DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Dec. 16, 2010) – As sunshine warmed Daytona International Speedway’s new racing surface on Thursday, so did the expectations and excitement levels for the 53rd Daytona 500 on Feb. 20.
Thursday marked the second day of a two-day Goodyear tire test in preparation both for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ traditional season-opening event and the track’s new asphalt.
The repaving project – only the second in track history and first since 1978 – began immediately after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event on July 3 and ended last week. With this week’s test open to all series teams, a number took advantage, filling the frontstretch side of the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage with their haulers.
“I think it has gone really well,” said Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet). “Everybody is happy with the surface. The tire combination seems to be really good.”
“It's just a new attitude,” said Kurt Busch (No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge). “This is what 2011 will bring to start off our Sprint Cup season. Big, exciting time. I'm proud to be able to say I got a chance to race on the surface when it was redone.”
Busch and Burton, along with reigning Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) and Bobby Labonte (No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota) all visited the infield media center during Thursday’s lunch break. NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton, Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III and Goodyear Director of Racing Greg Stucker also participated in the midday press conference.
“Good communication all along between the folks here at Daytona, Joie, Goodyear, the race teams, the series directors, everybody that had input,” Pemberton said. “It's nice to know you can show up at one of these things, have so many different things that we faced and challenges over the last year to get ready for this. Looks like the plan came together nicely.”
Burton was heartened that Daytona’s repave – while cutting-edge – respected the venue. He cited the 2007 repave at another historic NASCAR venue, Darlington Raceway, as a positive example.
“It's much smoother, has a tremendous amount more grip, but it's still Daytona,” Burton said. “They didn't try to change the banking from the bottom to the top, do all that stuff. They just kept Daytona and put pavement on it. I'm glad that's what they did.”
Although the focus remains on the racing surface, McMurray noted details like a wider pit road.
“They did a really good job, not only on the racetrack, but widening pit road,” he said. “It's really nice to get that little bit of extra room on pit road. Pit road speeds are really fast when you come to [restrictor] plate tracks. Typically we have the smallest brakes on the car that we run all year long, so pit road is also trouble. So the fact they widened that 10 or 12 feet is really nice.”
Media and fan interest also is accelerated. A portion of Daytona’s grandstands was open for public viewing both Wednesday and Thursday and television cameras weren’t the only ones being wielded.
“It's real important,” Labonte said of public and media fanfare. “They have a section open for the fans. They can come down here and see us drafting. I'm sure they've got their cameras out showing video to their buddies now on who-knows-where it's all at. It's the first time we've been to the new facility. That's exciting.”
It’s worth noting that this week’s test was confirmation, not a search process. Stucker said a tight calendar meant Goodyear officials did the bulk of their compound research testing at Daytona’s sister track, Talladega Superspeedway, also the only other restrictor-plate track on NASCAR’s three national series’ calendars.
Drivers, teams and track and NASCAR officials all draw natural comparisons off Talladega, which was repaved prior to its fall 2006 event. The completion of a test asphalt strip at Daytona allowed Goodyear officials to gather additional data, which Stucker said was compared to August’s test results at Talladega.
“We're well into production for the 500,” Stucker said. “In fact, we're just about done. We've come down here and really confirmed that all those decisions we made were the right ones. Very glad to hear that all the guys are comfortable with our setup and really everything we've seen so far has been very good from our perspective, very consistent, a lot of good comments from the drivers.”
Chitwood said the repaving project only enhances the allure of the Daytona 500.
I think when we market Daytona, we market the fact that this is the biggest event we have on the calendar,” he said. “This is how you make NASCAR stars – you win the Daytona 500. It's going to be a great surface out there for all of them to put on a great show.”
NOTE: The next on-track activity for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will be January’s three-day test at Daytona. The session, known as NASCAR Preseason Thunder, is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 20 through Saturday, Jan. 22. Sunday, Jan. 23 is the rain date.
The 2011 edition of NASCAR Preseason Thunder will help teams further acclimate to the new pavement, plus speed their preparation for the 53rd Daytona 500 on Feb. 20.
All NASCAR Preseason Thunder sessions begin at 9 a.m. and end at 5 p.m., weather permitting. Each includes a lunch break from noon until 1 p.m.
Attending media will have daily interview opportunities in the media center.
Fans seeking to rev up their new year can do so at the NASCAR Preseason Thunder Fan Fest at Daytona – the companion event to the January test. Along with watching NASCAR Preseason Thunder track activity, fans can enjoy three Fan Fest sessions in Dayton’s Sprint FANZONE – from 5-7 p.m., and 7-9 p.m., on Friday, Jan. 21 and from 5-7 p.m., on Saturday, Jan. 22.
Driver question-and-answer and autograph sessions are planned. Fans also can watch each day’s testing at no cost, beginning at 9 a.m.