AVONDALE, Ariz. ?- Track position was crucial during Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Speedway, but not many folks in the garage seemed to be surprised by that fact.
While NASCAR's Generation-6 car has been touted as a much more competitive piece, and more likely to promote side-by-side completion, the finicky 1-mile PIR layout has been something of a riddle for a number of teams since it was repaved in 2011.
Steve Letarte, crew chief for runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr., said afterward that it might be well into the season before the true gains of the new car becomes evident on the race track.
"Because it's like a new job," Letarte said. "If you want to form an opinion in the first week or two, I don't think you're really going to know what you have. ? Absolutely, what you saw (at Phoenix) was a product of this race track. It's raced that way since they repaved it. That's just the way it works."
There were 12 lead changes among nine drivers during the 316-lap event, which was extended four laps by a late caution flag. Besides debuting a new car on the track, teams also were dealing with a new tire, one that was developed following a tire test at the track in late October of last year.
"The cars were a lot looser than anyone I think anticipated," said team owner Richard Childress. "With this much spoiler on them, we thought they'd be a little tighter, but it wasn't just us. A lot of cars were really loose. Track position meant a whole lot.
"This is an unusual place. Next week should be a better judgment. Las Vegas will be a little different."
Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosts the next stop for the Sprint Cup Series, the Kobalt Tools 400 scheduled for March 10.
Series director John Darby said it's "fair" to say that it is difficult to make a judgment off a single race, but from his vantage point, one difference in this year's event was the closeness of the field up front.
"What we didn't see ? was the leader break out and get 7-8-9 seconds out in front of anybody, any of the leaders," he said. "It was maybe a second, something like that.
"What I look at are things like early on the 5 car (of Kasey Kahne) was good on the top of the race track. He was making a lot of passes outside. The other thing ? was the ability for somebody to come out of a round of pit stops for example, maybe be in that seventh-, eighth-, ninth-place position and still be able to drive back to the front. (Brad) Keselowski did it a couple of times. The 20 (of Matt Kenseth) did it all day long. The 48 (of Jimmie Johnson) did it. There were a lot of different cars that, even after the pit stops and not being the first guy off of pit road, were able to make their way back to the front."
Such instances, Darby said, indicate that the changes are to be moving in the right direction. As teams continue to work with the new car, and get a better handle on how it reacts to the various adjustments in setups, competition should improve.
"I agree that you cannot make a judgment off of one race," he said, "but what I know is I didn't see anything today that I didn't like."
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