Making the case for Phoenix Raceway

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

Since NASCAR made Phoenix Raceway the site of the sport’s finale, the diamond in the desert has caught the unnecessary ire of a notoriously malcontent fanbase. 

Year after year, the Arizona-based track has lived up to its status as one of the most fan-friendly venues across professional sport and consistently improved upon its on-track product.

Yet, a biased stigma clouds the sunny skies above the one-mile facility, leaving many with their minds already made up for what the quality of racing results in before the checkered-flag even flies.

You don’t need to hear about the perfect weather for both the spring and fall race weekends. Nor do you need to be educated on the first-class facility and second-to-none fan experience from the campgrounds to the infield.

You want to hear about what you’re seeing on track.

The Shriners Children’s 500 was another prime example of a more-than-respectable weekend in Phoenix undeserving of the harsh criticisms that began days prior to festivities and have followed all the way through into the next week.

A day that began with a sixth-straight sell-out crowd on their feet in Phoenix, ended in an incredible, redemptive rally from Christopher Bell, who experienced the epitome of heartbreak with a brake failure in his second Championship 4 appearance just five months prior.

For a track perennially advertised as one with “no passing,” there was plenty of it in the 500-kilometer main event.

Bell started the 312-lap race in 13th and became the first driver to start deeper than eighth to win at Phoenix in five Next Gen starts. This would hardly be the steepest climb the 29-year-old would have to make in order to score his seventh victory.

When the final caution of the day flew on Lap 216, the eventual race winner found himself restarting 20th, after a variety of differing pit strategies left him with a seemingly insurmountable task. In the end, the final 91 laps ran green and Bell gained 19 spots to take the checkers.

This was one of a few instances throughout the race where passing was on full display.

Many are quick to forget, both Bell and Tyler Reddick scored their respective stage wins after getting by the initial leaders with less than five to go in each segment. 

Then, hardly acknowledged at all, Martin Truex Jr. rescinded his lead to Bell with 40 to go after having to make a green-flag stop for fuel. The 2017 champion went on to lead an equally impressive rally of his own, placing seventh.

In the end, there were a total of 2,813 green-flag passes in the Shriners Children’s 500 – the most at Phoenix in the Next Gen era. Not only was it the most in the seventh-generation car, but the third-most since NASCAR started going there for the championship in 2020.

The most green-flag passes at Phoenix since 2020 occurred in the spring 2021 race with 3,228, when Truex battled through early damage to win and Kyle Larson overcame multiple pit road penalties to finish seventh. Second was the 2020 championship, where Chase Elliott drove from the rear of the field to win his first Cup title.

Look, it’s no secret the on-track product isn’t overly visually appealing, but to say it’s “impossible” to pass at Phoenix is ignorant, as proven by the numbers and performances mentioned.

And the crazy thing is, if you compare green-flag passes from Phoenix to the other short tracks on the circuit in the Next Gen era, it’s statistically been one of the more competitive venues in that regard.

In four Next Gen starts, the only short track with an average of more green-flag passes than Phoenix is Richmond Raceway with 3,589 to the one-mile track’s 2,930. Martinsville Speedway only averaged to 1,315.

It’s tough to gauge Bristol Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway with only two Next Gen starts, but their 2,279 and 2,350 respective averages were also less than that of Phoenix.

These numbers are not to say Phoenix is superior from the other short tracks on the circuit. They’re to provide facts that there has been competitive racing there, especially compared to other venues in that classification.

Yes, drivers may complain about how difficult it is to pass at Phoenix, but why should it be easy?

Not only is Phoenix the site of the championship, but nothing in professional sports should come easy for its athletes. Why wouldn’t you want to see the most deserving team walk away victorious after a hard-fought day?

Parity is also something that’s almost never mentioned in regards to Phoenix.

In the most recent race alone, there were five different leaders who led for 50 laps or more throughout the 312-lap event.

Expanding upon parity from a race winner perspective, there hasn’t been a repeat victor at Phoenix in the Next Gen era. Additionally, Bell became the ninth different winner at Phoenix in that last 10 races there going back to 2019 – the same year the track was reconfigured.

Are there flaws with Phoenix? Of course. There can be problems associated with any track.

There were only 10 lead changes in the most recent race at Phoenix. But its average of 13 in the Next Gen era are still second-most at short tracks compared to Richmond’s 17 – numbers that are really not flashy.

However, this is a sport-wide proponent of a struggling short-track package with this seventh-generation car. These issues aren’t specific to Phoenix by any means, but they’re certainly magnified with it being the site of NASCAR’s championship.

That’s not only in regards to lead changes, but passing and visual appeal. Yes, NASCAR’s short-track package has failed to meet the on-track expectations of the seventh-generation car to this point, but the show Phoenix puts on is really not as bad as everyone makes it out to be.

Phoenix is a place that promotes team-wide execution from strategies, to tire management, to pit stops. How often do we see races come down to what happens on pit road and what gameplan crew chiefs come up with? 

When you look beyond just the on-track action and more at all the factors that go into winning a race, that’s what makes Phoenix a great barometer for determining a champion. On top of it being a first-class facility that caters to fans in a destination location. 

What people are hung up on is the fact Phoenix doesn’t put on a show like Homestead-Miami Speedway. It never will, and most every track on the circuit doesn’t race like the former home of the championship – especially short tracks.

The quicker people stop associating Phoenix with Homestead, the more welcoming they’ll be to the notion that the one-mile track is not nearly as bad as they make it out to be.

3 thoughts on “Making the case for Phoenix Raceway

  1. We had season tickets for over 25 years. Yes, the weater is almost always terrific. But as far as I’m concerned, they ruined it when they redid it. Pit road on the backstretch? So they could pave a parking lot on the front stretch? And a 312 mile race? Basically just a glorified Xfinity race. But that’s OK, because they can’t pass anyway. That didn’t change. Bring back the championship at Homestead!

  2. We had season tickets there for over 25 years. But when they changed it around, we cancelled. Of course the weather is almost always terrific. But who thought pit road on the backstretch was a good idea? Just so they could have a paved parking lot on the front stretch? And they still can’t pass there. That hasn’t changed. Bring back Homestead for the championship!

  3. Thank you for putting this out there. I thought it was the best race of the season yet.

    I listened to Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi complain about the racing at Phoenix all through their podcast, without ever once saying what it was that made the racing so awful. They just kept saying “Phoenix is just Phoenix” as though it’s obvious. I like those guys usually but it got annoying.

    The race had lead changes, it had drivers coming through the field, lots of on-track battles, pit strategies, and like you said, the best car and team won. Excuse us old fans for thinking that should be a desirable thing, over pack race messes where the finishes have everything to do with luck and attrition, and almost nothing to do with driver or team skill.

    I’m in favor of anything over pack races, and I’ll always take a race at Phoenix over the mile and a halfs too.

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