his sixth Sprint Cup championship is similar to a year ago. He arrives at Phoenix with an identical seven-point advantage -- and is determined not to repeat the poor final two races that allowed Brad Keselowski to slip away with the 2012 title.

Johnson suffered a front tire failure at Phoenix in the fall 2012 race that doomed him to a 32nd-place finish. He was then 36th in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

By claiming pole position at Phoenix this year, Johnson is in position to gain a potentially crucial bonus point if he is able to lead the first lap. Kenseth starts Sunday's race from the 14th position.

"It's very, very similar to last year," Johnson said. "We had a tire issue at this racetrack and then made mistakes at Homestead. That's the area that we need to clean up and not repeat that aspect of history.

"Strategy plays a big part in what takes place on Sunday during the race here," he added. "We have seen this turn into a fuel mileage race at the end of a few shows. We did ourselves a lot of favors [Friday] with getting the pole and that first pit stall. I think the largest issue is track position. Since the repave, we haven't been able to really work in a second lane around here and create passing opportunities. That means your strategy on pit road and the stops themselves are where the weight really lies."

Especially when, in the wake of the Richmond controversies, team orders are banned in NASCAR. But Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who qualified on the outside of the front row, implied that he will do all he can to help out the driver of the No. 20 Toyota.

"I think they have their work cut out for them, especially with Jimmie qualifying on the pole," Hamlin said. "He looked like the strongest car in practice before he even went to qualifying trim.

"I'm rooting for [Kenseth and the 20 team]," Hamlin continued. "I'm going to do everything I can to make [Johnson's] life tough while I'm up there. We'll just try to communicate as a team because I think that's what it's going to take to beat Jimmie. You're going to have to have a great solid team, and we're going to do everything we can to contribute.

"Matt needs a few things to fall his way."