NASCAR Cup drivers face challenge of new rules package at Phoenix

Even though Chase Briscoe will be driving a race car that features a significantly different competition package at Phoenix Raceway this year, the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford remains optimistic.

Briscoe will take the green flag on Sunday as the defending winner of the United Rentals Work United 500 at the 1.0-mile track (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The NASCAR Cup Series car he‘ll be driving will produce roughly 30 percent less downforce than last year‘s iteration, thanks to rules changes designed to enhance racing on tracks of 1.058 miles or shorter and on road courses (exceptions being high-banked concrete Bristol and Dover).

The height of the rear spoiler has been halved from four inches to two inches, and the number of downforce-producing devices underneath the car—diffuser strakes, engine panel strakes and the diffuser‘s outer fencing—has been reduced significantly.

To allow teams to adjust to these changes, NASCAR has added a 50-minute practice session on Friday afternoon.

Briscoe is convinced the changes will have a noticeable effect on the racing.

“I think any time you can have less downforce, it‘s going to bring the cars closer together and create a better race,” Briscoe said. “The tires wear out, and you start slipping and sliding around. It just makes it more competitive. There‘s good and bad to that.

“It means, as a team, we have to be on it if we want to have a chance at a win, but if you can hit your setup right and keep track position, then it just adds that much more excitement. I don‘t know that we can take much from last year because of the changes that have been made, so we‘ll have to see what happens when we get on track for practice.”

Even though last year‘s notebook may have lost relevance given the changes to the rules package, Briscoe feels his No. 14 team has found a path to success at shorter, flatter tracks with NASCAR‘s Next Gen car.

After winning last year‘s spring race at Phoenix, Briscoe struggled, but he closed the season with a ninth-place run at Martinsville and a fourth-place finish at Phoenix. This year, he‘s hoping for a turnaround in the Sonoran Desert, after posting results of 20th or worse in the first three races of 2023.

“I was never really a great short-track racer, but this Next Gen car just fits my driving style better,” Briscoe said. “We found something at Phoenix that translated well to those other tracks. Even after all of the things we tried throughout the season, we saw that we could show up at Richmond, Martinsville and Phoenix and run up front.

“I hope that‘s the case still, and we can have a shot at going back-to-back at Phoenix. That win means so much—that‘s one moment from last year I wish I could revisit. I would love to do it again.”

In the 2022 debut year of the Next Gen car, Ford drivers swept the two Phoenix races, with Joey Logano winning the Cup Series championship in the season finale.

Chevrolet drivers have won the first three races of the current season, but it remains to be seen how they‘ll fare with the new competition package on Sunday.

John Hunter Nemechek faces his old boss at Phoenix Raceway

The start to the NASCAR Xfinity Series season has been close to ideal for John Hunter Nemechek.

The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota finished second in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, won at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and came home sixth last Saturday at Las Vegas.

In the series‘ first visit to a track one mile or shorter, Nemechek likes his chances in Saturday‘s United Rentals 200 at Phoenix Raceway (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“I definitely have a lot of confidence going to Phoenix,” Nemechek said. “(Crew chief) Ben (Beshore) and the guys are doing an amazing job bringing fast GR Supras to the track every week.

“I feel like Phoenix is a good track for me personally, and it‘s a great track for JGR if you look at what they‘ve been able to do there. I think we‘re in a good spot, and if we can just execute all day—on the track and on pit road—we‘re going to be in contention for sure.”

Nemechek‘s confidence notwithstanding, the path to Victory Lane won‘t be easy. He must face the driver who fielded rides for him in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series—Kyle Busch.

Busch has amassed 11 victories and nine poles in 24 starts at Phoenix. He has scored top-three results in his last 10 races at the 1.0-mile track, the last coming in 2020.

Busch will be making his second Xfinity Series start for Kaulig Racing, after running fourth last Saturday at Las Vegas.

“In our first Xfinity race together at Kaulig Racing, we learned a lot together and found some areas we can improve on,” said Busch, who owns the career series record with 102 victories. “Hopefully, Phoenix is an even better weekend for us.”

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