I’m fortunate to live close to Phoenix Raceway and each year I have two chances to fulfill my jonesing of watching a NASCAR race up close from the grandstands. My love of NASCAR, plus the convenience of nearby racetrack, has granted me the opportunity to spend a lot of time at Phoenix Raceway. Though it will always be Phoenix International Raceway to me, and no amount of remodeling or name updates can take that away. I have similar sentiments for Chase Field, it will always be the BOB (Bank One Ballpark) despite more than a decade of a new moniker.
But that is neither here, nor there. I’ve been in The Valley of the Sun since 2005 and in the ensuing 17-years I’ve spent a lot of time at Phoenix Raceway as a fan or reporter. Heck, I even got to ride in a NASCAR racecar around the track.
This past Sunday was my first opportunity to cover a NASCAR Cup Series playoff race, or see one in person for that matter, and a day at the track is good for the spirit when the Arizona Cardinal continue to disappoint, and my beloved Nevada Wolf Pack isn’t particularly competitive.
On Sunday morning I left the house at 8:00 a.m. with a 30-mile drive to Avondale ahead of me. The track is in the Phoenix suburbs, and one must traverse numerous subdivisions to make it to the one-mile oval. I left five-hours before the race started and there was quite a bit of traffic. We NASCAR fans and media like an early arrival on race day.
My early arrival afforded me time to walk the garage and paddock area. Even at the early hour the area was bustling with mechanics preparing Cup Series cars and fans with preferred access were still shaking loose some cobwebs from the night before. Say what you will about NASCAR, but it rewards the fans with incredible behind the scenes access that’s almost unheard of in athletics. If one is inclined there’s a chance to peak behind the curtain and see the motorsports machination with almost unlimited access.
After my stroll I set up shop in the media center. We media types are given assigned seating on press row and work in close quarters with other reporters. Not for the claustrophobic but the catering is great, and you get to see Jamie Little or Bob Pockrass working. Contrary to popular belief motorsports reporters largely cover a race by watching it on TV at the track. In many ways it’s like watching a race at home, except the background noise is awesome and you can’t imbibe.
I don’t watch a lot of the race outside of the media center, except the first few laps to get the blood going from the overwhelming noise of 40 stock cars in unison. I do this without ear plugs, and this explains my hearing issues, but alas I’m good with some minor auditory damage from a sport I love.
After watching the first few laps near the pits I headed back to the media center and settled in for a cool afternoon of racing for the Cup Series Championship. My NASCAR reporter techniques involve taking a lot of notes that a reader would find incoherent and not very legible. I also follow the race stats online with the race on TV. This involves multitasking, statistical overload and a general overwhelming feeling I enjoy.
After a couple of hours watching the race, I stepped outside to get some fresh air. This break was short lived as Chase Elliott spun out on Lap 205. The incident was 30-yards from where I was standing but all I could see was tire smoke. I had no idea what happened until I looked up at the jumbotron.
I can not take responsibility for Chase’s incident that forced him a lap down and effectively eliminated him from a championship with 107-laps left, but I feel guilty knowing that his fortunes dropped after I interviewed him in August. Since that magical morning he’s had an average finish of 17.5 and hasn’t won a NASCAR Cup Series championship since our paths crossed. I’m sorry, dude, but I don’t think we should chat again. It’s for the best.
Feeling that I cursed a championship contender, I headed back to the media center and got back to work. With about 10-laps left in the race it was readily apparent that Joey Logano was going to win his second Cup Series title and I headed to the pits to witness it. I’m neither a Logano fan nor hater, I’m fairly indifferent to him, but I wanted to see a little bit of history. How often do you get to see championship clinching moment and celebration?
Everyone seemed to have similar thoughts and it was jammed in the pits as the laps wound down. Chastain wasn’t going to catch Logano, and the race results were almost etched in stone. The final laps were quick and drama free. No miraculous comeback was coming. Logano started on the pole, led a race-high 187 laps, and dominated the weekend. It was a well deserved second championship and I am happy for the guy. The finish was inevitable and Logano’s team celebrated while he spun donuts. The scene was chaotic for fans of the 22 and it was dope to be a part of it.
I headed back to the media center and the press conferences began with the three drivers that came up short on Sunday and didn’t beat Logano for the championship. Elliott, Christopher Bell, and Ross Chastain answered numerous questions with dignity, but you could tell that they didn’t want to discuss their respective Sundays at Phoenix Raceway. Would you want rehash a bad day at work with questions from a bunch of strangers?
I was at the press conferences in the media center for an hour or so and then made my way home. Even though the race had been over for almost two-hours there was a lot of traffic to get out of Avondale and back on the highway. I didn’t care about stop-and-go traffic in suburban Phoenix as I listened to a Bill Simmons podcast and took in a day at the track. Ninety-minutes later I was home and a day later I’m still riding high.