By their own collective admission, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers did not know what to expect Friday when they hit the track at Texas Motor Speedway
“I’ll be a little bit curious to see who is going to be the brave soul that goes on track first today,” Buescher said before Friday’s first practice on the newly repaved, reconfigured 1.5-mile track. “It won’t be me. I’ll kind of sit back and watch and see how it goes.”
It didn’t go well for several drivers.
Less than two minutes into the practice session, the only one held Friday for the Cup drivers who will battle in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (1:30 p.m. on FOX), Denny Hamlin went for a spin and a long slide in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Before the practice was over, Kyle Busch – Hamlin’s JGR teammate – did the same in his No 18 Toyota.
Then in the last 23 minutes of the lengthy two-hour, 25-minute practice, both Erik Jones and Chase Elliott lost control of their cars and hit the wall hard. Unlike Hamlin and Busch, Jones and Elliott suffered major damage to their cars and had to go to backups before Friday qualifying.
Although Jones wrecked entering Turn 3, the trouble area for even drivers who were able to hold onto their cars on Friday seemed to be mostly in the reconfigured areas in Turns 1 and 2.
“I just got out of the groove there off (Turn) 2 and got too high and got the wall,” Elliott said. “Then had too much wheel in it going the other way, so just a mistake on my end. I hate it.”
The new asphalt is slick and tricky. The reconfigured Turns 1 and 2 have been widened from 60 feet to 80 feet – but haven’t been properly rubbered in yet, according to the drivers, leaving only a narrow groove to run in. Get outside that and it likely will be disastrous.
“It’s treacherous,” said Trevor Bayne, driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. “It will bite you.”
Jimmie Johnson has won six times overall at Texas, including four of the last seven and five of the last nine races. But he said it’s a “clean slate” for everyone this weekend, himself included.
The seven-time series champion was so unsure of what to expect coming in that he went for a ride on the track in a rental car on Thursday night.
“We will definitely tip-toe our way into it,” Johnson said. “Past history of this track, especially in (Turns) 3 and 4, it looks pretty similar. I was out there in a rental car, and (Turns) 1 and 2 are way different. So it’s just trial and error right now.”
That proved to be evident shortly thereafter when Johnson lost control of his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the first round of qualifying, going for a long slide himself and ending any chance he had of winning the pole. He will start 24th Sunday.
Johnson said that while it’s going to be a huge challenge figuring out the best way to negotiate the new Turns 1 and 2 on Sunday, it’s the new asphalt itself that will present the most daunting challenge for the drivers.
“Tire wear has been so high here in the past,” Johnson said. “Any caution, you would take tires. Otherwise you would be lapped right away — and now we won’t have that issue.
“We will probably scuff every set of tires that NASCAR will give us. We might put cold tires on, but they are not going to be worn out. You might have a little speed on the front side of the run with cold right-side tires. I doubt we will put many left-side sets on.
“So I think the asphalt itself is going to be a bigger factor in this first race. As time goes on I think the extra real estate we have in (Turns) 1 and 2 will become more the story, but getting started it’s going to be tire-wear-related and the asphalt.”
As for advice for himself and other drivers going forward the remainder of this weekend, which will include a final practice at noon ET Saturday on FS2, Elliott offered this after hitting the wall in Friday’s session.
“Don’t do what I just did,” he said.