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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Pat Warren brought a chunk of asphalt into the media center at Kansas Speedway last year and dropped it onto a table with a thud that seemed to reverberate throughout the room.
It was compelling evidence of the need to repave the racetrack.
Speedway president understood that the side-by-side, multi-groove racing that had made Kansas a favorite among drivers would be jeopardized by replacing the decade-old asphalt with fresh stuff. But he also knew that the risk of having another softball-sized chunk of pavement coming up during a race, and maybe smashing into a car at 200 mph, wasn't worth it.
"The general perception of drivers is not positive about repaves," Warren said. "They worry about what the track is going to be like when they come back."
It's a worry that proved valid in Sunday's Sprint Cup race.
Race winner Kevin Harvick said it was like driving on a "razor blade." Runner-up Kurt Busch and third-place driver Jimmie Johnson called it "treacherous." Chase contender Kyle Busch, who has crashed out of each Sprint Cup race at Kansas since last year's repave, may have been most harsh.
"The racetrack," he said, "is the worst racetrack I've ever driven on."
Roughly a dozen tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit have undergone repaves in the last decade, most out of necessity. Pavement tends to slip down the grade over time, resulting in seams in the corners, and big chunks like the one found at Kansas create safety hazards.
One of the most infamous issues was the gaping pothole that developed during the 2010 running of the Daytona 500, causing a delay in NASCAR's signature race.
The new surfaces solve that problem, but it also creates new ones.
There isn't enough abrasiveness on the new asphalt to lay down rubber, and that keeps cars from sticking in the corners. The result is a single-file parade rather than the passing that makes races exciting. The repaves also have produced higher speeds, and more heat in tires, and that's led to concerns about blistering and overall durability.
Goodyear has developed a "multi-zone" tread in part to deal with repaves. It has two distinct sections, one intended to provide grip and the other to provide durability. But finding that happy medium between traction and tire wear is proving to be a challenge.
"They continuously put the tire company and the competitors in a box with the type of asphalt they put on the track," Harvick said. "Goodyear has done a fine job of putting together a tire with the cards they're dealt, but we still have a lot of issues."
That was evidenced by a record 15 cautions in Sunday's race.
"Goodyear is doing the best they can, but these surfaces are too smooth," Jeff Gordon said. "We don't want bumps — I'm not talking about bumps. I'm talking about the abrasiveness."
Smooth is a good thing on highways and driveways, and welcomed by passenger cars. It's not such a good thing on racetracks, and doesn't work so well with racecars.
"To me, it's really the surface. We're paving the racetracks with what we pave new highways with, and it's not a highway," Gordon said. "We had the same issue in Phoenix, at Darlington. We have had the same issue at every repave that we've had the last six or seven years."
It's a catch-22, of course. Drivers want the rough, weathered surface that allows for side-by-side racing, but those same surfaces are usually on the brink of failure. Several drivers said that NASCAR needs to begin researching ways to improve the asphalt that is put down on tracks, rather than relying on Goodyear to provide a tire that works.
Such an endeavor would be costly and time-consuming — and may prove to be fruitless.
"We always hope we can have more grip and be able to race side by side and have a comfort level to reproduce a show where fans want to come out and we see sellouts, and we need to put on a better show on the track," Kurt Busch said. "And for that to happen, we have to have Goodyear, the drivers, the teams, the tracks on the same page. Right now we're close, but I think we swung and we missed on tire combo this weekend."