NASCAR’s best overcome perils
But it wasn’t. “I predicted much more gloom and doom than this,” Mark Martin said. “I want to give a shout out to all the drivers – they were extremely cautious. Very smart driving, as smart as I’ve ever seen these guys drive under all the pressure that they’re under. They all did a great job, and it wasn’t nearly as much of a disaster as I thought it was going to be.” So what happened to create such dire predictions? Smith wanted better racing, along with a fan experience that tops anything in NASCAR. So he pumped millions of dollars into the facility, and on-track changes that added 8 degrees of banking and moved pit road. But the changes pushed speeds over 200 mph during the January test session, and Goodyear had to create a tire strong enough to withstand the loads. The tire company selected a hard compound for the left side tires, which infuriated drivers who generally prefer a softer tire that sticks to the surface. The harder tire eliminated any grip, turning every lap of Sunday’s race into a concentrated effort not to wreck. There were slips, slides and spins and even winner Jimmie Johnson had to save his car from making a sharp right-hand turn into the wall. “There were like top-10 saves, there were some saves that were miraculous,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “There were a lot of guys getting out of control.” But there also was good racing – which is all Smith wanted to begin with. NASCAR’s post-race statistics showed that passing at Las Vegas was up 75 percent from a year ago, with 1,123 passes under the green flag compared with 898 in 2006. And the harder tire created pit strategy that has been missing of late. Crew chiefs had to gamble during stops – two tires or four? Right sides or lefts? “It was a day of survival,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! LAS VEGAS – Hours before the race, Brett Bodine gave a pace-car ride around reconfigured Las Vegas Motor Speedway. At speeds reaching 130 mph, the former NASCAR driver pointed out the trouble spots: bumps in the track surface, uneven lines in the asphalt, tricky transitions in and out of the banked turns and a curved pit lane unlike anything else on the circuit. When the tour was over, Bodine’s passengers were convinced Sunday’s race was going to be a wreck fest. “Nah, it will be fine,” he predicted. “The talent level in this group is too good to let that happen.” Bodine was right. There were only nine cautions during the Nextel Cup race, a testament to the skill and adaptability of NASCAR’s top drivers. But it may have created a mirage masking the event’s many problems. “With the exception of a couple of guys, all the drivers did a great job of give-and-take,” said two-time series champion Tony Stewart, a critic of the track changes and the tire Goodyear forced the teams to use. “I could see situations in front of me and behind me where everybody was giving each other room and trying to be courteous to each other. I think the drivers made the best out of a bad situation here.” After the Busch Series race Saturday, plagued by a record 12 cautions, top drivers issued stern warnings. Matt Kenseth called the tires treacherous and Greg Biffle said he felt as if he were driving on black ice. Kasey Kahne said every lap was a battle not to wreck, and Stewart criticized LVMS owner Bruton Smith, general manager Chris Powell and Goodyear for creating a frightening experience for everyone.