NASCAR basks in Phoenix glow of full championship experience
AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Chris Haller has attended NASCAR races since he was a teenager, and the lifelong fan couldn’t believe he “got hosed” out of his chance to attend last year’s finale. Missing a championship race, held for the first time at Phoenix Raceway, was a big enough blow for Haller. Turns out, a marriage between two NASCAR fans was about to hit a speed bump.
He roots for Kevin Harvick.
His wife? Well, she loves Chase Elliott.
“Imagine being in a pandemic, stuck in your house with your wife for like 18 months with two different drivers, two different teams, two different manufacturers, it’s rough,” he said, laughing.
Haller’s wife interjected, “Imagine the wife’s driver makes it to the playoffs and the husband’s doesn’t. I mean, c’mon, how good is that?”
With that retort, score another win for NASCAR’s defending champion.
Harvick and Elliott have been embroiled in a feud since the playoffs started — it escalated to the point where NASCAR had to intervene and order them to knock it off — and, for the Hallers, a spicy rivalry between two former champs is part of what makes NASCAR fun.
So is an energetic track with full access to every amenity, concession stand or fan-zone cornhole game.
Locked out a year ago, the Hallers and a buddy wearing a Zillion Beers T-shirt were among the scores of fans this weekend that jammed a revitalized Phoenix Raceway. They were on the hunt for an autograph, a selfie, but really, just a good time.
Haller’s facial hair and shades made him a ringer for Ryan Blaney, and his wife was trying to meet the NASCAR driver for a photo opp.
“I heard we just missed Blaney. That’s heartbreaking to me,” she said. “My soul is dying a little.”
Missing last year’s race stung more.
Ryan Jones, a two-decade Arizona resident, used to watch the race from an RV spot under the track’s old configuration before it underwent a splashy $178 million renovation that now puts fans in 21-inch seats with arm rests. The upgrades were worth it to Jones. His favorite? The new garages that allowed him a peek under the hood of the championship cars.
“Just being able to be this close to the cars is too cool for school,” Jones said, holding a bag of Kyle Larson hats.
But even the good times always seem to come with a catch for NASCAR.
Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s president, said this week the series would crack down on illegal use of its trademarks on merchandise boasting the “ Let’s Go, Brandon ” slogan, a political cry being used across the country as an insult directed at President Joe Biden. The phrase started after Xfinity Series driver Brandon Brown won his first race in October.
But there were dozens of fans wearing T-shirts sporting the slogan with NASCAR’s trademarked color bars inside Phoenix Raceway. Some wore hats with the slogan.
Daron Rameyer camped this weekend for the race, counts himself a Larson fan and walked around the garage in a “Let’s Go Brandon!” hat.
“It’s all in fun but I’m a Republican guy, man. I can’t help it,” he said.
Asked about the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan, the 46-year-old Jones offered a similar response.
“I just think there’s too much sensitivity all around,” Jones said. “I think it’s funny. I think it’s lighthearted. We’re in a trying time in our country and you’ve got to try and laugh sometimes.”
Phelps and NASCAR aren’t laughing as they try to distance themselves from a political hot potato.
But shirts and socks and hats and lanyards for Larson, Elliott and the rest of NASCAR drivers far outnumbered any other kind of merchandise. Kids were all smiles as they stood for pictures with drivers, like Bubba Wallace.
The NASCAR-owned track’s first shot at running the finale fell flat a year ago because of the limited capacity requirements of 8,000 fans a day forced on them because of the pandemic. Even this year’s Daytona 500 in February was still in the weeds with 30,000 fans instead of attendance that usually hits 100,000.
“It was like going to a funeral most weeks,” said Chris Gabehart, crew chief for championship driver Denny Hamlin. “Really, the championship race was not a lot different. Just very much more dynamic (this year) and I enjoy all that. I enjoy all the stories, the hype, the buildup.”
The crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., racing for his second Cup championship, said the team was energized by fans screaming and cheering when the driver walked into the garage.
“It was a very sorry state of affairs last year,” James Small said.
So with everyone having a blast, should the finale stay in the desert?
NASCAR moved the championship to Phoenix in 2020 after an 18-year run in Florida. Phelps did not rule out moving the championship site around on a rotation basis. NASCAR’s most popular driver isn’t so sure a championship residency is good for the sport.
“Yes, it’s a great area. Yes, the weather is good. Yes, it has all the right ingredients to be a good final weekend for us,” Elliott said. “But we should share this weekend with other places around the country.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports