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Rodman: Drivers have mixed feelings on input for repaves

April 24, 2012, Dave Rodman,

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In some cases, NASCAR race tracks feel that consulting with race car drivers about plans to upgrade or remodel their facilities is considered akin to conferring with asylum inmates about developing a new rules package.

Several of the sport's premier drivers said they've either never or sporadically been consulted about any of the many repaves or reconstructions that have recently taken place, are in process or -- as is the case with a project at Bristol Motor Speedway, which will be revealed Wednesday -- about to be announced.

Getting in front of it

After what happened at Daytona a few years ago, tracks are more aggressive when it comes to repaving.

"No, NASCAR hasn't really asked our opinion on anything," Kevin Harvick said. "The guys from Bristol said [at Texas' race weekend] that they were going to come and talk about the track, but I never saw them.

"I guess if they want to keep repaving them they can keep having their own ideas."

The upkeep of race tracks is a mutually-shared responsibility between NASCAR, which sets the guidelines and the track operators that execute them. But in the end, what's done is the track owners' responsibility. Either way, competitors have a differing opinion on their input.

"I haven't heard or spoken to anyone regarding Bristol," five-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson said. "But a lot of other tracks, NASCAR has held a meeting in the [office] truck on a race weekend, and brought in the paving crew and engineers that are designing it and laying it out. I've sat in on a lot of those meetings, and it felt like my voice has been heard."

Another former champion, Matt Kenseth, said he's never been sought out but that he felt like NASCAR's door was open for suggestions.

"I've never been consulted, but certainly NASCAR always listens when you have something to say," Kenseth said. "They do all those meetings -- in the winter and during the year -- where they tell us all about what's going on and ask our opinions and listen, which is really nice. It's nice to feel like you can at least voice your opinion."

Bristol track president Jerry Caldwell declined to comment on driver input into Bristol's project until it's announced. But Grant Lynch, a longtime motorsports executive and currently Talladega Superspeedway's president, said consulting with competitors could be a slippery slope.

"Back then, Talladega had gotten so bad that the hairline cracks [in the asphalt] had gotten to where they were 14 inches wide," said Lynch, whose facility was repaved in 2006. "And we were having to go in every year and take out all of that asphalt and pound in more asphalt to fill up those big cracks.

"And Mr. [Bill] France [NASCAR vice chairman] used to send me around to ask drivers, 'what do you think about repaving?' And in general, when you ask drivers about repaving, they'll all say 'leave it alone.'

"But then you start having situations like the piece breaking off the track [Friday at Kansas], I think it was at Martinsville where the big chunk came out and hit Jeff Gordon's car or have a track failure, like we saw at Daytona [during 2010 Daytona 500].

"So at a certain point, regardless of whether the drivers are for paving or not for paving, track operators have to say, 'in order to put on a good race we need to do this, because we can't have the type of breakdowns we've seen at tracks in the past that stopped the show.' "

Johnson and Kenseth said they both pretty much accept the way things are.

"They're spending the money on the track, they can do what they want," Johnson said. "Michigan [repaved after the second race last year], I'm eager to get back to. I was involved with different aspects in that, with safety in a couple of areas with some walls. I've spoken to [NASCAR vice president for competition] Robin Pemberton and know they have addressed those areas. So we are in the loop in it.

"It kind of shifts around. Some weeks some tracks may ask me, others it might be [Tony] Stewart, or [Jeff] Gordon. NASCAR puts that meeting together, and they work hard to have our voice heard."

All-Star fever

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Hamlin ready for Showdown

Denny Hamlin is a humanitarian, which he annually proves via his Denny Hamlin Foundation, but he's also a racer, which he proved last year when he won his Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown at Richmond International Raceway.

Hamlin's pretty amped-up over Thursday night's fifth annual Showdown to benefit his Foundation, the second to be held at RIR, and the support from his fellow Sprint Cup competitors is impressive. Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, Aric Almirola and Joey Logano all plan to compete with Hamlin, along with some of the best Mid-Atlantic Late Model Stock Car drivers and at least a couple special guest drivers: K&N Pro Series East regular Chase Elliott, former Cup champion Bill Elliott's son and Jeb Burton, son of former Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, who is currently transitioning from racing LMSC full time to the Camping World Truck Series.

"It is [becoming a big deal]," Hamlin said. "The participation of the Cup drivers, to take some time off to participate in it is a big deal. I think it's very cool to see those guys participating and seeing how big this event is growing over these last few years.

"We're excited and hoping to have double the capacity that we had last year --- around 6-7,000. Rain was a bit of an issue last year with our schedule and we feel like it deterred some people, but we're hoping for great weather and I think we're going to have one of the best races we've had."

Edwards: "We're No. 2"

It was hard to tell, last Friday at Kansas Speedway, how far Greg Biffle's tongue was in his cheek when he was asked if his No. 16 Ford team was the No. 1 operation at Roush Fenway Racing.

"No," said Biffle, who's led the standings for the past six weeks, a career-best stretch. "I still think the No. 99 [teammate Carl Edwards] is the No. 1 team at Roush. I'm the underdog."

For his part Edwards, deferred to Biffle and his crew chief, Matt Puccia.

"Right now, Greg is the No. 1 team because they're leading the points and winning races," Edwards said. "I don't think in terms of who is the No. 1 team. I don't think Jack [Roush, team owner] thinks that way. I feel that Greg and Matt have had a huge part in building this team, so that guys like myself are able to come in and have success.

"Greg has my respect. His team has my respect, just like everybody in the garage right now, so as to who is "the No. 1 team," stay tuned. That could change at any moment, I guess, but I don't think like that."

Edwards did say having his teammates -- Kenseth is currently third in the standings -- ahead of him was a great incentive to improve on his ninth-place position in the points.

"I think we all get motivated by someone doing well, but especially when it's someone that's got the same equipment as you and the same resources," Edwards said. "It shows us and gives us confidence that our No. 99 team has no excuses. We need to be up there in the points where those guys are and I believe we will be."

Related: Pecking order among top Cup teams

Johnson surprised at lack of wrecks, Stewart bemused

Johnson was presented with an interesting stat at Kansas, namely that, going into the eighth race of the 2011 season, there had been 45 caution periods for accidents or stalled cars, while during the same period in 2012 there had only been 25. Johnson was asked his opinion and was taken aback.

"I don't know," Johnson said. "With this car, I'm surprised there's not more wrecks. I see a lot of guys really out of shape. This car is a little bit more friendly, compared to the car way back when. Once you get into the yaw [sideways], it holds a little bit more downforce and you can slide the car around a little bit more.

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"So, there might be something in that. I don't know why. I see guys out of control. I see mistakes being made, but we're able to catch it for whatever reason."

Tony Stewart had a typically simple explanation.

"I have no idea -- no clue," Stewart said. "You'd have to talk to the guys that normally wreck a little more and that aren't wrecking, obviously, as much this year. They would probably have a better idea than I do."

There have been two and three cautions, respectively, in the past two races, on 1.5-mile tracks Texas and Kansas. On his Twitter feed recently, track president Dennis Bickmeier agreed with a fan's contention "there would be more cautions at Richmond than the last two races combined" saying Richmond is "THE action track."

Stewart Sprinting around

Stewart had to be pretty pleased with himself after last weekend. He evaded the media and raced a World of Outlaws Sprint Car at the Missouri State Fair Speedway in Sedalia Friday night. He was running fifth late in the A-Main when a flat tire knocked him back.

Then, Saturday night Stewart made an advertised trip to Eagle (Neb.) Raceway and won the 360 Sprint feature.

"I've got 40 [Sprint Car] races on my schedule this year," Stewart said on Friday after declining to mention he was racing in Sedalia. "I've got more Sprint Car races than I do stock-car races. I'm pretty happy about that."

Stewart had a workmanlike Sunday afternoon doing his "day job," driving his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to a 13th-place finish after he and crew chief Steve Addington massaged on the car all day.

"The start of it had a similar feel to what we had at Texas last week, which wasn't very good, but I think our day went a lot better," Stewart said, despite dropping a spot in the standings. "Every change, Steve Addington made it better and better and better."

Leicht at Richmond

Young North Carolinian Stephen Leicht, a former Yates Racing protégé who's considered one of the better young drivers in the sport that a poor economy has hurt, gets his latest Cup Series shot at Richmond, courtesy of local car owner Joe Falk.

More than likely Leicht will be involved in a go-or-go-home dogfight with owner/driver Stacy Compton, Scott Speed's Leavine Family Racing and Hamilton Means Racing, which has entered a "TBA" driver.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.