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After repaving, Phoenix International Raceway is shiny new wild card in Chase for the Championship

Carl Edwards, practicing Friday, won last November at Phoenix International Raceway, the last fall race on the old surface.

Associated Press

Carl Edwards, practicing Friday, won last November at Phoenix International Raceway, the last fall race on the old surface.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Phoenix International Raceway had become like a comfortable old chair for NASCAR drivers over the past 20 years: cracked and creaky, yet familiar and fitting.

This weekend, it's like something fresh out of the box.

Repaved and reconfigured, the mile oval will look and feel vastly different for NASCAR's second race at the track this season than it did nine months ago.

That's going to add a whole lot of extra intrigue, not to mention some guesswork by the teams and drivers, for the penultimate race in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship.

"With two races spread out the way that they have it, I guess they felt that during the offseason wasn't going to be right for them," Jeff Gordon said. "I'm sure it's something that many of us would disagree with, especially with how much it is going to change things for the championship, but I think it's their choice and their decision."

Despite its flaws and eccentricities, PIR had become a place where veteran drivers felt comfortable since its last repave 20 years ago.

But the track became too worn down.

"It just got to the point where we were just patching patches," track president Bryan Sperber said. "The last weekend we had in February, we had the track break apart in four or five different places and had to go in at night to fix it."

Normally at a track such as Phoenix, teams have a deep database. But with the repaving and the alterations to the banking and dogleg, they're nearly starting anew.

"They did a really nice job with the work they've done here, so it's just a matter of us trying to figure out what we have to be good for the weekend now," said Tony Stewart, three points behind Carl Edwards.

PIR did its best to break in the track. In addition to tire tests in August and October, the track ran a tire dragging machine that spun 80 tires over the track for more than 90 hours. It also had some lower-series drivers turn laps last week in an attempt to widen the upper groove.

But still it could take drivers in today's race a little while to get comfortable with this new version of PIR.

Sprint Cup points

With two races to go. Only the top nine drivers are still mathematically eligible in the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Carl Edwards 2,316—

Tony Stewart 2,313 3

Kevin Harvick 2,283 33

Matt Kenseth 2,278 38

Brad Keselowski 2,267 49

Jimmie Johnson 2,261 55

Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,237 79

Jeff Gordon 2,235 81

Kurt Busch 2,229 86

Denny Hamlin 2,217 99

Kyle Busch 2,216 100

Ryan Newman 2,213 103

Today's race

Kobalt Tools 500, 3 p.m., Phoenix International Raceway

TV: ESPN

After repaving, Phoenix International Raceway is shiny new wild card in Chase for the Championship 11/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 9:30pm]
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