Monday, September 10, 2007

NASCAR officials monitor testing for Taladega race

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- More than 50 Nextel Cup race teams tested the Car of Tomorrow at Talladega Superspeedway on Monday, the first of a two-day warmup for the COT's first restrictor-plate race.

The session was divided into two parts: single-car runs in the morning, and a four-hour drafting session in the afternoon. NASCAR is phasing the COT into competition this season, and it makes its Talladega debut next month in a Chase for the Nextel Cup championship event.

NASCAR officials closely monitored the session, trying to find the right restrictor-plate to use to create a balance between speed and safety for the fastest track on the circuit.

"I know there is a bigger plate in this car because it has so much more drag," driver Dave Blaney said. "NASCAR will make the speeds in these cars whatever they want it to be. They could go 210 [mph] or they can go 180."

Johnny Sauter turned the fastest lap of the day at 196.165 mph in a Chevrolet, and was followed by Martin Truex Jr.'s mark of 195.564 in another Chevrolet.

David Stremme was third at 194.884 to lead a Dodge trio of Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Former Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve was the fastest Toyota at 194.326, and Carl Edwards had the fastest Ford at 193.944.

Drivers had mixed reviews on the different things NASCAR tried.

"There are packages that would really let the cars suck up well and create a lot of passing," said defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who also tested the CoT at Talladega last October. "The problem is it pushes that threshold for the speed up too high, and then we have to come down on the restrictor plate and other things to get the cars back where they need to be speed-wise.

"When we had the cars at the right speed for safety, it took out some of the passing. So I'm hopeful that NASCAR [can] find a little bit better drafting package as a whole here, where we can still have passing but keep the speeds down where they need to be."

Denny Hamlin said he anticipates that the COT will result in even tighter racing than usual at Talladega, which usually produces multiple lead changes anyway because of the pack racing created by the restrictor plates.

"It's tough to say how the drivers are going to take it, but the way the cars are set up and the big hole they punch in the air, it should be way wilder than anything we've ever seen here," Hamlin said. "I'd say it's going to be a lot like the Truck [Series] races, where they talk about how big the closing rate is.

"I really don't see that the cars are going to be pulling apart very much. I think these cars are going to punch such a big hole in the air that we're really going to be stuck together like glue, and if one guy makes a mistake, it could be a big one."

For Villeneuve, who is moving to NASCAR next season, the plate racing was an eye-opening experience. The Canadian said he was warned before the test session about what to expect during the close-quarter drafting practice, which is vastly different from the style of racing he is accustomed to in F1.

"I've been told that I will be wondering what this bunch of lunatics is doing out there running so close to each other the whole time," Villeneuve said. "Just like kids I suppose. But it should be fun. I am probably going to stay in the back and watch what happens."

He was patient during the draft session, staying well behind a group of 11 cars for nearly a dozen laps before finally sneaking into the pack and running two-wide for a few trips around the 2.66-mile trioval.

The practice was briefly halted late in the afternoon when Reed Sorenson hit the wall in Turn 2. The test continues Tuesday.

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