WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Goodyear technicians and NASCAR officials gathered data and information Tuesday that will help determine the tire selection for next season’s Clash at the Coliseum. Accomplishing that came at the intersection of the Next Gen car of NASCAR’s future with a venerable track from the Cup Series’ past.
The 2022 vehicle turned laps Tuesday at historic Bowman Gray Stadium in an unofficial preliminary to the Feb. 6 exhibition race in Los Angeles. Goodyear and NASCAR invited three recently retired stars with their own old-school cred for the driving duties — Hall of Famer Tony Stewart for the tire testing in the morning session, and racers turned broadcasters Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer for hot laps in the afternoon.
For all three drivers, it marked their first stints behind the wheel of the next Cup Series car, and the reviews were generally positive, with Earnhardt saying, “The car does everything better than anything I’ve ever drove in NASCAR.”
“This car does all the things that I was worried about, it does them all and it does them well,” he said. “I think this car is a great match for this track or any track whereas the car that we have now doesn’t work everywhere and is difficult in places like this. So I’m sold now. I was skeptical, but I think it’s going to work really well. The car gets around the corner. I thought the track would be too small for our cars and they just wouldn’t handle and drive well, but this is a totally different beast.”
Bowyer, who will be part of FOX Sports’ broadcasting crew for the Clash exhibition, said he was also swayed by the car’s responsiveness as he quickly got up to speed, sorting through the car’s new sequential shifter and adjusting to his seat and wheel positioning. He made laps under the watchful eye of longtime crew chief analyst Larry McReynolds, his broadcasting colleague.
“Very impressed with the grip level, the braking power, the tire that Goodyear chose for this,” Bowyer said. “I’m glad again that I got to come out here to Bowman Gray. I live in Winston, guys. I’ve been here a lot in the grandstands, up there in that beer garden more than any seat, but I wanted to come out here and turn some laps.”
Stewart had been to the stadium once before, attending the 2009 opener by tagging along with Bobby Hutchens — a longtime Modified driver who was then Stewart-Haas Racing’s competition director. Stewart’s appearance back then created a buzz in the Bowman Gray garage, fueling speculation that he might one day compete there. “Oh, yeah. I like running everywhere, places I’ve never been to,” Stewart told the Winston-Salem Journal then.
Stewart lent a hand to Hutchens’ crew that night, but Tuesday got his chance behind the wheel at the stadium. Goodyear officials tested two different tires at Bowman Gray — one that was previously tried at Martinsville Speedway in March, and another tire with a softer compound.
“Goodyear had a good plan coming into today, and I think they‘re pretty happy with the results that they got,” said Stewart, who spun a pair of times in the track’s north turn without damage as he hustled the car around. “I think what they brought with the control set is probably a little harder than what they need. They brought a softer tire, and they were pretty happy with it, and I think that‘s probably a combination of what they‘ll bring out West.”
The Clash is scheduled to be held outside of Daytona International Speedway for the first time next year, taking place on a similar quarter-mile track to be built inside the L.A. Coliseum. The layout has yet to be made final, with competition officials noting that proposed versions range from a maximum of 5 degrees of banking to a flat, no-banking configuration.
The L.A. Coliseum boasts a remarkable history as a two-time Summer Olympics venue and the host to multiple professional and collegiate sports, but Bowman Gray holds its own in the realm of stock-car racing lore. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. partnered with Alvin Hawkins to promote weekly racing there starting in 1949, and NASCAR Hall of Famer Tim Flock was its first track champion.
The NASCAR Cup Series ran 29 races there from 1958-1971, a span that included Richard Petty’s 100th win in 1969. But even when the Cup Series departed as the schedule was shortened and newer, larger venues were sought out, weekly racing continued. Bowman Gray held its 1,000th NASCAR-sanctioned race meet in 2015, and it remains a southern outpost for the Modified cars that are most popular on tracks in the northeast.
Bowman Gray Stadium ended its 72nd season of stock-car racing in August. City bonds have been allocated for improving the facility, and the Winston-Salem newspaper reported that the asphalt will be dismantled and replaced, starting next month. Nearby Winston-Salem State University wrapped up its home football schedule on the Bowman Gray turf last weekend. The field was still marked with yard lines and painted end zones for Tuesday’s test.
Tuesday, the sounds of the gridiron were replaced with the rumble of a full-bodied Cup Series car at Bowman Gray, and Earnhardt was beaming after wheeling it through the tight confines.
“They’ve got a great thing going on, so it’s fun to be able to come here,” Earnhardt said. “It’s really cool to be able to get some laps. It’s a very intimidating place. The guardrail, you’re racing around there, and that guardrail’s just chewed up, and it’s just daring you to hit it. It’s really intimidating. That, in itself, was a great experience for me, no matter what car I was driving today. It was awesome to come here and experience this place behind the wheel.”