Small fuel cells, softer tires greet drivers at Lowe's

A year ago, blown tires were the norm under the lights at Lowe's Motor Speedway. One freshly repaved racetrack and a much harder tire compound later, tires lasted seemingly forever during May's two race weekends.

A softer compound will be used for the Bank of America 500, so tires may not be an issue. What could keep things interesting, though, is the fact that Nextel Cup teams practiced Thursday afternoon before qualifying and are scheduled to practice twice more before dusk on Friday.

The race itself -- with Scott Riggs on the pole -- won't begin until the sun is down on Saturday, however. Tony Stewart said the key during practice is correctly predicting how the track will change as the temperatures go down.

"Depending upon when we practice and what time of day we make our runs, you kind of have to plan ahead for knowing what the track is going to do," Stewart said. "We'll watch it, paying attention to what time the practices are and we'll set up [the car] accordingly.

"If the car's not driving perfect in practice that doesn't mean it's bad, because you know the track is going to cool off. You don't want to adjust a whole lot because you might overcompensate for a condition that's not even going to be there when the race starts. So, you really have to plan ahead."

No one has planned for Lowe's Motor Speedway better lately than Jimmie Johnson, whose dominance here was finally broken in May when he finished second to Kasey Kahne in the Coca-Cola 600.

Johnson had won four straight prior to the 600 and has won five of the last seven races. He finished second and third in those he didn't win.

But the driver knows that might not mean much this time around. Of course, he said the same thing back in May before winning the Nextel All-Star Challenge and finishing second a week later.

"I think we'll all start the weekend concerned in remembering how finicky the track was in the spring race. I would hope and think that it's evolved and will be much more of a tame racetrack with not as many issues and problems," Johnson said. "I found out that we're still running the small fuel cell, which I didn't realize. But I think we're going to have a much better race this time than we did in the spring."

The smaller fuel cell forces teams to pit more often, giving them more chances to put on fresh tires, hoping to keep tires from blowing out due to excessive wear.
Johnson's goal, as usual, is to simply wear out the field.

"It's a great place for us. We just show up and attack it," Johnson said. "We approach the track the same way that we have. With all the different surface changes, there is still a certain way to drive the track with a certain style in how to get around there. I'm just going to show up and treat it like I always have and hopefully we'll get the same results."

Former Cup winner John Andretti is a full-time Busch Series competitor these days. He knows as well as anyone that the 1.5-mile facility is "moody," especially when the races go from day to night.

The Busch drivers had a Thursday night practice session under the lights, so they should have a good idea what to expect in their race Friday. And Andretti knows what the Cup drivers will be going through as they try to guess the proper setup.

And like Johnson, Andretti said the track is still the same at its core, despite the fresh asphalt.

"It was still the same old Charlotte. I don't think, no matter what they do, it's ever going to be any different," Andretti said. "That's what makes Charlotte a lot of fun. You really have to work on your cars. We practice during times when we're not going to be racing. It makes it that much more difficult. The adjustability in your cars has to be at a premium."

How the drivers adapt to the softer tires may well determine how the race plays out.

"Goodyear is bringing back a tire with more grip. I think in May we saw a lot of conservativeness everywhere [in terms of setups]," Andretti said. "Last fall there were a lot of problems. The spring race this year, nobody wanted to see those problems. Everyone erred on the safe side.

"I think Goodyear has done a good job of going back and making it better for us. The softer tire will give us more grip, but it's always a balancing act between performance and safety. That's always a tricky balance because the best-performing tire sometimes is more on the edge. Goodyear does a great job of giving us a great tire that's always safe, too."

Points leader Jeff Burton said the track has cured the past five months, so it will be different, along with the tire. He said that adds to the unknowns the teams will be facing.

He'll also be wondering how his Richard Childress Racing team will fare at the intermediate track after it didn't quite drive like he'd hoped at California Speedway last month.

"We feel really good but we didn't run as well as we would have liked at California or Michigan, so we are a little bit on pins and needles about it," Burton said. "At the same time I believe we learned a lot at those races and can apply it this weekend in Charlotte."

Previous Lowe's winner Matt Kenseth sits second in points, just six behind Burton. Avoiding trouble was the key at Talladega, and now he hopes strong runs and good luck will put him on top as he shoots for his second championship.

"We're bringing what we feel like is our best car this weekend. It's run well everywhere we've taken it this year and it's the car I feel most comfortable with on intermediate tracks," Kenseth said. "We took a different car to Kansas a couple weeks ago and that didn't really work out for us.

"Charlotte has been a good track for us in the past. I got my first win there and we won the All-Star race in 2004. We've won a couple of Busch races there as well, so hopefully we can add to that success this weekend."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.