Preview: Sunday's The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comMarch 1, 2014 

  • Race facts

    Where: Phoenix International Raceway.

    Track type: 1-mile paved, slightly-banked oval.

    Race distance: 312 laps.

    Weather: The chance of rain decreases to 10 percent Sunday, from 70 percent Saturday.

    TV: Coverage begins at 2:30 on Fox. Green flag is 3:14 p.m.

    Radio: Motor Racing Network.

Harvick: Spend the money for universal soft walls

Kevin Harvick was the latest driver to ask, “Why aren’t soft walls universal along the tracks where Sprint Cup runs?”

Soft wall is the energy-absorbing material that mitigates the danger of head-on crashes. Harvick hit the wall head-on last Sunday late in the Daytona 500. He was sore physically and he’s sore emotionally that a sport making so much money won’t spend to make the top safety technology universal, even in the sport’s premier venue.

“The tracks, for the most part, don’t listen to really anything unless it’s profitable for their shareholders,” Harvick said Friday. “So when you see somebody spending $400 million on their track, and they don’t have soft walls around the inside, maybe they could spend $403 million on their track and finish the inside of the speedway down there in Daytona.

“Yeah, I was sore all week. And just today I feel good enough to do what I need to do.

“It was a little frustrating, because it really shouldn’t even be a debate. … It’s just one of those things, I guess, that you just wait around for something else (horrible) to happen and then they’ll fix it.”

Harvick certainly isn’t the first to sound this warning. Jeff Gordon talked about the spotty use of soft wall at Dover after a similar jarring crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway.


Notebook

Could have been worse: Jimmie Johnson said of “knockout” qualifying Friday, “Today went better than I expected, to be honest.” That sounded like code for “This thing needs a tweak.”

Johnson, and he’s not alone, saw it coming that when teams feel compelled to stroll around a track, attempting to cool a hot engine, with other drivers trying to set pole records, you’re asking for a crash. Count Johnson among drivers who say the solution is letting teams use cool-down units along pit road in qualifying.

On the other hand…: Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski said it’s unreasonable to make sweeping generalizations about this new qualifying method based on one race. He said each track’s unique layout and surface will change how teams approach qualifying.

Of course this was just Keselowski’s fourth pole in 163 Sprint Cup starts. He acknowledged this new format fits his approach.

Staying West: Apparently a number of drivers are going straight from Phoenix to Las Vegas, rather than return to their home bases. Vegas’ schedule is set up with an extra day, adding roughly four hours of testing to the week. Drivers want every minute of seat time NASCAR allows.

Practice makes ...: Kevin Harvick was consistently the fastest driver in the two Saturday practice sessions. He drove a top lap at 136.96 mph in the second practice. Kyle Larson had the second-fastest lap at 136.596. Ryan Newman had the third-fastest at 136.508.


Three things to watch

1. More go-for-it racing. Denny Hamlin said with this new scoring system (points matter less, wins matter more) you’re going to see teams quicker to throwe away initial race setups and taking more chances because racing for second is like racing for nothing.

2. Dramatic contrast. The contrast between superspeedway/restrictor plate racing in Daytona and short-track racing in Phoenix is dramatic. In Florida, you’re worrying about being caught up in the “Big One.” In Arizona, you worry if you aren’t in the front early, you might never get there.

3. Engine wear. Crew chiefs expressed concern about the stress this new “knockout” qualifying could potentially place on engines. More blowouts?


Observations

• Hopefully it’s a lovely, dry day in Avondale Sunday. Showers Saturday were the first measurable rainfall in metro Phoenix since December.

• You can’t beat the views of mesas surrounding Phoenix International Raceway. But think twice before hiking – rattlesnake country.

• Pretty cool that Bill Elliott volunteered to fill in as Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s spotter Friday and Saturday. Dale’s normal spotter is out this week with a health issue.

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