Phoenix race all about change

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Saturday night's race at Phoenix International Raceway has a new starting time, a new distance, new rules and a new car. NASCAR promoted a season of change, but Phoenix took it a step further.

The race will take the green flag at 7:30 p.m., an hour earlier than in the past, to satisfy NASCAR's decision for more unified and earlier starting times.

To make sure it finishes under the lights, the track added 63 laps. The setting sun always has been a big part of racing at Phoenix and the later finish guarantees the final lap will be under the lights. It also pushed the main event to more than 3 hours, making it one of the longest races of the year.

"Our fans have come to expect a significant portion of our race to be run as the sun is setting, and finish into the night," Phoenix International Raceway president Bryan Sperber told the Arizona Republic.

And like every other promoter, Sperber loves NASCAR's new no holds barred attitude, especially since controversy remains one of racing's vehicles to sell tickets.

"All the politically correct stuff, it got to the point where the fans had grown a little weary of it, and the drivers a little weary of it," Sperber said. "NASCAR is letting the drivers let their personalities come out and letting them handle issues on the track and in the garage. The feedback I've gotten from fans has been very positive."

While Phoenix now will be one of the longest races of the year, Sperber said the additional 63 miles will force crew chiefs to change their strategies.

"Racing is as much as about strategy as it is about pure speed," Sperber said. "This new distance ushers in a whole new race at PIR and will likely jumble the conventional wisdom about who can win at Phoenix."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in favor of all the changes, especially as the sport tries to get its ratings and attendance back on track.

"We've got to take care of the fans first," he said. "They don't make these changes for the drivers. I like all the changes."

While Saturday's race will be full of changes, some things remain the same. Jimmie Johnson, who's won four of the past five races at the one-mile track, is leading the Sprint Cup Series standings after winning the past four series championships.

"We're not really worried," Johnson said. "I think we're viewing it as an opportunity."

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.

Subway Fresh Fit 600

(SEVENTH OF 36 RACES)

WHERE: Phoenix International Raceway at Avondale, Ariz.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

TRACK DIMENSIONS: One-mile oval with 9- and 11-degree banking.

BROADCAST: Television -- 7 p.m. Fox-Ch. 54; Radio -- 7 p.m. Motor Racing Network, Sirius Satellite Radio 128

2009 WINNER: Mark Martin


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