When drivers pull into Texas Motor Speedway this week, they will enter familiar environs.
They will see the trophy shaped like a boot with spurs. They will see track president Eddie Gossage, grinning maniacally, eager to capitalize on the drama between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano (and whatever else he can gin up). They will see Big Hoss TV – the world’s largest HD screen – standing in the middle of the backstretch, along “Burnout Alley.”
But when drivers hit the track ahead of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup series O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, everything they see will be different. Since NASCAR’s last visit to Texas Motor Speedway, the track has been resurfaced and reconfigured. In addition to new pavement, the banking in Turns 1 and 2 has been decreased (from 24 degrees to 20).
It’s not a brand new track, but it’s about as close as NASCAR comes to that, and that could portend a chaotic day of racing as teams struggle to find the right balance and the fastest way around the “new” track.
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The decreased banking will probably mean slower speeds, but how much slower, and how the cars’ handling characteristics will change because of the new banking and the new surface, is anybody’s guess.
But this is clear: The old way of getting around Texas won’t work anymore.
“The repaves are a bit of a challenge for everyone because there’s obviously not a preferred groove,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. told reporters. “I know they worked hard to try to speed up the aging process to give us the ability to widen the groove. As a driver, you’re always excited by what might be better, so I’m anticipating getting on the track and getting some laps.”
So is everybody else. Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson have combined to win seven of the past nine races at Texas. Their previous success at Texas probably won’t help much, but it won’t hurt, either, and both are hungry for a win.
Busch has dominated several races this season but has yet to win. Johnson has “struggled” (by his standards, at least), with only one Top-10 and 28 laps led this season. Kyle Larson will likely be fast, too: In the three races at 2-mile tracks this season, he finished second (Atlanta), second (Las Vegas) and first (California).
Brad Keselowski, who won last weekend at Martinsville and the second race of the season at Atlanta, said the new Texas carries echoes of Kentucky Speedway’s design – both tracks are owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc.
Keselowski won last year at Kentucky, which perhaps gives him a slight edge, emphasis on slight.
“It’ll be a bit of a wild card, of course, with the new asphalt,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone knows what to expect.”
Worth mentioning: Chris Buescher is the only native Texan on the entry list. … Carl Edwards won the race at Texas last fall. He stepped away from racing during the offseason. Edwards’ crew chief for that race, Dave Rogers, is on an indefinite personal leave of absence from Joe Gibbs Racing. Daniel Suarez replaced Edwards as the driver. Scott Graves served as a temporary replacement for Rogers in Martinsville. … Everything is great for Kyle Busch … except the lack of trophies. Busch has led four of six races and been out front for nearly 25 percent (413 of 1,711) of laps he has run. But he has yet to visit Victory Lane this season.