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Big Test Follows Big Year At Texas

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 16 2010
Jeff Gordon got to do his first Texas Motor Speedway burnout last April. (File photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Jeff Gordon got to do his very first Texas Motor Speedway burnout last April. (File photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Fort Worth, Texas – Sprint Cup racing at Texas Motor Speedway in 2009 produced two significant talking points:

Jeff Gordon won the Samsung 500 in April, ending a maddening streak that had seen the four-time series champion go 0-for-16 (with two last-place finishes) dating to the track’s debut in 1997. And an early-race crash involving points-leader Jimmie Johnson during the Dickies 500 in November provided the last dose of Chase drama en route to J.J.’s unprecedented fourth consecutive championship.

Despite those headline-generating events by the Hendrick Motorsports superstars, TMS president Eddie Gossage admitted he’d be hard-pressed to give NASCAR’s Car of Today a passing grade for “quality of racing.”

“Probably not. I don’t think so. But I think NASCAR is trying to take steps in the right direction to address that,” Gossage said this week, anticipating a pair of potential game-altering offseason developments.

Goodyear Racing has scheduled a tire test on the 1.5-mile quadoval here on Tuesday and Wednesday, similar to the two-day session conducted this week at sister-facility Atlanta Motor Speedway. And Gossage is convinced that NASCAR, as reported earlier this week, is planning to replace the rear wing on all four COT models with a more traditional vertical, fixed spoiler blade.

“I believe it’s a done deal…after Daytona,” said Gossage, referring to the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 14, the first of four Cup races run with a carburetor restrictor plate. “Kasey Kahne told me (Saturday night in Nashville) he thought the new spoiler would make for good racing for us. I don’t have any strong conviction on that…I defer to the drivers. But Kasey seemed to think it would make for an improvement.”

Ramsey Poston, NASCAR’s managing director of corporate communications, confirmed to RacinToday.com on Monday that the controversial rear-deck wing could be removed from the COT early this season. Additionally, the COT’s front splitter – another aerodynamic hot-button issue since the car’s debut in March 2007 – also could be “re-introduced.” NASCAR officials have been meeting face-to-face with every driver and owner in Cup on a variety of issues, including the COT.

“A lot of people don’t realize that NASCAR made more than 20 changes to the (COT) car last year, as they always do,” Gossage said. “It’s the constant massaging to try to make the car better for the variety of purposes it serves. It wasn’t widely reported and if they change this, then I give NASCAR credit for trying. They’ve always done this with anything new, and if you remember, they were constantly working on the ‘old car.’ I don’t get into a lot of competition things with NASCAR; I don’t pretend to have the knowledge they do.”

A product of NASCAR’s Research and Development Center, the bigger, boxier COT platform was designed to be a safer, more cost-efficient and performance-enhanced race car.

“As Michael McDowell showed, that’s a safer car,” said Gossage, referring to the driver’s barrel-rolling crash at TMS during qualifying for the Samsung 500 in April 2008. “That’s Job 1 (safety) and after that we have to put on a good show. Give NASCAR credit for making a change and trying to improve the product.”

Meanwhile, former Cup champions Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch will be joined by series regulars Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers for Goodyear’s second tire test at TMS in as many winters. The group represents each NASCAR manufacturer – Chevrolet (Stewart), Dodge (Busch), Toyota (Vickers) and Ford (Biffle) – and will provide feedback to Goodyear’s engineers in preparation for the Samsung Mobile 500 weekend April 15-18.

Stewart, Biffle and Busch each has scored a Cup win at TMS. Stewart, Cup champion in 2002 and 2005, won the 2006 Dickies 500 as a non-Chaser while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now the owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart set a track record in ‘06 for most laps-led by a race-winner (278). Biffle, of Roush Fenway Racing, won the 2005 Samsung/Radio Shack 500. Busch, of Penske Racing, won last November’s Dickies 500. Vickers, of Red Bull Racing, owns the Cup track qualifying record of 196.235 mph established during time trials for the 2006 Dickies 500.

All four qualified for last year’s 10-race Chase championship run.

“They are four ‘A-List’ drivers,” Gossage said. “Goodyear picks them and I know the engineers want good, honest feedback. I feel good that Tony is on the list. They’ve (Goodyear and Stewart) had their differences with each other over the years, but everybody respects Tony as a racer. They all have a lot to contribute to the testing to find a tire that will accommodate all the needs of safety, performance, reliability – the things you need to put on a good race.”

Surprisingly, it has been nearly a decade since TMS was last repaved.  The entire racing surface was redone beginning in mid-June 2001 using a granite-based asphalt compound that replaced a limestone-based mix. The most recent renovation took place in January 2007, when “Dale’s Dip” – an area between Turns 1 and 2 criticized by fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. – was filled and repaired.

“It’s important that Goodyear develop a tire that will last a fuel run but also give us a good race where they can pass each other,” Gossage said. “Conditions always change. The track probably has a little less grip than a year ago, probably is slicker. The drivers love this track because it’s aged to perfection, but it is different from the last April race.”

Biffle, who led 219 of 334 laps here en route to victory in 2005, acknowledged that a tire test is the next-best-thing to an open test.

“You don’t have as much control, but you do get on the racetrack, get your car running good,” Biffle said during a teleconference. “They want a good, driveable car – kind of like a race setup – so that they can put sets and sets and sets of tires on it and you can give them a good, accurate comparison of the sets of tires and not how your car is handling. So you get a few hours to work on your car and get it  driving good, and get to try a few things that you might not at a normal race, but that’s about it.

“Then you go through all those sets of tires and usually when you finish up, or you get close to the end of the second day, you look forward to possibly getting a couple more hours or another hour to try another combination or another setup that you can try to get some data on.

“That’s another thing that’s important is we’ve got on-board data during these tests, which we  
don’t on race weekends. And, in turn, we can bring that back home and study it for the next month or two and see if there’s anything to be learned from that data. We can see if we can decipher anything from it that might help us, so you get a little bit of extra extended practice when you wouldn’t for a race weekend. But it’s certainly not like being at a two-day test.”

After going several years without a full-fledged tire test, TMS played host to Goodyear’s crew in January 2009 and series regulars Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Travis Kvapil and David Reutimann.

“They’ve gone back to testing at each track instead of going to one 1.5-mile and calling it good for every 1.5-mile,” Gossage said. “You’ve got to have a Texas tire, an Atlanta tire. Or, it may be the same one they run at California, but one they’re comfortable with.

“While the (four) cars are similar aerodynamically, different engines put different demands on the tires. If my facts are correct, one engine may have a little less torque characteristic, so it would not pull you off a corner as fast as another one might. As a result you can probably run it a little deeper into the next corner and you can see how that puts different stress on one make to another. If I run a little deeper, it may scrub more of the tire off on entry. But on exit, it doesn’t have torque so it doesn’t scrub off as much. Each car has a nuance of its own.”

From a promotional standpoint, Gossage said the sale of season tickets indicates that fans watching Cup races at TMS are warming to the COT. The 2009 NASCAR season here featured solid story lines, as Gordon’s first victory at TMS also ended a career-worst 47-race winless streak. The spring race saw 28 lead changes among 14 drivers – one short of the Cup track record set in 2000. Gordon led six times for a race-high 105 of 334 laps.

The fall race produced instant drama when Johnson was involved in a pin-balling crash with Sam Hornish Jr. down the backstretch, eventually allowing Hendrick teammate Mark Martin to pull to within 73 points with two races remaining.

While Johnson and his crew scrambled to finish a season-worst 38th, the focus turned to The Brothers Busch. Kyle Busch won the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series races on Friday and Saturday, respectively. That sent him into the Cup race with a chance to become the first NASCAR driver to sweep all three national touring events during a single weekend. So motivated, Kyle Busch led 232 laps – and was absolutely killing the race – when he ran out of fuel on Lap 331 of 334 down the backstretch. That opened the door for Kurt Busch’s first Cup win at TMS.

Those circumstances have given Gossage plenty of promotional ammunition. “We haven’t hit the deadline for renewals yet…and we’re over 80 percent renewed,” said Gossage, widely acknowledged as one of the premier innovators in motorsports. “We had 70-something percent renewals last year. So fans are definitely coming back. And what I mean by that is the fans that were here are liking what they’re seeing, and they’re coming back.”

Along those lines, the four drivers testing here will participate in a half-hour Q&A session Tuesday evening during an invitation-only “Gear Up For the Green Flag” fan event at The Speedway Club’s ballroom. Approximately 300 to 500 fans are expected.

The April race weekend will feature NASCAR’s Cup and Nationwide series and the return of the ARCA Racing Series presented by RE/MAX and Menards. Special promotions include a “Frontstretch 2 for $99” offer and “Backstretch Buster” seating starting at $20. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.texasmotorspeedway.com or by calling 817-215-8500.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 16 2010
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