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Repaved Kansas 'like a whole new race track'

October 19, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Repaved Kansas 'like a whole new race track'

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- It was the same purple, yellow and green grandstand; the same outlet mall and casino beyond the same 1.5-mile oval; the same strong wind whipping in from the same prairie. It was Kansas Speedway, all right -- the same name painted along the inside wall and on a sign rotating at the top of the scoring tower. But from a driver's perspective, everything about the track seemed different.

Cars on NASCAR's Sprint Cup circuit circled the facility Wednesday in a test that marked the first time a full field had taken to the track since a resurfacing that was completed in late summer. Although rain cut the scheduled four-hour session in half, competitors still got a healthy dose of a venue that's been repaved and had variable banking added in the turns since the last time the sport's premier series raced here in April.

"[Kansas] went from being abrasive and wearing the tires out, to smooth and super-fast ... If anything, [the times] get faster. It's basically like going to a whole new race track."

--JEFF GORDON

"This track went from being abrasive and wearing the tires out, to smooth and super-fast, and the times just don't fall off," Jeff Gordon said. "If anything, they get faster. It's basically like going to a whole new race track."

A total of 47 cars took part in Wednesday's abbreviated session, with Greg Biffle turning the fastest lap of 184.900 mph. That means the current track record of 180.856 mph, which was set by Matt Kenseth in October of 2005, will almost certainly fall in qualifying on Friday. Teams were also allowed to each bring one 2013 model car, and four did -- Michael Waltrip Racing with Brian Vickers behind the wheel, Wood Brothers with Trevor Bayne, Penske Racing with Parker Kligerman and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing with Josh Wise.

Teams are slated to test four more hours on the surface beginning at 8:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, before practice for the race weekend begins on Friday.

"We're having fun out there, going really fast and having a lot of grip and testing and trying a lot of new things," said Gordon, who won the inaugural race here in 2001. "That part of it is very interesting and fun. Once we get into the race weekend, it will be a whole new ballgame."

Although just 12 years old, the freeze-thaw cycle in a region with very hot summers and very cold winters took its toll on Kansas' original ribbon of asphalt, and in extreme cases caused the layers of pavement to buckle and slide down the surface of the track. Crews were forced to patch small holes even during the track's most recent NASCAR weekend. In an attempt to rubber-in the new surface, a vehicle that drags tires has been employed around the clock since the repaving was complete, with former and current drivers Randy LaJoie, David Green, Brian Keselowski, Steve Grissom and Brad Noffsinger making laps to try to work in multiple grooves.

That tactic was used with some success at Phoenix, another recently-resurfaced facility that, like Kansas, is owned by International Speedway Corp. Given the variable banking, computer modeling suggests that the highest line around the race track -- which is banked at 20 degrees -- is also the fastest way around.

But maybe not this weekend.

"It would take a couple of people blowing tires and cleaning it off first, because nobody's going to want to go up there," Bayne said. "I know today, a half a tire up the race track more than everybody else was running was too much. I think we're kind of locked in for now."

That should change as the new surface ages.

"It will take a couple of years, but you would think the middle and top lanes are going to come in and probably be better than the bottom eventually as the track wears in," Joey Logano said. "I think it would be really cool -- it would be similar to Homestead, where you can run about anywhere you want. It's just going to take a little bit of time slowly moving the groove up and rubbering it in. But I think for now, where you see most cars is where the fastest line is going to be."

Gordon said the current line is "a groove and a foot," although he believes the third and fourth turns might widen out before Sunday's event. Any attempts at widening the racing groove were hampered by rain that fell much of Wednesday, forcing drivers to essentially start from scratch. "The track was as green as green could be," said Sprint Cup director John Darby. "For every driver in the garage, it was literally their first shot out there with those kinds of conditions."

Which NASCAR hopes will change with still three more days of on-track activity left before the main event.

"[This tire is] all in, and then it's all out. There's no forgiveness. And that's the hardest to drive. "

--GREG BIFFLE

"With what we've got in front of us here, with a full day of testing [Thursday] with both Cup and Nationwide cars, and all the practices that lead up to the events Saturday and Sunday, it'll widen out," Darby said. "Is that going to be by tomorrow at 1 o'clock, or Saturday at noon? I don't know that. The more [cars] that are out, the more rubber that's put down. It's a natural thing that happens."

There were no accidents Wednesday, although Darby said a few cars finished with stripes on their sides. Kansas is where Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered the first of two concussions that have sidelined the sport's most popular driver for at least two weeks. Earnhardt, who visited a concussion specialist in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, crashed here during a Goodyear tire test in late August, and suffered another concussion in a crash six weeks later on the final lap at Talladega. Regan Smith, who also piloted the No. 88 car last weekend at Charlotte, is once again driving it this week -- though Earnhardt's name remains scrawled atop the vehicle's right-side window opening.

Unlike NASCAR's most recent event week on a repaved track, Michigan in June, there were no indications of tire issues. That race was also preceded by two days of testing, but blistering of the rubber during those sessions prompted a change to a harder compound less than 48 hours before the event. Teams at Kansas are using the same compound that was employed during the Michigan race, and the combination of hard rubber and fresh asphalt promises to make for some interesting situations this week.

"This tire has all the grip in the world, and then it has none," Biffle said. "... It's all in, and then it's all out. There's no forgiveness. And that's the hardest to drive. If a car slides around a lot, you can at least control it. But here? You're like, 'whew, thank God -- that was almost a backup [car].' It's that treacherous, kind of. They start chattering, and it's gone."

Biffle hoped the tire falloff would improve as the weekend went on. Regardless, that hard tire plus a tight groove might heighten the potential for more crashes, Gordon said, which could unquestionably raise the stakes at the midway point of a championship Chase where the top three drivers are separated by just 15 points. Teams have one more day of testing, and two days of practice to try and get a better handle on the new Kansas before the green flag drops for real.

"That's the nice thing about coming here on a Wednesday," Gordon said. "By Sunday, that [groove] should get just get wider and wider, and better and better."