Commentary

Kansas makeover looms large

Updated: April 21, 2012, 7:04 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- It's almost like losing your best friend.

Drivers already are building up their Kansas friend to be better than in reality she ever really was. There is a sadness in the tone of many as they talk about the great memories, how the rough, gritty exterior was one of things that made this friend so special.

The only thing missing is tears.

Farewell, Kansas Speedway.

You will be missed by many.

Sunday's Sprint Cup race will be the final event on this 1.5-mile track before it undergoes a major repaving and reconfiguring with progressive banking. For many, a repaving is like losing a friend, because we all know the racing -- like life -- probably won't be the same.

We saw how it all but eliminated the bumping and grinding at Bristol Motor Speedway to the point that the half-mile track is about to be resurfaced again; how it created tandem racing at Daytona and Talladega that nearly ruined it for fans at those superspeedways before NASCAR stepped in with radical changes to bring back the pack; how it turned "Too Tough To Tame" Darlington Raceway tamable.

Now it's Kansas Speedway's turn.

"The deal with repaving a racetrack, it always ruins the race," Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty said.

That may be overstated, but you get his point. It won't be the same, at least until the track wears in to create the rough spots drivers believe creates better racing, that separates the haves from the have-nots.

And who knows, Kansas Speedway could be the exception and be better right off the bat? Just because you lose a friend doesn't mean better ones aren't out there.

"I was thinking about it, for sure, when I was out there on the racetrack," said Brad Keselowski, who won this race last season to begin his amazing run to the Chase. "I've got a really good feel for what I want out of my car at this track and I'm really happy about it and really sad to see it go.

"Some racetracks that we go to, your whole career you never know what you need to run well. It's a shame to lose that because you don't always get that very easy."

But there are other tracks, such as Phoenix, where Keselowski had a better feel after the repave.

"In the end it's fair for everyone," Keselowski said. "It's the right thing to do."

Kansas will be the 10th track that hosts a Cup event to be repaved since 2005. Those tracks play host to 19 of the season's 36 points races.

That's a lot of change in a sport where the fans seem to resist it, as we've seen with the Chase and the new car. It makes drivers and track promoters nervous, particularly track promoters who hear all the reasons a track shouldn't be repaved.

"At the end of the day, it stinks," said Chris Schwartz, the vice president of marketing and sales at Kansas Speedway. "But we're choosing to do it because we have to."

For some, that is debatable. While Schwartz says the dramatic changes in climate -- the worst in the series -- have taken their toll on the track, he fears more what would happen if there weren't a repave. He fears that huge chunks could come up, like what happened with the "hole" at Daytona International Speedway during the 2010 Daytona 500.

"If we had what happened at Daytona it would be devastating," Schwartz said. "It would be irresponsible not to do what we have to do."

Not all are convinced. Some believe the track should keep repairing the patches, arguing that makes driving more difficult and provides the gap that keeps average drivers from competing with the most talented.

"I don't really understand why they are paving this racetrack," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said.

Ditto, says Carl Edwards, who wants to win at his so-called home track more than at Daytona and Indianapolis.

"I would not resurface this track ever," he said. "I wouldn't resurface tracks ever if it were up to me. I'd patch the holes and keep on running."

Keselowski had the best response to that, particularly for Gordon.

"I think you should ask Jeff if he thought it was worth the risk at Martinsville that year when that chunk came through and cost him the race," he said of the 2004 event in which Gordon had a piece of concrete severely damage the right front fender in a race he had till then dominated.

Good point. Tracks don't resurface just for the sake of resurfacing, although coincidentally the repaves have occurred since the government allocated NASCAR and other race tracks a tax break for capital improvements.

Schwartz says he wasn't aware of the tax breaks. Former Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said that wasn't a factor in the CMS repave.

"It had gotten too rough and bumpy; we had to do it," Wheeler said. "I have found that nothing improves racing more than paving done right. The problem is, until a dozen years ago, it was very difficult to do it right."

Not every repaving turns into the public relations nightmare that occurred at Bristol, where only about half the 160,000 seats -- in what once was the toughest ticket in NASCAR -- were filled during the March race.

Keselowski and others spoke highly of the new surface at Michigan, which in the past has often turned into a fuel-mileage event.

"That race is going to be much more competitive than any of the other races from tracks that have come right off of a repave," Keselowski said.

NASCAR doesn't take repaves lightly. The governing body often holds meetings to get driver input, particularly if a track is considering a reconfiguration, as Kansas is.

Sometimes the tracks listen. Sometimes they don't.

"The one that caught me off guard, and I think a lot of drivers, was the repave at Phoenix," said Jimmie Johnson, a favorite for Sunday's race after winning here in the fall. "When we came back it was a far different race track than what we had talked about."

[+] EnlargeKansas Hole
Courtesy Kansas SpeedwayA chunk of asphalt is missing between Turns 1 and 2 at Kansas Speedway. Weather extremes in Kansas and the condition of the track led to the decision to re-pave it after Sunday's race.

And let's face it, repaving a track is different than anything you'll see in any other sport. The toughest decision in football and baseball is whether to go with artificial turf or real grass. Either way, it doesn't have a major impact on the quality of play.

The biggest factor outside the car in NASCAR is the racing surface and the tires that touch it. It creates challenges for everyone, particularly for Goodyear.

With a new surface there is more grip, which creates higher speeds, which creates heat buildup in the tires. The new surfaces are so smooth and have so much grip that tire wear as we once knew it is obsolete.

That changes pit strategy, which results in fewer cautions from blown or cut tires, which results in fewer restarts that tighten the field.

"When you don't pave race tracks and there's tire wear, the driver shows up a lot more than what it does when you pave a track," Denny Hamlin said. "It becomes all about track position and how good your car is.

"I would say the driver is probably 65 percent of how you run [on an old surface]. On a brand-new paved race track, I would say our numbers are probably down to 30 [percent]."

There's no better example than Darlington, where on the old surface you'd see a dropoff in speed of 3.5 seconds or more after 10 laps, where a four-tire stop was once essentially mandatory.

"It does change the racing," said Stu Grant, Goodyear's general manager for worldwide racing.

So Kansas Speedway will change after Sunday. Teams will start on a blank sheet of paper when they return here for the Chase. As points leader Greg Biffle said, "This is just for fun. This is just for the trophy."

That doesn't mean the fall race won't be as good as this one. It just means it'll be different.

It's like finding a new friend, although as with most friends it may take time to warm up to them.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter