Sprint Cup drivers got a first (for some second) taste of Daytona’s new pavement Thursday (Jan. 20) that not only showcased the speedway’s new look, but also the new, improved car. Though this isn’t the first time the new pavement has been tested (there was a tire test done last month), this week’s test session, also known as Preseason Thunder, are already providing a clearer picture of what to expect for next month’s Daytona 500.
A total of 36 teams showed up for the test, which consisted of single-car mock qualifying runs in the morning and an afternoon drafting session. In years past, preseason testing for the season’s biggest race was more about the fans getting to see cars back on the track and for everyone to get an early idea who the favorite would be to win the pole.
This year, it’s more than that.
In addition to seeing on-track action again, fans also got to observe Daytona’s new surface. It’s only the second time in history Daytona has been repaved, the first since 1978 (16 drivers testing this week weren’t even born at the time of the first re-paved race. It should also be noted that Bill Elliott, who is not testing this week, will try to become the only driver to have raced on all three Daytona surfaces).
After last year’s debacle in the February race that saw the asphalt come apart in turn 1, it was clear a makeover was needed. The day after the Coke Zero 400 in July, track workers began the process of stripping away the worn out asphalt. Four months later, the project was completed with a surface so smooth, you “could hold a cup of coffee with the lid off full and not spill a drop riding around there,” according to three-time Daytona winner Tony Stewart.
Of course, that is not necessarily a good thing in all the drivers’ minds. Denny Hamlin believes the new pavement limits what teams can do.
“There’s very few things that we really can work on as far as drivability is concerned,” he said. “I think everyone’s car is going to drive good. But when it comes to SpeedWeeks it’s going to be very interesting because I think it’s going to be survival.”
The upcoming 500 could very well could prove to be a race of survival. With the higher rate of speed the cars can now travel, NASCAR implemented a smaller restrictor plate to keep the cars at a reasonable pace. One has to question if the restrictor plate may be too small; Clint Bowyer, who had the fastest AM lap of 184.219 mph, was much slower than Mark Martin’s pole winning run last year of 191.188 mph.
With the pack already expected to be much tighter in years past, a smaller restrictor plate is going to constrict the pack even more, increasing the likelihood of the Big One. While this massive multi-car wreck seems to happen on a regular basis at sister track Talladega Superspeedway, it has been less common at Daytona, with the pack spreading out after 10 laps. Now, with a less abrasive surface, expect 30 car packs throughout the entire event.
And while bigger packs are likely to be seen when the 2011 season goes green, the similarities between Daytona and Talladega may then go by the wayside. When Talladega was repaved in 2006, fans began to see the ability of two cars able to hook up nose to tail and break away from the rest of the field for several laps. Now that Daytona has a surface comparable to its sister track, it remains to be seen after one day of testing whether this two-car practice will prove viable, but Hamlin says it will be unlikely with how “tight the radius of the corner is.”
Don’t be surprised if some teams try fuel runs during the test. Kurt Busch, who is still seeking his first plate victory, believes the smaller restrictor plate and the sleeker track will make fuel strategy more of a factor.
“It’s somewhat of a learn as you go with restrictor-plate size,” said Busch. “It’s just been adjusted with the way that we’re not seeing much for tire wear. You want to try to improve on your fuel mileage because I think you’re going to see a lot of fuel-only type pit stops. So you just have to try to bank as many thoughts as you can in your mind about how you’re going to react and apply those.”
The 2004 champ also noted that testing this week is very significant, as there is still much to learn before SpeedWeeks, stating “Being in the Shootout Saturday night to start things off, that’s going to be a wild start to things, then we’ll see how – shoot, we’ll learn a lot in these three days on how drafting is going to settle in.”
In addition to the track changes, Preseason Thunder will allow drivers to get a feel for the new front end. Gone are the splitter braces that were despised by so many in favor of a splitter-less, sturdier front end. While it looks much better, the verdict is still out on its driving characteristics.
“It is hard to tell right now,” said AJ Allmendinger. “I know that they at least look a lot better, which is a good thing. The way the nose is going to race I am not really sure. It is tough right now after this morning session because we are out there by ourselves. It seems like maybe it isn’t as abrupt when it does hit the ground.”
Once the cars hit the track, it was Chevrolet that did all the talking in single-car runs. The bowtie brigade scored the top four and seven of the top-10 spots on the charts during the morning session, and followed that up by posting the top-four single-car speeds again in the afternoon session. Bowyer topped the board in the AM, while Stewart was the fastest single-car run in the afternoon (the top-four speeds on the PM score sheet went to Toyota drivers David Reutimann, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne, who all opted to take drafting practice).
Carl Edwards was the fastest Ford in both practice sessions, timing in seventh in the morning and 10th in the afternoon. At sixth in the morning and 16th later in the day, Brad Keselowski was the fastest Dodge. Slowest in both sessions was Steve Wallace, who will attempt to make his Cup debut in the 500 as well as the first Cup race for Rusty Wallace Incorporated.
After the first day of Daytona testing, fans and experts alike got plenty of leads on what to expect in February, but were still left with plenty of questions. As there are still two more days left, look for the drivers to do more drafting, and all to have a better idea of what to expect when SpeedWeeks arrive. With everything, including the car, being new, there is plenty to be learned in the next couple of days. Without a doubt, Preseason Thunder 2011 will prove to be one of the most pivotal test sessions the Cup Series has had in some time.
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