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Playoff Drivers are Feeling the Pressure at ISM Raceway with New Traction Compound

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AVONDALE, Arizona — The Arizona sun beams down on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage area. Blue skies collide with the outside wall that stretches across the dormant 1.5 mile ISM Raceway. But this is far from a laid back weekend in the Valley of the Sun.

Cup Series crew members are frantically fine tuning their machines and lining up to go through inspection before hitting the track for what will positively be an intense pressure cooker of a race in Avondale, Arizona. While the premier series will only be partaking in a pair of practice sessions this Friday, there is more on the line now than ever to perform well this weekend.

ISM Raceway has been the sight of the semi-final event on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit since 2002. But it was announced that in 2020, the track that underwent a $178 million renovation would be the sight of the Championship race weekend.

Why is this race in specific one that every driver had circled on their calendar for the 2019 season?

The 2020 Championship race will be held on November 8th, exactly one year from today. Not only will track conditions be almost identical to this weekend, but the rules package being applied to the Bluegreen Vacation 500 will be the same next year. On top of that, there is a new PJ1 traction compound being applied to the racing surface, which has the entire garage area in a frenzy – and for good reason.

There was a traction compound applied to the previous race at Texas Motor Speedway and drivers like Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, found out quickly that slipping up in those grooves could get treacherous.

Playoff drivers expressed a plethora of concerns about how the race will play out on November 10th and expect it to be a challenge for all 312 Laps. Even previous Cup Series Champions Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who are currently in the Championship 4 by upwards of 20 points, are on edge about the competition around them this Sunday.

“We’ll be watching those Trucks and Xfinity races pretty closely,” Logano said. “I think it’s going to take a little bit for it to come in but it looks to me like it will probably come into play in Turns 1 and 2 – it’s pretty high up there in Turns 3 and 4.”

Logano was one of a handful of Playoff drivers who performed well in the AAA Texas 500 with the new traction compound, notching a fourth-place finish. He sits fourth in the standings 20 points to the good and will need a clean race to advance to Homestead-Miami Speedway for a chance to win back-to-back championships.

Busch has the worst average finish in the Playoffs – next to the driver of the No. 22 – with a 13.38 average through eight races . All eyes will be on the No. 18 M&Ms Camry as Busch is currently riding a two-race win streak at the 1.5-mile track with an impressive 2.8 average finish over the last five events at ISM Raceway.

“Here at Phoenix it’s already very challenging and difficult to pass,” Busch said when asked about the PJ1 compound. “We saw that here in the Spring, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s going to be a hard fought finish this year and next year at the end.”

Martins Truex Jr. locked himself into the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway after capturing his third short track win of the season in the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago. Normally, Truex could play it safe and focus on the weekend ahead, but the driver of the No. 19 will be far from complacent with a lackluster performance at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway.

“I think it’s on everyone’s mind that this will be the final four race that decides the championship next year, so this race and the Spring race will be very important – especially with the rules package staying the same,” said the 2017 Cup Series Champion. “Everyone’s going to want to get a good head start on next Spring here for sure this weekend.”

The driver from Mayetta, New Jersey was also one of the benefactors of a rewarding finish last weekend at Texas. It should come as no surprise that the championship-caliber driver is one of the few drivers not overly concerned with the traction compound this weekend.

“At some point Sunday we’ll use that traction compound in [Turns] three and four because we typically run a higher line on long green flag runs,” Truex said. “It just depends on if enough guys are running up there and working it in – if that happens it’ll probably get pretty good.”

Playoff drivers below the cutoff line such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Hamlin could be pitted with an advantage over drivers like Busch and Logano due to their inherent need to perform well or win for a chance to compete for the 2019 Championship.

Larson was one of the lone drivers in the Cup Series in favor of the PJ1 compound application last weekend and he is feeling confident heading into the Bluegreen Vacations 500 this Sunday.

“I feel like there’s nobody better in our series in terms of searching for lanes and grooves to make your car better,” the driver of the No. 42 said. “If it burns in quick, I think I’ll really benefit from it.”

Talladega Superspeedway winner and racing prodigy, Blaney, revealed that he believes restarts could get even more hectic than normal this Sunday due to the track compound application.

“In the Spring you saw those wild four-five wide racing on restarts, but it’s going to be even more interesting this year especially with the stuff they put down on [Turns] one and two up top,” the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford said. “I think people are going to be using that top lane later in the day and it’s really going to affect restarts.”

The 25-year old started from the pole at ISM Raceway earlier this year and finished third with a legitimate shot to win. Blaney also reiterated that he had been pushed around quite a bit in that race and that he intends to return the favor and be one of the aggressors on those climatic restarts.

Hamlin, who finds himself 20 points below the cutoff line, was deemed one of the 2019 favorites for the Championship after an impeccable season. The 38-year old found trouble at both Martinsville and Texas Motor Speedway, but his chances really took a hit when he accidentally got caught up in the traction compound in the AAA Texas 500.

The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry had some strong words about the PJ1 application and even tried taking matters into his own hands following the race at Texas.

“I discussed with NASCAR that you’d have a better show from beginning to end if they didn’t add anything after the Xfinity race,” Hamlin shared. “Those cars did a really good job burning it in and it was actually really good at that time – it would’ve been great to start the Cup race with.”

Hamlin went on to further explain that the traction compound took hundreds of laps to properly develop last week and it was really slick – hence why when he got loose in re-application and crashed. With 312 Laps at a 1.5-mile track, the Cup Series may not have have the luxury of waiting hundreds of laps for the compound to burn in.

The Virginia-native boasts a series-leading average finishing position of 9.2 through 34 of 36 races this season and will need to replicate more of that magic this Sunday to continue his dominant stretch into Miami.

If the prior Playoff Round finales at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway are any indication of what to expect at ISM Raceway, then fans are in for a dramatically intense race at Zoomtown U.S.A. With two only spots available before Championship weekend at Homestead and teams already stressing about the PJ1 traction application, you won’t want to miss the Bluegreen Vacations 500 from ISM Raceway at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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Cole Cusumano

Cole Cusumano is currently attending The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication for a degree in sports journalism. In addition to providing content for POPULAR SPEED, he worked for Pit Notes at ISM Raceway. He is also currently writing for the school's magazine "The Cronkite Journal", which is affiliated with Arizona PBS. Cole was born and raised in Staten Island, N.Y. but has been living in Arizona for 13 years.