After an embarrassing, show-stopping pothole spoiled NASCAR’s biggest race at Daytona International Speedway last year, a big fix evolved from early July to mid-December. DIS repaved the aging, bumpy, two-and-a-half mile surface that lasted 32 years in the brutal Florida sun with 50,000 tons of new asphalt at a cost of $20 million.
Asphalt thickness is an inch or more hefty than the roads fans use to get to Daytona so racetracks laid down with laser accuracy are built to last, but even granite-spiked asphalt ages and changes with fluctuations of the seasons; drivers have to adjust.
The youthful new surface, said to be like glass, is going to bring on a rowdy, three-wide Daytona 500 that will thrill fans and challenge drivers.
Fans got to experience the new track and question and answer sessions with NASCAR drivers at the Preseason Thunder Fan Fest this past weekend. Fan consideration is high at NASCAR.
DIS president Joie Chitwood III talked about the problem of the old track and the new fix.
"The pothole: We kept customers for six and a half hours, which is two and a half hours too long," Chitwood said. "The weather was about 45 degrees. So it was way too long of a day for somebody to have an enjoyable experience.
"We have stepped up to the plate and fixed the racetrack. We are not going to have that problem. I’m excited about what the drivers are saying about the asphalt. I can say the track is smooth until I’m blue in the face, but until a Brad Keselowski says it, that’s when fans believe it."
Keselowksi had the fastest speed during the recent test and had good comments about DIS.
"I think it’s going to be a great race, a thrilling race," Keselowski said. "I’m really excited about it and I mean that. To be able to go to Daytona and not have to worry about tires and all those things we worried about and knowing that if you have a semi-competitive car you have a shot at winning the race. It’s a great feeling."
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., 2004 Daytona 500 winner, was part of a Goodyear test in December and noticed differences already.
"In just a bit of time that it's been since the tire test we had in December, the track is starting to change a little bit," Earnhardt said. "It was smooth as glass when we first tried it in December, and it's starting to become a little more rigid in places and change color in places."
Past Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson is coming off a fifth straight championship campaign, but he’s already in a work mode.
"It's awfully early to even understand what the challenges are going to be," Johnson said. "We hope that we're smarter through all the hard work that we've been going through in the offseason, but we just won't know until we get actually ready leave Daytona."
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon sees a dynamic race on the horizon.
"It's going to be an exciting Daytona 500 for sure, drafting a lot more like what you have in Talladega, but yet with the uniqueness that Daytona still brings to it," Gordon said. "I think it's going to be very exciting, a lot of grip, a lot of three wide racing."
Tony Stewart’s analytical take of racetracks shows why he snatched so many checkered flags.
"The only spot that really has seemed to be really any significant bumps in it is just where they had a problem, I guess, when they were paving turns three and four and the paver slipped a little bit, and it lost some of the gauge of the asphalt thickness. But it looks like they ground the front side and backside of it, and it's really...it seems a lot smoother than when we were here with the pace car riding around.
"It's almost identical feeling to what we had at Talladega. Obviously the transitions off of two and four are a little more abrupt than what we have at Talladega, but as far as the ride, you literally could hold a cup of coffee with the lid off full and not spill a drop riding around there."
Last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Jamie McMurray, sees a different race coming.
"The track is really good and the racing is going to be closer to what Talladega has except for the fact the track is quite a bit narrower.
Kevin Harvick has won the Daytona 500 once and understands well what a victory here means.
"This is not just another racetrack," Harvick said. "This is our biggest race. This is what the backbone of our sport is on a week-to-week basis as far as racetracks go. To win a Daytona 500, we've been fortunate to experience that. There's no comparing it to any other race."
Martin Truex, Jr. sees speed coming.
"It feels like the transition is a little bit more extreme than it used to be," Truex said. "It feels like the track falls out from under you faster. It’s going to be wild."
Carl Edwards has yet to win the 500, but he understands the thrill of racing in Daytona.
"You feel the energy of the crowd, the stadium kind of feel around you," Edwards said. "Obviously a great place to race especially since they re-did the racetrack. You can run the top. You can run the bottom. You can run the middle. It’s awesome."
Denny Hamlin chimed in with his opinion.
"I think it’s just a really a whole new game," Hamlin said. "My mentality is almost like when they paved Talladega except subtract four lanes of traffic. It’s just going to be that much more exciting."
Kurt Busch expects excitement.
"Being in the Shootout Saturday night to start things off, that’s going to be a wild start to things, then we’ll see how—shoot, we’ll learn a lot in these three days on how drafting is going to settle in."
Steve Wallace will be racing in his first Daytona 500.
"I definitely think the new track will be an advantage for guys like myself that don’t have a lot of Cup experience and whatnot. This track before was really rough. You just have to have a really fast car, don’t make stupid decisions. If you can do all that, you’ll be there at the end."
Truex cautioned about early strategy, going for the win before the last lap.
"It’s like gambling really," Truex said. "It’s just a lot of fun to do it until you lose."
He pointed a good way to the end of this quotes quest.
Photo credit: Dwight Drum @ Racetake.com