Kingsport Times News Saturday, July 26, 2014
Sports

March 13th, 2007 12:51 am by JENNA FRYER



LAS VEGAS - Hours before the race, Brett Bodine gave a pace-car ride around reconfigured Las Vegas Motor Speedway.


At speeds reaching 130 mph, the former NASCAR driver pointed out the trouble spots: bumps in the track surface, uneven lines in the asphalt, tricky transitions in and out of the banked turns and a curved pit lane unlike anything else on the circuit.


When the tour was over, Bodine's passengers were convinced Sunday's race was going to be a wreck fest.


"Nah, it will be fine," he predicted. "The talent level in this group is too good to let that happen."


Bodine was right.


There were only nine cautions during the Nextel Cup race, a testament to the skill and adaptability of NASCAR's top drivers. But it may have created a mirage masking the event's many problems.


"With the exception of a couple of guys, all the drivers did a great job of give and take," said two-time series champion Tony Stewart, a critic of the track changes and the tire Goodyear forced the teams to use.


"I could see situations in front of me and behind me where everybody was giving each other room and trying to be courteous to each another. I think the drivers made the best out of a bad situation here."


After the Busch Series race Saturday, which was plagued by a record 12 cautions, top drivers issued stern warnings. Matt Kenseth called the tires treacherous and Greg Biffle said he felt as if he were driving on black ice. Kasey Kahne said every lap was a battle not to wreck, while Stewart criticized LVMS owner Bruton Smith, general manager Chris Powell and Goodyear for creating a frightening experience for everyone.


But it wasn't.


"I predicted much more gloom and doom than this," Mark Martin said. "I want to give a shout out to all the drivers - they were extremely cautious. Very smart driving, as smart as I've ever seen these guys drive under all the pressure that they're under. They all did a great job, and it wasn't nearly as much of a disaster as I thought it was going to be."


So what happened to create such dire predictions?


Smith wanted better racing, along with a fan experience that tops anything in NASCAR. So he pumped millions of dollars into the facility, and on-track changes that added 8 degrees of banking and moved pit road. But the changes pushed speeds over 200 mph during the January test session, and Goodyear had to create a tire strong enough to withstand the loads.


The tire company selected a hard compound for the left-side tires, which infuriated drivers who generally prefer a softer tire that sticks to the surface. The harder tire eliminated any grip, turning every lap of Sunday's race into a concentrated effort not to wreck.


There were slips, slides and spins and even winner Jimmie Johnson had to save his car from making a sharp right-hand turn into the wall.


"There were like top-10 saves, there were some saves that were miraculous," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said "There were a lot of guys getting out of control."


But there also was good racing - which is all Smith wanted to begin with.


NASCAR's post-race statistics showed that passing at Las Vegas was up 75 percent from a year ago, with 1,123 passes under the green flag compared with 898 in 2006.


And the harder tire - compounded with a smaller fuel cell that forced teams to pit more often - created pit strategy that has been missing of late. Crew chiefs had to gamble during stops - two tires or four? Right sides or lefts?


"It was a day of survival," said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief. "It's been a long time since we've gone to a racetrack and we've seen a difference in race car speeds like we saw. Guys were two seconds off the pace compared to the leaders. We had a new racetrack and a new tire and a lot of obstacles to overcome."


But it made for a good race, track officials said, and that's all that matters to the fans.


"We didn't have near as many cautions as some were expecting, and I don't know if you contribute that to a more experienced field of drivers or the weather," Powell said. "But I thought we had really, really good racing through the field. Behind the leader always seemed to be a lot of drivers competing for position, and through the field was excellent."


But the issue is now on preparations for next year. Will the track weather at all? And will Goodyear find a more favorable tire?


Powell said LVMS has cars on the track almost every day of the year with the Richard Petty Driving experience, wear that could help season the surface.


But the drivers are insistent there must be better communication.


"If these guys didn't bring the right car to the track, their butts would be on the line," Powell said, referring to the race teams. "I know Goodyear is working very hard, but we have to bring the right tire. I don't know how we get there, whether it's more tire testing or bringing more cars to the track for tire testing, but something needs to be addressed to where we know we have the right tire. The sport is too big to be dealing with last-minute changes."


Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon planned to sit down with Goodyear officials.


"We've got to come up with a solution," he said. "There is no reason for us to show up at tracks and have a white-knuckle experience the whole weekend like we did here. They've been doing this too long and they've got too smart people, so we've got to figure out how not to bring tires like this to the track."




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