One of the attractive things about Sprint Cup racing is that there is an element of the unknown at virtually every stop on the circuit.
Crew chiefs have notebooks, of course, some dating virtually to the invention of the automobile, and they can tell you how a certain chassis configuration and a certain tire compound reacted under a variety of conditions on a given day at a given track. Drivers with a certain level of experience have turned thousands of laps around most tracks on the tour and have a reasonably good idea how the surfaces will react under hot sun, cold wind and darkness.
Still, it is impossible to predict how every car will respond under every circumstance on every track, and that’s the fun of it. Some of it is unknown territory.
When teams roll into Daytona International Speedway in February for the start of the new season, the territory will be quite unknown. A six-month repaving project was recently completed, and the Feb. 12 Budweiser Shootout will mark the first NASCAR competition on a new Daytona surface in 30 years.
More than a dozen teams ran tire tests for Goodyear on the new surface recently, and another test for all Sprint Cup teams is scheduled in mid-January. So most teams will approach February and the unveiling of a new season with a lot of data.
Still, there will be a touch of the unknown, and that should make the first full-length Cup race on the new surface — the Feb. 20 Daytona 500 — a bristling affair.
Drivers participating in Goodyear’s test runs were practically universal in their praise of both the new surface and the tire compound — mostly developed in testing at Talladega Superspeedway — Goodyear selected for the runs.
Quite naturally, the surface has amazingly good grip, and drivers predict three-wide racing — even in the turns — won’t be a problem in February.
That means the Daytona drafting packs are likely to be bigger than usual. In most recent races, after a settling-in period, the 43-car field has broken in two or more packs of cars. With the surface offering more grip, slower cars will benefit immensely, and the vacuum effect of the draft could keep the majority of the field close for the majority of the race.
“I think what you’ve seen at Daytona the last couple years has been great racing,” said new track president Joie Chitwood. “Yes, they’re in a pack. Yes, as the tire would wear off, they’d separate a little bit. The biggest difference we’re going to see is probably the fact they’re going to be in a pack through the whole duration from pit stop to pit stop.
“We think it’s important that our fans know the asphalt we put down is going to provide a great racing surface. I don’t know how great the race is going to be. I don’t know how it’s going to play out with a ‘big one’ [major crash] or not. I just hope for the duration of the race we provide them with competition, great passing, all of the right things. But you never know what race you’re going to have.”
In fact, there have been some “dog” races at tracks that were recently repaved, in part because the surface is so good and everyone is fast and no one can pass. Typically, drivers lobby aggressively against repaves, but Daytona had no choice after a big piece of the surface came up during this year’s 500, leading to two embarrassing red-flag delays for repairs.
How the cars and the drivers will react under the new conditions remains something of an unknown, and that makes the approach of February that much more interesting.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.