By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — 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 21/2-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.”