COLUMBIA, S.C. – Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman not only found a smoother surface this week at Darlington Raceway, they found about 18 more mph.
Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevrolet, Biffle’s Roush Fenway Racing Ford and Newman’s Penske Racing Dodge took part in a Goodyear Tire test session at Darlington, which had just finished repaving its 58-year-old layout for the first time in 13 years.
Track president Chris Browning said all three racers were unofficially hitting 200 mph at the end of Darlington’s backstretch. Browning had said data from a tire test last year that showed an unofficial top speed of 182 mph.
“It is a big jump in speed,” Browning said by phone Thursday. “It got our attention. It got the drivers’ attention.”
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There were plenty of reasons for the increase, Browning said.
First, the test featured three Darlington experts – Gordon’s won seven times at the track, Biffle has two wins, and Daytona 500 winner Newman’s won a pole in 2003 and finished in the top five four of the past five events here.
Second, the weather was cool and sunny.
And third, engineers could not recreate the same tire-chewing, abrasiveness in the surface Darlington’s known for.
“The old humps and bumps are gone,” said Gordon, who won last May at Darlington. “It’s still Darlington. It’s just a lot smoother and a lot faster.”
Could that make it less safe?
Browning doesn’t think so. He said much depends on the type of tire Goodyear brings to the Dodge Challenger 500 on May 10. Browning said Goodyear officials are still studying the test data.
While the results were both breathtaking and bracing, Browning said: “It’s in the drivers’ hands to make (the race) what it is.”
The repaving was part of a $10 million capital improvements project that also included a new infield access tunnel. Darlington’s racing line had been paved about a month before the test, Browning said. It will take about another month to finish the project’s odds and ends.
The last time Darlington’s surface was repaved in 1995, Ward Burton set a qualifying mark of 173.797 mph at the first race on the new surface, the 1996 Transouth Financial 400.
The average speeds run during the test were “a tick over 175,” so a new pole record is possible this Mother’s Day weekend , Browning said.
Darlington’s track race record of 139.958 mph was set by the late “Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt, at the Transouth Financial 500 in 1993. It was one of Earnhardt’s nine Darlington victories, second only to David Pearson’s record of 10.
Darlington is currently hosting a driving school the next eight days that Browning says will put the equivalent of 16,417 laps on the 1.366-mile oval. Other than that, “conditions shouldn’t really change much in the next two months,” he said.
Browning lobbied NASCAR to hold one of its seven allowed test sessions at the “Lady in Black.” But Browning’s wish was voted down, in part in, he says he was told by crew chiefs, because Darlington’s unique nature means information gained here could not benefit race teams on other tracks.
That just means there’ll be a lot of fact finding those first few laps in May.
“I’m happy with the new surface. They have done a nice job,” Biffle said this week. “I was pretty impressed with how smooth it was.”
Browning got good reviews of the paving from the three testers and even had Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and others take an SUV out for a spin.
“They were thumbs up and very complimentary,” Browning said. “It’s a relief to be honest with you because you really don’t know how these things are going to turn out.”
At Darlington, that could mean a May with faster speeds than anyone imagined.