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CUP: Vegas Opening Up Early

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Although the NASCAR Sprint Cup season is already two races old, the most critical weekend so far is the one coming up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

That’s because 15 of the 36 races on the 2013 Cup schedule — including five of the 10 events in the Chase for the Sprint Cup — are contested on ovals of 1.366 to 2.0 miles in length. Any driver with serious championship aspirations has to excel at these so-called intermediate tracks. And Vegas is the first one on the schedule this year.

That urgency is increased because of the new Generation-6 cars being campaigned this season. In recognition of the importance of getting the new cars dialed in, NASCAR is opening up the 1.5-mile Las Vegas track a day early, with teams testing on Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET and then again from 3:30-6:30 p.m.

Thursday will be critical not just for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 (3 p.m. ET FOX and FOX Deportes) but for much of the season.

“Without a doubt the 1.5, two-mile tracks can make your entire season. That test day is going to be huge,” said Steve Letarte, crew chief of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. “As a crew chief, you are trying to figure out what area you should be working in.”

Letarte knows what he’s talking about: Earnhardt finished in the top 10 in every 1.5- and two-mile race he competed in last year, including at Michigan International Speedway, where he won his first race since 2008.

Matt Puccia, crew chief for Greg Biffle and the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion, agrees with Letarte about the importance of conducting a successful test at Las Vegas on Thursday — especially since it’s the first time the G-6 cars have been on a 1.5-mile track since testing at Charlotte Motor Speedway in January.

“It’s huge because it’s the first opportunity other than the Charlotte test to see what we’ve got,” said Puccia. “We’ve worked hard all winter developing this new car and it’s kind of like putting all of our eggs in the basket and seeing where we’re at. I feel good about the product we have and what we’re bringing to the race track, so it will be good to see what we’ve got.”

One of the key targets NASCAR had for the G-6 cars was to make them race better — especially from mid-pack on back — at the intermediate tracks, where aerodynamics are so critical to performance.

“With it being an intermediate track and a place that’s really fast, the aero part becomes the biggest thing that you fight,” said Rodney Childers, crew chief for Mark Martin’s No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. “And I think everybody in the garage needs to learn a little bit (more) about this new car and where the splitter needs to be compared to the race track,” Childers said.

On top of that, the G-6 cars have evolved and changed even from when they tested at Charlotte less than two months ago.

“Since then, a lot of different parts have become available with the new, cambered rear-end housings and stuff like that, so we’re trying to maximize all the areas that we’ve been given to play in,” said Todd Parrott, crew chief of Aric Almirola’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. “I think the challenge is just find the balance. We had that last year with all the different things we were able to do. I think getting that balance back for the driver and what he was feeling is the most challenging part.”

Even though opening the track a day early is more work for everyone, the ability to test means few complain about the chance to go test.

“Testing is very important,” said Jeff Gordon. “When you have telemetry on the car, it gives us the opportunity to learn more about the loads and the bumps and what the car is going through, like ride heights of the front splitter. It gives us the opportunity to gather so much valuable information that we can use for the race on Sunday. Every lap we log helps us understand and learn more about our new No. 24 Chevy SS.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.