DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Blue skies, warm air. Cars on the race track.
That’s how the 2011 edition of NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona kicked off Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, the first of a three-day NASCAR Sprint Cup Series test.
At stake are preparations for the 53rd Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 20 and important data-gathering on the track’s brand-new asphalt surface.
And – oh yeah – anticipation.
“It's going to be wild,” said Martin Truex Jr. (No. 56 NAPA Toyota) of the Daytona 500, the series’ traditional season opener. “It's going to be fun. I love racing here. Here and Talladega (Superspeedway) are some of the (most fun) races for us as drivers until you get in a wreck, and then you're just pissed off, and you're pissed off until you come back and hoping to finish the next one.”
History wasn’t lost on drivers who turned the year’s first official laps.
Last year’s repave – only the second at 2.5-mile Daytona and the first since 1978 – began after the NASCAR Sprint Cup event on July 3 and ended in early December. During a Dec. 15-16 Goodyear tire test open to all series teams, those attending validated Goodyear’s compound selection for the Daytona 500.
“I thought the neatest part was they sent us a piece of the old racetrack,” said Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford), who, like Truex, visited Daytona’s infield media center during Thursday’s lunch break. “That's pretty cool to get in the mail. To think of everything that happened on that old pavement and to have a piece of that at home was really special.
“It's definitely a new day, and the paving job is as beautiful and perfect as it could be.”
Aside from first laps on new asphalt, Thursday also marked the first day of at-track work for new crews, new team members and new personnel combinations. Also, the getting-to-know-you process with several technical changes: NASCAR Sprint Cup cars are sporting a reconfigure splitter and will use Sunoco Green E15 fuel in 2011.
“The sport is so competitive that it's not just about seeing how fast your car is now,” said Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet). “It's trying to figure out the strategies and techniques we have to use as drivers with the bump drafting and playing the chess game to figure out where you've got to be at the right time.”
Even after only a few hours, some of those learning processes were underway.
“You want to try to improve on your fuel mileage because I think you're going to see a lot of fuel-only-type pit stops,” said Kurt Busch (No. 2 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge). “So you just have to try to bank as many thoughts as you can in your mind about how you're going to react and apply those.”
Five-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) remains the man the rest of the field pursues.
On Thursday, he said he intends to continue in that role.
“I think that last year we learned a lot more about ourselves and kind of validated our core beliefs and stuck to what the 48 team is known for,” Johnson said. ”And what we believe in and were still able to overcome a lot of adversity and win a championship. I feel like we'll be stronger and better, but we just don't know until we get into the meat of the season and the first goal is obviously to make the Chase and from there figure out how to win again.”
Johnson’s closest pursuer from 2010 – series runner-up Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota) – has his championship checklist for 2011. Better qualifying results is at or near the top.
“I can't start dead last every single week like we did last season,” Hamlin said. “Those are things that are going to help us finish better and obviously give us better chances to win more races.”
He also cited his first five series seasons as an encouraging precedent.
“Obviously there's only one more spot to go,” Hamlin added, “but I feel like we've done a really, really good job over the last three or four years learning from the mistakes that we've made and not repeating them over again.”
Thursday’s final media center visitor was 2004 Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr., (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet), who begins 2011 hoping to regain Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup eligibility with new crew chief Steve Letarte.
“I was joking with somebody in the truck earlier,” Earnhardt said. “I was sitting in a seat up in the lounge, and they asked me if that was going to be my seat, and I told them I'm not exactly sure where my seat is yet, it's sort of floating around. That's the way I feel about my team. Everybody is still learning; the guys are still learning who does what, what their personalities are.
“It's been fun getting to know Steve more. He's got a great personality, a lot of energy, and hopefully I can depend on that energy in certain times throughout certain races.”
NASCAR Preseason Thunder will continue on Friday and Saturday. For tickets, call 1-800-PITSHOP or visit www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com