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Motor sports: Cup drivers set for 500 miles on repaved TMS

When Texas Motor Speedway officials decided to repave the track in time for Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, they threw a curve at the drivers. Actually, they threw two.

Turns 1 and 2 were reconfigured to feature flatter banking — 20 degrees, down from 24 — and a racing surface widened from 60 feet to 80.

"I'm looking forward to something new," Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series star Dale Earnhardt Jr. said at TMS media day. "As a driver, you always kind of really get excited when they build a new track or you get to go somewhere and try something different, and any kind of reconfiguration is similar. You really get excited about what might be better, what you might like better about it."

TMS pulled the trigger on the repaving project because the old surface became difficult to dry and the Fort Worth track experienced weather delays in all three of its marquee races last season. The O'Reilly 500 was delayed nearly two hours because of a wet track and finished after midnight.

"The whole point of doing what we did is to ... give the fans certainty that when they come to the track, even it there's inclement weather in the area, we can get it dry quickly and get back to racing," TMS president Eddie Gossage said.

 Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, climbs into his car during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday in Fort Worth. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
 Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, climbs into his car during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday in Fort Worth. 
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The project took 2 1/2 months to complete and included a new drainage system under the 1 1/2-mile oval, which opened in 1997 and was last repaved in 2001. Gossage said workers reconfigured the first two turns so the south end of the track would be different than the north end, where Turns 3 and 4 remain 60 feet wide and banked at 24 degrees.

That means a car built to handle well at one end of the track won't be ideal for the other, and that the drivers who excelled on the old surface might not be the ones to beat now.

"The bottom groove is so far down the racetrack you feel like that corner, with less banking, is going to be quite a bit slower than 3 and 4 now," said Chris Buescher of Prosper. "That's what made some really good racing at Kentucky last season — just having the difference in two corners, just changing them up and making it hard to get a car to be balanced in both corners.

"It's smooth. Turns 3 and 4 still have some of the characteristic bumps through it that we always enjoy. ... They give a little bit of character to the racetrack."

Chris Buescher, driver of the No. 37 Scott Products Chevrolet, looks on during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday in Fort Worth. Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
Chris Buescher, driver of the No. 37 Scott Products Chevrolet, looks on during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday in Fort Worth. 
Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

Gossage said the goal was to "make the races as good as we can possibly make them. ... We want to cause a braking situation because that gives another guy an opportunity to pass."

Buescher will be looking to capitalize in his No. 37 Chevrolet.

"I like that they widened out the corner and took a little banking away. Top speed is not what makes the racing great — it's making sure we have room to race," he said. "It is going to make for great racing. It's going to be wide enough to where we can move around and be able make passes.

"You look at the corner coming up, and it's extremely wide. We have a lot of options."

Earnhardt echoed those thoughts.

"As a driver, that's really what you want everywhere you go race — to have the opportunity to move around and try lanes and race side by side a little easier," he said. "This place is going to maintain its character and personality. Obviously the asphalt is new, but it'll age with the weather out here and the environment will speed up that process."

Because drivers prefer old asphalt, TMS has been working to artificially age the new surface. Gossage said officials shampooed the track using giant brushes mounted on tractors, then used those machines to work lime down into the pores of the pavement, which reduces the grip level. To simulate cars actually breaking the track in by laying down rubber, the track's "Texas Tire Monster" device has been dragging racing tires along the surface since last month.

"The repaves are a bit of a challenge for everyone because there's obviously not a groove and we'll run the bottom, so the first groove we create will be right on the bottom of the track," Earnhardt said. "But I know they've really worked hard to try to speed up the aging process of the racetrack surface to give us ability to widen the groove out a little bit. We'll just have to see how it goes, and I know that the banking as well in Turns 1 and 2 is a little progressive, so that is obviously going to lend itself to widening the groove quicker than it typically would."

Xfinity Series driver William Byron, who won the summer truck race at TMS last year, finished seventh in Saturday's My Bariatric Solutions 300.

"Hopefully the groove is two-wide or something like that and you're able to race side by side," Byron said at media day. "Repaves are always pretty good races. Everyone's on edge."

 William Byron, driver of the #9 Axalta/Priefert Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the My Bariatric Solutions 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday in Fort Worth. Sean Gardner/Getty Images
 William Byron, driver of the #9 Axalta/Priefert Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the My Bariatric Solutions 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday in Fort Worth. 
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Cup drivers have found that edge and managed to cross it. Chase Elliott and Erik Jones crashed Friday and will be in backup cars. Trevor Bayne will join them after crashing Saturday while atop the leaderboard in final practice.

Kevin Harvick won the pole position with a lap of 198.405 mph in the No. 4 Ford, as Fusions swept the top five qualifying positions.

Earnhardt, Buescher, points leader Kyle Larson and defending O'Reilly 500 winner Kyle Busch were among nine drivers whose cars didn't clear inspection in time for qualifying and will start at the back of the 40-car field.

"It's going to be so crazy," Joey Logano said Saturday. "Anytime there's a repave, you don't know how the track's going to react. And obviously the groove right now is pretty narrow, so as it widens out it'll get better, but it'll be interesting."

At least rain delays shouldn't be a problem. The race is scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m., and the National Weather Service predicts partly cloudy skies with a high of 81 degrees. There's a 20 percent chance of rain at night, but the new easy-to-dry TMS could handle an earlier shower.

"The track was soaked when we got here this morning, and it was dry within the hour without any assistance," Buescher said March 13 when he got a sneak peek at the fresh asphalt. "We ran maybe 10 laps with a pace car; that is all we really did to help that, and it's dry."

Briefly ...

The Verizon IndyCar Series and tire maker Firestone are scheduled to test the new surface Wednesday. Driver Ed Carpenter was in Denton County with Buescher last month to check it out.

"From what I can tell, it's greatly improved, obviously a lot smoother," Carpenter said. "Having the diversity between [Turns] 1 and 2 and [Turns] 3 and 4 is something that I think is going to be good for racing. Where it's wider, I think the Indy cars might be able to go five-wide through there now, so I know Eddie loves that."