Phoenix Preview: West Coast Drivers Enjoy March Swing


By Jared Turner

NASCAR’s visit to Phoenix International Raceway for Sunday’s Good Sam 500 marks the second of three stops on the appropriately named West Coast Swing.

Now in its second year of existence, the West Coast Swing features consecutive Sprint Cup Series races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, PIR and Auto Club Speedway in California, which all come in the month of March.

NASCAR’s impetus for implementing a West Coast Swing was two-fold: To save teams and drivers precious travel time by allowing them to remain out west for two weeks rather than having to go back and forth between coasts. Also, the West Coast Swing is ideal for fans who live in the western part of the country and have the opportunity to attend all three events in succession.

“I love it,” said Elk Grove, California native Kyle Larson. “I love that they changed the schedule to the way that they did last year. I stay out west the whole time. I fly to Sacramento after every race and get to hang out with my parents and (girlfriend) Katelyn’s parents. It’s shorter flights, for sure. The World of Outlaws are out west so we get to hang out with our sprint-car team that we own. So I look forward to the West Coast Swing every year.”

Larson isn’t alone in his sentiment.

“I think the West Coast Swing certainly is a positive because the transportation aspect of going out west and then coming back and then going out west and then coming back and then going out west is brutal on the race teams,” said Aric Almirola. “So to have the ability to go out there and kind of have your cars transported out there each and every week, and kind of stay out there and not be changing three time zones back and forth, is really nice.”

Almirola’s crew chief, Trent Owens, says having three races in a row out west eliminates a lot of logistical challenges for teams.

“We used to go to Vegas, would come back and race Bristol (in Tennessee) and then went back to California, and that was a nightmare just trying to get stuff back and forth across the country, because we don’t have but two transporters for our primary cars,” Owens said. “We have car haulers that can get cars in and out, but we don’t have the workshops to travel, so I think it’s the right thing to do.”

The inclusion of a West Coast Swing also makes sense given the growth and success among drivers with West Coast ties.

In the past two decades, for example, California-born drivers have won more Sprint Cup Series championships (11) than drivers from any other state. Four of last year’s top 10 points finishers, including two of the four drivers in the Championship 4, hail from the West Coast.

In a sport that used to consist predominantly of drivers from the Southeast, drivers from the West Coast now make up nearly half of the field on a race weekend.

“For the longest time, NASCAR was considered a Southern sport, but I think people forgot about how much racing was going on around the country and really how big California is, so maybe numbers were working in our favor a little bit,’’ said Jimmie Johnson, a six-Sprint Cup Series champion from El Cajon, California. “I’m happy to see so many team owners now are paying attention to West Coast racing.”

Greg Biffle, who hails from Washington state, enjoys heading out west for three weekends in a row, even if his home state doesn’t have a Sprint Cup Series track.

“I love the West Coast Swing, I love going out there, I love off-roading, and I love going to the desert,” Biffle said.