Texas Fast But Is It Better?

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Texas Motor Speedway officials decided last year that their 1.5-mile track needed some improvements. The most obvious was a new asphalt surface.

But was it an improvement? Depends on whom you ask. The granite-based asphalt will undoubtedly be faster, meaning Terry Labonte’s Winston Cup track qualifying record of 192.137 mph is in jeopardy.

Fast, though, doesn’t necessarily mean better. As is often the case with new pavement or new tracks, there might only one groove, which means little passing.

“We can talk all we want about ‘it may come in,’ but as much grip as it’s going to have, there’s going to be no reason to get off the bottom of the race track,” defending race champion Dale Jarrett said. “It’s going to be too fast. The guy on the outside is not going to be able to do anything, and that groove’s not going to come in.”

Jarrett would love a second groove, as he won the race last year using it. Late in the event, Jarrett changed four tires, putting him sixth with 18 laps left. But he passed four cars that changed two tires and one that changed none, using the outside groove to get second place and finally the lead.

But that was 2001.

“It had just gotten to where you could go on the outside,” Jarrett said. “The passes I made when I had four tires and those guys had two were on the outside. You’re not going to do that this time.”

John Andretti agreed.

“The track changed on all of us a little bit,” Andretti said. “They repaved the track, and anytime you do that, it makes it a one-groove race track for a while. You can look all day for some different tire tracks, but all you are going to find is a two-tire track groove. It’s follow the leader multiplied by 42.”

That’s a scary prospect, especially early in the race when cars are trying to get to the low line. Throw it some added speed, and you potentially have a recipe for disaster.

“The only certain thing that we can expect at Texas is a smooth track,” Andretti said. “The repaving helps that, but it doesn’t go without my concern laid on top of it. It seems like every time that they repave the track, we have an explosion of sheet metal at the beginning of the race.

“I know several people, including myself, that have been a part of that explosion more than the people who have not been a part of it. The reason we see this is because there is no outside groove. The race becomes a big hit-and-miss. The first race we ever had there I did pretty well because I missed the accident. The next few races I wasn’t as lucky.”

Andretti even suggested a way to work in the second groove.

“There are a lot of those (driving) school cars that are out there throughout the week,” Andretti said. “If they could just put some pylons down and make them work in the outside groove, that would really help us out. It would clean up some of that dirt and dust that get collected up there, and it would start to work in that second groove.”

Andretti’s idea aside, there won’t be a second groove. But Elliott Sadler thinks differently.

“The track is really fast,” Sadler said. “Of course, it’s always been fast, but it’s a lot smoother since they repaved it. The track did a really good job with the new asphalt. By the time we’re out for Happy Hour, there should be plenty of rubber down for two grooves.”

Whether there will be for the race is up for debate, but there’s no arguing that the surface is smooth and fast.

“It is probably a second quicker than last year,” Jerry Nadeau said. “The surface is so smooth.”

“The new surface is the smoothest I’ve ever been on,” Jeff Burton said. “There’s not a bump on it. This facility is just great. They’ve really made an investment here, and they have done it right.”

“The place was fast to begin with,” Kyle Petty said. “Throw in the new pavement, and it’s really going to be fast this weekend. It’s not like we’re going to be giving the Indy cars a run for their money or anything but, for stock cars, it’s going to be a pretty fast pace.”

Fast? Definitely. Better? No one knows.

“I think that Texas will now claim the crown for speed as far as qualifying goes,” Andretti said. “The race, however, will be a different story. It is going to be really hard to pass because there will not be enough grip for us up top. To go out there and have us be the ones to work in the second groove is hard.

“This year it’s economical too. We have to spend more time on the track, and that’s more time on our engines, which is awful precious these days. I think NASCAR is always looking at ways to improve the sport, hopefully that is something that they will look at.”

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