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Sturbin: Blades Appeared To Cut It At Texas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 19 2010

Some drivers say rear-deck spoilers made the racing more aggressive at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – Did the blade merit a passing grade at Texas Motor Speedway?

That largely depended on how many panels of your Sprint Cup car were wadded-up during the running of the rain-delayed Samsung Mobile 500. Monday’s 334-lap race on TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval widely was considered the first true test of NASCAR’s offseason decision to replace the fixed raised wing on its Car of Tomorrow platform with a more traditional spoiler.

A return to that “traditional look” favored by NASCAR Nation – along with a desire to further improve safety and the quality of racing – were the impetus behind the first major aerodynamic change to the COT since its introduction at Bristol Motor Speedway in March 2007.

Kyle Busch won that race in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet COT, which he promptly dissed and dismissed as a glorified milk crate. Or bleep-box, depending on your desire to read between the lines. Both Kyle and the COT since have matured, and Busch gave the changes  a thumbs-up after a third-place finish.

“I mean, it was a different race for sure,” said Busch, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. “The car seemed to be a lot more consistent and a lot more drivable. So you know on restarts it seems like there’s a lot more chaos going on. A lot of guys are really comfortable and can run side-by-side and really, you know, push each other a little bit down the straightaways and what-not. So it feels like they’re going for broke even more than what they used to.”

Case in point, that little intramural dustup between Hendrick Motorsports superstars Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson on lap 241.

Johnson, the four-time and reigning Cup champion, was running second to polesitter Tony Stewart with Gordon in third. Gordon closed on the rear of Johnson’s bumper exiting Turn 4 and admittedly got JJ’s car loose. Gordon dove left and underneath and alongside. And then, the four-time champions banged door-panels through the quadoval. The contact damaged Johnson’s left front fender, although not enough to keep him from finishing 0.152-seconds behind winner Denny Hamlin.

“I guess he (Johnson) thought I was being too aggressive,” said Gordon, whose No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet Impala was eliminated in a nine-car wreck involving Stewart and Carl Edwards on Lap 322. “When you have a race car like that, you don’t have teammates and friends out there and race hard. That’s what Jimmie has had. And I’m just excited that we have something to race with all of these guys out here right now.”

Something to race with? Gordon led a race-high 124 laps. Gordon, Johnson and HMS teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. combined to lead 209 laps, indicating that the blade is not about to alter the series’ current balance of power…unless Gordon and his protégé decide to strap on their restrictor plates and continue this discussion in the bump draft synonymous with the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.

“With the old car, the way the noses and tails were, you couldn’t bump anybody,” Busch said. “If you ever got really close to somebody on the outside to the inside car, the inside car would get loose. So these cars are pretty comfortable. A lot of guys are taking advantage of it.”

Hamlin, who led the final 12 laps after passing Jeff Burton on the restart following that nine-car wreck , certainly liked the view of his spoiler from Victory Lane.

“It was much easier (to handle),” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota Camry. “The car seemed to be planted to the racetrack quite a bit more. You could race around guys without the air being taken off of you as much as it did. So I think it made for better racing. It was a step in the right direction for our sport. Obviously, for the looks and for the competition.”

TMS is considered a “downforce track,” where aerodynamics play a critical role in slicing through the air. Beginning with this event, Cup cars also sported a rear deck fin measuring 3.5 inches tall with the option to run the full length of the 25-inch deck lid. The fin has been designed to regain rear sideforce, giving teams a tuning tool to adjust for it.

“I thought as far as the grip level, it just added some grip to the racetrack,” said Hamlin, addressing the entire package. “When you do that, you add some comfortability to the race car drivers, and that’s what it’s going to make for a great finish at the end.”

As three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip noted during the Fox telecast, the COT arrived as the pride-and-joy of NASCAR’s Research and Development Center. Upon its introduction, Cup crew chiefs were warned not to fudge with either the COT’s boxy dimensions or its suspension geometry. Or even its faux pas headlight stickers.

Ironically, and now apparently to its credit, NASCAR itself wound up messing with the COT. The blade was first track-tested at TMS on Jan. 18 to generally optimistic reviews from former Cup champions Stewart and Kurt Busch, as well as Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers. Those drivers represent each of the four manufacturers in Cup.

Those drivers also tested tire compounds for Goodyear Racing during that session, and the manufacturer showed up here with new left- and right-side rubber. Compared to the tire set-up NASCAR teams ran at TMS in 2009, the left-side tire featured a new construction, mold shape and compound to offer more grip. The right-side tire featured a new construction that brought it in line with what has been run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway – sister 1.5-mile tracks to TMS – and a new compound to improve wear.

Considering that Cup teams only logged one practice session Friday before qualifying – and sat idle on Saturday and Sunday as rain washed the track of rubber – all parties should be borderline giddy.

Fact is, the spoiler has made a seemless transition into the series. The blade debuted March 28 on the 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway and also was in place on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway in the season’s first Saturday night race. Both are flat tracks in comparison to TMS, where the 24-degree banked turns lead into a treacherously fast frontstraight dogleg and a backstretch that is covered in a blur. TMS always has been bad fast, and when stock cars hit the SAFER Barriers here, they are reduced to ash trays.

“It’s a mixed review right now from me,” said Kurt Busch, who finished fourth in the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger. “I think we could race each other better, but we’ve got some work to do on the Penske (Racing) side. I felt like it was stable and it seemed to provide a better comfort zone versus the rear wing.

“Where it seems to have a slight difference that I can’t figure out yet is the drag. I feel like I’m going slow down the straightaways, but then the speeds seemed to be up in the center of the corners. I don’t run many Nationwide (Series) races, but I think that our car drove like a Nationwide car.”

Greg Biffle, one of two Ford drivers to finish in the top 10, learned that his car was “super-tight” with two tires. “But I like the feel of the car,” said Biffle, driver of the No. 16 3M Post-it Fusion fielded by Roush Fenway Racing. “The car turns a little bit better on corner exit and gets a little looser racing around guys, so you’ve got to drive her a little harder, and pay attention.”

Meanwhile, the man who pays the bills here, TMS president Eddie Gossage, made one final tour through the infield media center with a smile on two counts. The Cup race played out before an announced crowd of 92,000 – a number many track promoters would envy on any given Sunday.

Gossage also was satisfied with the on-track product.

“It was an extremely aggressive race the whole day, from the front of the pack to the back – the best race you could have,” Gossage said. “Looked to me like the cars were very racy, and listening to Denny Hamlin, he said they were very stable and could get up beside each other.

“So let’s give NASCAR another round of applause. Because if you don’t hear the drivers complaining, that’s an unusual thing. If they’re quiet, I take that as a thumbs-up.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 19 2010
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