New Challenge at Texas
By: Pete Pistone - @PPistone | MRN.com on April 6, 2017 | 8:15 A.M. EST
Texas Motor Speedway has a new racing surface as well as a different configuration that will challenge drivers this weekend. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 will be the first for the division on the track’s new layout from an off-season repave and re-profiling project that consisted of reducing the banking from 24 to 20 degrees and expanding the racing surface from 60 to 80 feet in Turns 1 & 2.
There hasn’t been a test at the 1.5-mile speedway since the changes were made making this weekend’s visit one full of unknowns.
"I'm going to try and approach it as an opportunity,” said Austin Dillon of Friday’s opening practice session. “You want to try different things when you can and be aggressive and see if you can find speed because you might hit on something really quick that will give you an advantage throughout the weekend because it's the first race there. It's one of those places you try to be aggressive and learn as much as you can."
Jimmie Johnson is the Texas benchmark with six wins, 14 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes over the course of his seven championships career. He’ll now have to navigate around what many believe will be a nearly brand new track while trying to replicate his past success.
It won’t be easy and Johnson admits without yet turning a lap, he knows what a difficult proposition lies ahead for everyone.
“I think we are going to be able to run as hard as we want the entire race,” Johnson said. “Of course, we are going to talk about the uncomfortableness of the cars with the new asphalt going down. Goodyear is forced to bring a hard tire and it’s hard to make our cars respond comfortably to that. So, it will kind of be your traditional repave discussion I believe.
“But, I hope we have learned some lessons through repaves and the type of asphalt to put down and even some treatment that can be done with the surface to help promote tire wear and get the track moving in the right direction quicker.”
Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch were victorious in the two MENCS Texas races a year ago. With Edwards stepping away from the sport, Busch has the only chance for a driver to make back-to-back trips to Victory Lane in successive seasons.
But despite his past experience at TMS, which includes a pair of Cup victories along with wins in both the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series, Busch is also in the category of not quite knowing what to expect.
“There’s really no homework to do,” he explained. “You can’t even watch last year’s races. You can’t look at anything besides the (Chris) Buescher YouTube video and just see what the place looks like so you don’t go in there blind. That’s about it.”
Busch was referring to a video featuring Buescher driving around Texas in a pace car.
"It’s going to be a whole new deal with the repave,” Busch said. “I’m not a big fan of the repaves. But it’s a part of our schedule, it’s a part of our sport.”
Other drivers and crew chief have pointed to Kentucky Speedway, another 1.5-mile track that went through a similar if not exactly the same repave and reconfiguration project last year, as a source of inspiration and education. But even that’s no a fool proof way to prepare for Texas this weekend.
Several drivers – six to be exact – will run both Saturday’s XFINITY Series race prior to Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500. The added time on track in Saturday’s 300-mile race is hoped to provide an edge and benefit for those doing double duty.
“I think the progression throughout the weekend is definitely going to feed off both cars,” said Kevin Harvick, who will run a Stewart-Haas Racing Mustang in Saturday’s NXS race. “When we picked Texas, it was just a racetrack I like to race at and a market they wanted to be in. Little did we know it was going to be part of a repave and now it’s part of this weekend. It’s really going to be beneficial for me to see how the racetrack evolves and progresses throughout the weekend.
“To get a race underneath my belt on Saturday before we have to get in the car on Sunday is something where you can take a lot of information from the same tires and same air pressures. Just from the driver’s standpoint, to see where to drive on the racetrack is going to be very beneficial.”