Two years ago, Jeff Gordon and No. 24 crew chief Alan Gustafson won at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) in only their second event working together. A lot has changed since then. A lot has changed since the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series raced here in November.
After the event won by the No. 24 team in 2011, PIR was repaved and reconfigured. The relatively new layout - along with numerous offseason changes - could prove to be the biggest challenge to date for the No. 24 Pepsi Max Chevrolet SS team.
"This weekend will be one of the most difficult and challenging ever," said Gustafson. "Our new Chevy SS has significantly more downforce than last year's car. With the new Gen-6 car, the new rules, a new tire compound and new inspection process, we don't really have anything that we can base this weekend off of.
"I guess the weather is usually the same each time we race here, so that's at least one 'known.'"
In 28 starts at the one-mile track, Gordon has two wins (2007 and 2011), 10 top-fives and 19 top-10's. He also has three poles (2005, 2006 and 2007) at the Arizona track.
"Qualifying well is always important, and we'll put a lot of emphasis on qualifying runs during Friday practice," said Gustafson. "But we also need to give Jeff time to get acclimated to all the changes.
"We'll probably start with race runs during practice so he can get laps under his belt."
In only three races since the repave, four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Gordon has seen the groove widen at PIR.
"I'd say it's a two-and-a-half groove track now," said Gordon, who is 19th in the point standings after the season-opening event. "The bottom lane is still preferred but the outside lane works and the groove definitely widens out during the race.
"We know this race presents a huge challenge for us and for everybody but I'm confident in the plan that Alan and the engineers have come up with. After meeting with the team about this race, I can't wait to head west."