Matt Kenseth used to dread preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway. Even at speeds approaching 200 mph, circling the big restrictor-plate track for hours on end bordered on monotony.
Not this year, though. With the 2.5-mile speedway shining from a just-completed repaving job, drivers are eager to find out what the new Daytona surface will be like. Several will get their chance this week, when about 20 cars will take to the high banks for a Goodyear tire test slated for Wednesday and Thursday at the facility.
The tire test is a precursor to an open test at Daytona Jan. 20-22, which will be the first such test to be held at the track since NASCAR's testing ban went into effect prior to the 2009 season. Relaxing the ban for Daytona centered around the resurfacing, only the track's second ever and its first since 1978. Spurred by a pothole that formed in the pavement during this past year's Daytona 500 that delayed NASCAR's marquee event by more than two hours, the job began immediately after the track's July race and wrapped up Saturday with the paving machine passing beneath a checkered flag. The entire track, down to the lime rock base, was broken up, dug out, and replaced.
Testing will run from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. ET Wednesday and Thursday, with fan viewing allowed from the Oldfield Grandstand with access through the Daytona ticket office. Officially, the tire test will be used to determine compounds for next year's Speedweeks. But for the drivers taking part, it's also an opportunity to get a feel for just how different the new track will be from the old one, which was rutted and bumpy from decades of competition.
"I'm really looking forward to getting on track and seeing how they did on the paving job and how smooth it is. And I bet you it will really change the track," said Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, also scheduled to participate. "I bet it will feel like a different track, because the surface was so incredibly wore out before, and now it's going to be like a Talladega race. It's going to be wide open. Handling is probably going to matter more than Talladega, but not very much. Everybody's going to be wide open, and it's going to be a big draft all the time."
Talladega Superspeedway, the other restrictor-plate venue on the Sprint Cup circuit, was re-paved in 2006, and the new asphalt there allowed drivers to run side-by-side longer on the same set of tires. Drivers expect the new Daytona surface to behave much the same way, the fresh asphalt removing the emphasis on handling that was always so essential on the old, bumpy track.
"As a driver, I liked [that] Daytona wore out, because you had to handle," Kenseth said. "There was a draft on new tires, and you could mix it up. But if you were handling good, you could almost pass by yourself, whereas Talladega is 100 percent drafting. [There will be] no handling, no long runs, just all draft. So it will be a lot more like that. But I still think it's going to be trickier and harder than Talladega, because the corners are a lot tighter, and the track is a lot narrower."
From a driver's perspective, that means more white-knuckle moments.
Before, "you only had to hold your breath for 20 laps, and the last 30 laps of the run you had to more drive the car," Kenseth added. "Whereas now, it's going to be a lot more like Talladega -- more intense, more three-wide, more four-wide if somebody is a little crazy. There's going to be a lot more going on. People are going to be sticking at a lot of places where they've never done at Daytona before, and it's going to be really exciting to watch for the fans."