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Race fans, start those engines: Preseason thunder at Daytona

Tomorrow begins NASCAR’s three-day test for the Sprint Cup teams at Daytona International Speedway, the first official engine firings of 2011.
Don’t think for a second that it represents the new year’s first official work.
“I don’t ever remember being this busy in my life,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Jeff Gordon. “We are so full speed ahead already.”
Wide-open shops mean wide-open anticipation. Teams participating in the 2011 edition of Pre-Season Thunder at Daytona will use the time to prepare for both the 53rd Daytona 500 on Feb. 20 and the track’s new surface. The test begins tomorrow, Thursday Jan. 20 and runs through Saturday.

Interviewed by media members at the Hendrick Motorsports shops in Charlotte last week, Gustafson said, “It’s a very demanding time of the year, but it’s very gratifying because you see projects get started and you see them come to fruition. This week’s test session are especially meaningful for Alan Gustafson and the rest of the Hendrick staff. They are getting their first on-track experience with Daytona’s new surface, and their first on-track time with any updates they have added over the off-season. Perhaps equally important for the Hendrick troops is that during the off-season team owner Rick Hendrick really shook up his race teams. With the exception of the No. 48 team he has changed all the driver / crew chief combinations for 2011.
Alan Gustafson, who was crew chief for Mark Martin last season, moves to the No. 24 car for 2011. Gordon’s former crew chief Lance McGrew takes over the Dale Earnhardt Jr. team for 2008, and Dale Jr’s former crew chief Lance McGrew moves to the Mark Martin Chevrolet.
A successful Goodyear tire test on Dec. 15-16 set the stage for this week’s session. The new repaving, only the second in the track’s history and the first since 1978, began after the cup race last July 3 and ended in early December. During the tire test those attending validated Goodyear’s tire compound selection for the Daytona 500, plus drivers and crew chiefs provided the sport’s first on-track feedback about the new pavement.
Reviews were unanimously favorable.
“This week’s test should go a long way in helping the teams get their setups right for next month’s Speedweeks,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s Vice President of competition. “We received a lot of positive feedback from the competitors about the new racing surface following the tire test last month. We believe the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 has all the makings of being the most exciting one we’ve ever seen.”
Expect some re-affirmation this weekend. Pre-season Thunder means three days to shake down new equipment, personnel and strategies, and long detailed checklists.
“It’s a huge race for everyone,” Gustafson said. “A race that everyone wants to win, the biggest race of the year. Everybody had some reservations so going down to Daytona with the tire test and coming back, it just confirmed that Daytona is still Daytona. It’s the track we all love. That’s wonderful to know. So going back there this week, it’s to try to exploit what little nuances of speed we have.”
The right-size restrictor plate is a constant juggling act for NASCAR officials at Daytona. The goal is to give drivers some throttle response to work with, particularly to get out of tight scraps in the tightly bunched packs that come with restrictor plate racing. The other goal is to keep speeds under 200 mph. With the new paving NASCAR mandated a plate with a 30/32 inch opening for the December tire test. Last Wednesday they announced that for this week’s test session they will issue plates with a 29/32 inch opening. Don’t be surprised if they reduce them still further before we get to the Feb. 20 race date.
You may reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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