The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series makes the second stop on its three-race West Coast swing Sunday when the green flag drops on the Camping World 500k at the ultra-fast Phoenix International Raceway mile oval.
The 2017 season marks a time of change for both the iconic desert racetrack and No. 14 Haas Automation Ford Fusion driver Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer has climbed into the driver’s seat vacated by retired, three-time champion Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), where the four-car team switched to Ford Performance in the offseason. The changes have returned Bowyer to the front of the field with 10th- and 11th-place finishes in the last two races. The No. 14 Ford is 12th in the season standings and is expected to contend for victory Sunday.
“I’m going there with a new team in Stewart-Haas Racing and a new manufacturer in Ford, so going to Phoenix will be like a whole new world for me,” said Bowyer, who has enjoyed success on the Arizona oval that’s surrounded by the Sierra Estrella Mountains. He owns two top-five finishes and six top-10s and has led 22 laps at Phoenix.
“Right now, we are really just trying to figure out these Fords, figure out my guys, and get that communication down that everyone knows is so important. I’m looking forward to the challenge of Phoenix. My teammate (Kevin Harvick) is really good out there – five victories (in the last seven races) – so I’ll be leaning on him. He represented SHR at the Phoenix test in February, so hopefully with what he learned all of us will be good when we go back there this weekend.”
The Phoenix racetrack is undergoing a resurgence of its own.
In January, it announced a $178 million renovation project that will be completed by November 2018. It includes: a new pedestrian tunnel to the infield and the relocation of the start/finish line to the current dog leg, grandstand seating capacity for 45,000, upgraded and new suites, new escalators and elevators, new souvenir areas, as well as multiple new restrooms. Also included is a new Fanzone in the infield, a new midway, new NASCAR Xfinity Series garages, new guest services and ticketing buildings along with a new public address system, plus increased Wi-Fi availability for fans.
Bowyer said making race venues more attractive to the fans will pay dividends in the long run and not just for the 52-year-old Phoenix track, but all of NASCAR.
“Phoenix has always been a great racetrack, but I think it’s getting older,” he said. “It was nothing to roll into Phoenix for testing and see a rattlesnake curled up in the corner of the garage. The fans are just awesome out there, so giving them a little bit better atmosphere in the infield is the biggest deal of everything they are doing there.”
Phoenix weekend marks a busy time of the season for all NASCAR Cup Series teams. After spending 10 days in Daytona, then traveling to Atlanta for the March 5 race, the teams raced in Las Vegas last weekend. After the race, they exchanged their primary and backup Las Vegas cars for the primary and backup cars they’ll run this weekend. After Sunday’s race, they’ll repeat the effort, swapping the Phoenix cars for the cars they’ll race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., next weekend.
Bowyer said being thousands of miles away from home for three consecutive weeks requires extra planning to take care of both people and racecars.
“Logistics are such a big thing on that West Coast swing,” he said. “You can’t come back and totally reboot and rebuild racecars. What you’ve got out there is what you’re going to have until you get home and get a chance to re-baseline and figure out where you’re at, where you need to work. You just don’t have time to logistically get any better.”
“I mean, hey, let’s face it – people have families, so it’s tough on everyone. It’s a long time being gone, so you better be ready and you better be prepared.”
CLINT BOWYER, Driver of the No. 14 Haas Automation Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What are your thoughts on Phoenix International Raceway?
“It’s always fun to go to Phoenix. It’s a cool racetrack, one of my favorites. It was my first racetrack where I made a start in the NASCAR Cup Series. I started with Richard Childress Racing and Bill McAnally, so it is always special to go back there. I think the new downforce package is going to be exciting. Obviously, since the repave, that place is pretty slick and the tires are hot, so I think it is going to be pretty good.”
What is the key to success at Phoenix?
“The key to success at Phoenix is just having a good neutral racecar. Both ends of the track are quite different with turns one and two being a pretty tight arc and turns three and four being a pretty open, sweeping corner. So, there’s really no perfect setup. You have to find a happy medium with good balance, then find a middle ground. After that, it’s track position that’s important. You have to qualify well and make sure you stay up front.”
What is the biggest challenge at Phoenix?
“Since the repave, the track has changed quite a bit, so your driving has to also change. I was probably better with the old, worn-out surface and softer tires. Now, with the harder tires, the new repave and new construction off turn two, plus the difference in the track – it’s been a challenge for me. But again, this is a new world, with new equipment. I’ve learned already, in just a short amount of time, things here at SHR seem to be easier.”