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Daytona testing quells some fears, raises close racing questions

Truth is, it's not. But try figuring that out on TV this February.

"It's going to be more Talladega-type, really close restrictor plate racing," said Jamie McMurray. "You're going to be able to run wide open."

That was the running theme throughout Goodyear's first Daytona experiment after new asphalt was laid down for the first time since 1978. After a two-day test concluded Thursday, officials, initially worried about higher speeds, saw that fear calmed quickly, a smaller plate that left cars safely under the 200 mph average NASCAR considers a danger zone. In its place, the story became stability for Goodyear's new tire, little to no rubber put down on a track that's a far cry from the bump-infested surface so worn a pothole was gorged last February, stopping the Daytona 500 for nearly two hours.

"It's pretty low," said Director of Racing Greg Stucker of wear so minimal now, it often left the "sticker" showing on sticker tires. "What we see typically with a repave. As was alluded to earlier, the new asphalt, the new formulations that have been developed, they're a tighter mix, they stay together a little bit better."

"I'm not sure the correct term, the little things that stick up, we can run 20 laps and they're still on the tire," added veteran Bobby Labonte. On Wednesday, Mark Martin told a SIRIUS radio show he could run all 500 miles on one set. "They're not wearing," Labonte concluded. "Tires are not going to be an issue."

What does that mean for the next Daytona 500? Try 43 cars stuck together in a pack, lap after lap for every bit of the race's 500 miles. Sound familiar? That defined each of NASCAR's two events at 'Dega last year, drivers swapping the lead a series record 88 and 87 times, respectively, while trapped within the confines of a plate package that won't let anyone break away.

For years, since the sport came up with the horsepower-killing plate for both tracks in response to 212 mph averages in 1987, Daytona was the kindler, gentler older sister that still maintained a semblance of mechanical adjustments. Over the course of a full fuel run, rough asphalt, tire problems and handling characteristics would eventually separate cars glued together by those four-hole speed limiters.

No more.

"The old surface was a lot of work," said Burton. "You were up on the wheel from start to finish. In the past, it was quite a bit of throttle control to keep your car going around the race track. Now, there's going to be a constant pack. I don't know how you could get separated."

Sounds a lot like 'Dega, right? Where Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon ran in the back for over 170 laps last fall, then hooked up like a freight train to fight their way to the front in oh, less than five.

"This is more of a chess game," added Burton. "This is going to be, when do I get aggressive, when do I not get aggressive. A lot of times on the old surface, your car dictated when you could and when you couldn't. What's going to dictate that this time is how many laps are left."

One thing drivers do claim will differ this time around is the way those moves will happen, two-car freight trains popular in Talladega at recent races nearly impossible to perfect with a new 2011 nose. Instead, finding the right line and drafting partners will be key to making your way through three-wide traffic to the front.

"You can't necessarily lock together," says McMurray. "The way the cowl sucks the air in, the cars are stalling out a little bit. But you can still get locked together. I just haven't seen anybody push it and try to shove somebody all the way around the race track. Everybody is letting off when they get to the corner."

Having to let off to let people in could pose a problem, especially in the sport's Super Bowl event. At Talladega, there's a lot of give and take in these type of scenarios, drivers willing to back off for a favor from a drafting partner later instead of fighting the three, four, even five-wide fistfights for the same track position. A much narrower oval than 'Dega, Daytona's layout plus the emotion of the Great American Race will make it hard to duplicate that type of hair-raising action without causing a wreck wiping out half the field. Already, three-wide racing was constant in a 16-car pack through testing; can you imagine when that number gets expanded to 43?

"It definitely is increased," said Penske Racing's Kurt Busch on the potential risk of the "Big One." "Mentally, you're going to have to be that much sharper, that much more precise. If you think you have a hole, you definitely need to be in it. Somebody is going to take it that much quicker. Reaction time is going to be that much quicker. There's going to be bigger consequences when things are chosen in the wrong fashion."

Whether that's good for the sport or not is tough to tell. On paper, the numbers should be startling; the 1974 record of 59 lead changes will likely be shattered before three-quarters of the race is complete. The season-opening exhibition Bud Shootout, a 75-lapper where you can't waste moments marking time at the back, is bound to be one of the most competitive of all time, simply because you can't sit back and wait.

But this test reminds us of the interesting contrast going on between open-wheel and stock car racing right now. Over in IndyCar, innovation over parity is being stressed, officials hoping the excitement of new car combinations and taking risks will bring fans back in the stands. On the NASCAR side, it's reducing that risk and making both the racing surface and pit road as simple as possible to navigate. An expansion of Daytona's pit lane was part of the process, reducing the skill needed from the moment you slow down off turn 4 to pit road speed, quicken your stop and get back on track.

"It's really nice to get that little bit of extra room," said McMurray. "Pit road speeds are really fast when you come to 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."

So there you have it, NASCAR's Super Bowl now a three-abreast, heart-stopping Sunday drive for every moment of 200 laps, yet one where it's almost impossible to lose the draft or determine your fate sometime before Lap 180. Perhaps that's the most interesting study couched within all of these changes; NASCAR expects the action for one-race-a-year fans to be good enough to stick around for those first two-and-a-half hours of action, watching a half-roulette wheel, half-roller coaster trying not to collapse before action gets serious over the final 20.

We'll see if the gamble works out.