The Calm After The Storm

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Winston Cup personnel will be breathing a little easier this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, and that’s despite the high temperatures of the Arizona desert.

Of course, they’d be breathing easier at any race track after last weekend. Restrictor-place racing is a high-stress affair, from the time teams go through technical inspection to the time the race is over.

But when the drivers take to the track Friday at 4:30 p.m. EDT to qualify for Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500, the atmosphere will be quite different, a breath of fresh air. No restrictor plates. No roof spoilers. No four-wide racing.


“We will all be relaxed when we get to Phoenix,” Johnny Benson said . “Talladega is a stressful type of racing… but that goes away. Once Monday comes that stress goes away. As we approach Phoenix, that is more of the type of racing that we enjoy doing.”

The stress level of Talladega starts when the cars go through the inspection process Friday morning. Because aerodynamics are so important – perhaps more important than at any other track – the cars are scrutinized down to a sixteenth of an inch.

Teams are constantly shaving part of their cars’ bodies, and the smell of bondo – that magical compound to reshape bodies – is greater at Talladega than anywhere else.

Plus, springs are measured and re-measured. Spoiler angles have to be perfect. And engines? More checks. More rechecks. And remember, that’s just Friday morning.

The stress continues through the weekend, when cars in practice sessions are closer together than most races. Last Saturday, a multi-car crashed added to the tension, as five teams had to prepare backup cars and some other had to make minor repairs – and undergo the inspection process again.

Finally, Sunday comes. The racing is intense, with most cars running inches from each other nearly the entire race, sometimes three-and-four-wide. At the end, it becomes cutthroat. Last week, an 18-car crash on the last lap marred an otherwise tranquil race.

“Talladega is easy to drive,” Benson said. “The only time it is difficult is when you got three or four cars running side by side and you are stuck in the middle. You can’t do anything, and you are at the mercy of other cars around you. That’s when it becomes stressful. It’s not a hard place to drive.

“Phoenix is more challenging than what Talladega is going to be. In the same token Phoenix is more of the type of racing that we like to do, so that makes it less stressful.”

Much less stressful.

“I really, really look forward to going to Phoenix,” Rusty Wallace said. “It’s exciting. I like the area. I like to see different people and I like the shape of the track. I dreaded going to Talladega. I don’t know any driver that liked going to Talladega.”

Racing at Talladega isn’t really racing, many drivers say. They’re so much at the mercy of others, of the draft, that it’s frustrating to race. But at Phoenix, there are no excuses.

“I have said it before and will say it again, that it’s not really racing at Talladega,” Bobby Labonte said. “Even if I had won the event, I would still say the same thing. To me, racing is when a driver and team are able to outwit and outsmart their competition both on and off the track.

“I know what the fans saw last week was probably exciting, but to me, it was terrible. And that does not count me sliding on my roof three-tenths of a mile down the backstretch after our accident. I am just lucky no one else hit us. Coming to Phoenix this weekend will be a welcome relief.”

And for some, Phoenix will be fun, a word not many uttered last weekend at Talladega.

“Phoenix is a fun place to run,” defending race champion Jeff Burton said. “The front straightaway is downhill, Turn 1 is a real, real sharp corner and then Turn 3 is a real long sweeping corner, so it has two totally different ends to the race track.

“It takes on characteristics of an oval and a road course to some extent. It really makes it fun for the driver because every lap seems different and it’s a real challenging track to drive. It is very difficult to pass on, and when you get hooked up there, it’s real fun.”

Phoenix’s layout is as far removed from Talladega’s as the distance between the two cities. And that makes it more interesting, and more fun.

“When they built Phoenix International Raceway, they were looking for something different,” Kenny Wallace said. “The stereotypical 1.5-mile Winston Cup speedway wasn’t in their heads at the time, and I love that because it’s a return to old-school racing.

“It has a tri-oval down the backstretch and a flat corner in 3 and 4. It reminds me of a smaller version of Pocono without as much of a dogleg on the backstretch. Phoenix is a lot of fun because you can drive all over the race track, using any groove that works best for the car.”

And you can breathe a lot easier.

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