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Brian Vickers, Goodyear's Stu Grant, Kurt Busch, and Doug Yates all ponder the first day of Daytona 500 testing

  Welcome back, Brian Vickers, third fastest in Daytona 500 practice at 194.334 mph in the draft (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Brian Vickers finally returned to action Thursday, after nine months on the sides, and said he was in better shape, mentally and physically, than ever...
   Goodyear's Stu Grant says he is quite pleased so far with his Daytona 500 tires....
   Drivers have been pondering tire strategies, and that still prominent dip off the second turn, and how to push-draft around this newly repaved track at nearly 200 mph....  
   And engineman Doug Yates was calling it 'crazy fast' in the draft.

   That's the way the first day of Daytona 500 testing went at Daytona International Speedway.
   Yates was looking at the Jack Roush computer screens recording Thursday afternoon's drafting speeds during the opening round of Daytona 500 testing for NASCAR's season opener, and pondering the two-car draft that David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. just posted, at 195.78 mph.
   Single-car runs were less impressive, Clint Bowyer quickest in morning runs at 184.219 mph.
   But nearly perfect afternoon weather – 65 degrees, sunny, and no wind – changed things.
   However weather is expected to change Friday, with rain in the forecast, leading to the possibility testing might be extended through Sunday.
   Figuring out which team or brand or driver might have an edge heading toward the NASCAR season opener wasn't really on the agenda Thursday.
   Because teams and drivers still seem to be analyzing this place, because the first repaving job since 1978 should make this Daytona 500 quite different than the past dozen or two.
   'Crazy fast' here this time might not just be the speed, but rather the fact that, with this new, very smooth asphalt, cars should be running in very tight packs for a full 80-mile (32-lap) gas run.
   Add to that the still treacherous 'bump,' or drop-off at the exit to turn two, and some drivers are worried.
   Truex says turn two "definitely feels different. It feels like the transition is a little bit more extreme than it used to be, to be honest with you. It feels like the track falls out from under you faster.
    "So that's going to make changes interesting in the draft."
   Kurt Busch in fact didn't even bring his 500 car here: "This is our B car. This isn't even our A car. Just in case there is trouble in some of these drafting sessions.
    "There's five drafting sessions...ample opportunities for things to happen. We've still got to protect our best piece, and that is the utmost important thing."
   Goodyear's Grant says "I am extremely pleased with the way the tires look so far.
   "But this is racing, so I am always cautious. You just never know.
   "But from everything I've seen so far, I'm very pleased."
   Still, there were surprises Thursday.
   "We're not seeing the guys running in any big drafts, and that surprises me. We're not seeing any big drafts," Grant said.
   "As conservative as everyone runs in our tire tests, two guys got into each other, because it's hard to keep off each other.
   "So they're being pretty cautious here right now."
    In fact many drivers pointedly said they were avoiding drafting. How that might change the next few days is unclear.

    Another twist: these tires aren't giving up speed over a run. Little wear, no give-up....pit strategies could be interesting.
   Busch says "We're not seeing much tire wear. (So) you want to try to improve your fuel mileage, because I think you're going to see a lot of fuel-only pit stops."
    Grant agrees.
   "Conceivably, if you just do the tread-wear projection, you could run the whole race on one set of tires," Grant says with a laugh.
   "And we're not seeing a lot of give-up. So it will be interesting to see how the strategies go. I expect to see a lot of two-tire stops, and fuel-only stops."
    New tires won't be a benefit to drivers?
   "No," Grant says. "In talking to drivers today, we're seeing some of the fastest laps by guys with 35 laps (almost 90 miles) on their tires.
   These tires are the left-side Talladega tires themselves, the right-sides are the Talladega compound on a different construction. And Grant's game plan has gone as expected so far.
   "One thing we knew going in to a new surface like this, the repaves we've seen lately you don't see a lot of tire wear. Like Charlotte, Las Vegas," Grant said. "So heat is the issue.
   "So we were very conservative on our compound, and light (thin) on our tread gauges,  because we knew we wouldn't get rid of heat through wear, so we had to manage that when we built the tires.
   "And we ran a full gas stop on tires in December, and we didn't see any issues at all.
   "We're not concerned about the heat.
   "We didn't see any issues at our test in December. Everything was excellent from a tire standpoint."
    Speed? Will this track be slower in qualifying than last year?
    "That's probably not a bad theory, though nobody knows for sure," Grant says.
   With new asphalt here, and new Goodyears, pole runs might not be all that fast, because the track is so grippy. Mark Martin was on the pole a year ago at 191.188 mph on the well-worn asphalt (which eventually developed that embarrassing pothole).
   "There is a lot of grip in the tires, because of the new asphalt, not the tires," Grant said. "So the cars are stuck pretty tight."
   New asphalt once raised worries about the track tearing up under the pounding. But new polymer compounds have pretty much eliminated that worry.
   "We worked with the paving people, and these are the same people who did Talladega," Grant said. 
   "This is the same mix as Talladega, and we didn't see any issues with Talladega, and I don't expect to see any issues here."
    However 'The Big One" looks to be the big worry.
    Drivers are predicting three-wide racing, similar in intensity to Talladega's four-wide action. This track, though, has tighter corners, so Denny Hamlin says he's not sure drivers can push each other all the way around the track as they can at Talladega. And Hamlin says he's not sure if those two-car breakaways that we've seen at Talladega the past few years will be part of the story here.
   Truex: "It's going to be more along the lines of a Talladega race -- There's going to be no stringing out, there's going to be no handling, where guys have to start lifting and it gets double file and then it gets single-file for the long runs.
     "The pack is never going to get spread out.
    "Green flag pit stops may obviously come into play; that tends to make two or three different packs.
    "But if everybody decides they're going to race and try to stay up front and not lay back and try to save their stuff, it's going to be a big huge pack, and everybody is going to be in it all day long.
    "There will be no chance to catch your breath and relax at all."

What are the chances they go

What are the chances they go to yet a smaller restrictor plate come Speedweeks? I'm guessing they'll shrink it again after seeing these drafting speeds.

We just talked about that

We just talked about that with NASCAR's Robin Pemberton, who says he's not worried about the speeds he's seeing.

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