<
>

Wilder runs on repaved Daytona track?

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Daytona 500 could have higher speeds, wilder races and closer finishes.

Drivers testing Daytona International Speedway for the first
time since it was completely repaved agreed Thursday that NASCAR's
premier event will feature tighter packs -- cars running three wide
at nearly 200 mph -- and increase the possibility for breathtaking wrecks.

"It's going to be a lot tighter packs than I've ever seen,"
defending Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray said. "It's certainly
going to be more Talladega-type, really close, restrictor-plate
racing. ... You've got to hope that you're going to make it to the
end because the odds [of big wrecks] are going to be really good, I'd say."

The sport's most famous track recently completed its second
repaving project, the first since 1979, and drivers turned laps on
the 2½-mile superspeedway Wednesday and Thursday as part of
Goodyear's tire test.

The notorious bumps in turns two and four are gone, so is the
pesky pothole that plagued the race last February, and pit road is
wider for increased safety. The result is a smoother track that
causes less tire wear, creates faster laps and more tight-knit
racing.

"It's going to be more like Talladega," veteran driver Bobby Labonte said. "It's going to lend to more pushing, more shoving,
more drafting like that. Obviously, that's going to lend to more
things that could happen. Nobody knows that. If you sat here on a
Monday and ran a 500-mile race with 43 cars and you did it again
Wednesday and again Friday, you'd have three different races
probably.

"It's not a recipe. It just kind of folds out the way it folds
out. You don't really know, but it definitely lends to that."

Eighteen drivers from six teams, including Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya, took part in the test. Some teams brought cars and engines from last season. Others tested their latest and greatest technology, including ethanol-blended fuel.

All the teams used a slightly smaller restrictor plate than the
one bolted on engines at Daytona last season. The top speed was
197.5 mph, and NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton
said officials will evaluate testing results before deciding
whether to reduce the plate even further.

"We may need to come down a little bit off of that, which would
be like a 64th of an inch or something," Pemberton said. "We'll
have to go back and talk to the teams and we'll look at the speeds
from the last two days of testing."

Teams will return to Daytona for a three-day test in late
January.

Not much is expected to change before then. Goodyear seemingly
nailed the tire in the Daytona test. Although analysts had limited
access to the new pavement, they used Talladega's recently repaved
surface as a starting point and tweaked a few things from there.
They ended up with the same left-side tire used at Talladega and a
right-side tire more like ones used at Las Vegas and Charlotte.

The combination resulted in the least tire wear drivers could
remember.

"Tires, from what we've seen so far, are not going to be an
issue," McMurray said. "You'll see two tires, four tires and you
might see fuel only."

Since tires haven't shown the kind of wear typically seen at
Daytona, speeds have remained fast and handling has been relatively
tame. McMurray said he turned the steering wheel half as much as he
used to. That kind of smooth driving should allow drivers to stay
tightly packed for 500 miles.

That kind of racing usually makes for big wrecks.

"Three wide is not going to be an issue," McMurray said.
"It's just running really close together. It's going to be not
running over the guy. It sounds really easy, but it's really hard
to do."

The old surface proved challenging for drivers. Between the
treacherous bumps to the slippery seams, cars often were a handful
to keep straight.

They won't be nearly as difficult now.

"This is more of chess game, 'When do I get aggressive, when do
I not get aggressive?' " Burton said. "A lot of times on the old
surface, your car dictated when you could and when you couldn't
[take a chance]. What's going to dictate this time is how many laps
are left. The workload's actually going to be less. I think your
brain will be tired, but I don't think anything else will be tired."

Aside from the smooth surface, pit road was the other notable
difference. The repaving project included widening pit road
considerably, creating more room for everyone.

"This pit road was the most treacherous of all the pit roads
that we raced on," Kurt Busch said. "It looks like green acres
out there. It's really a safer place on pit road. The environment
for the crew guys will be much better and you won't necessarily
have to worry as much about getting the fender dings. I'm excited
about it."

Little else changed, drawing praise from drivers.

"They just put pavement on it, and I'm glad that's what they
did," Burton said. "Daytona has its own history, has its own
heritage, it's entrenched in what our sport's all about, so keeping
Daytona Daytona was 100 percent the right thing to do.

"But it has a whole lot more grip. It's going to keep that grip
for a long time. ... You're going to see the kind of racing you see
in February for several years."