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Cup drivers say Vegas track wasn't fit

They contend the new racing surface and tire maker's changes put them in harm's way.

March 13, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Bruton Smith says he believes he knows what NASCAR fans want in a racetrack, which explains why the billionaire's company spent more than $20 million to rebuild the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The overhaul's centerpiece is the infield "Neon Garage," a 32,000-square-foot complex with an entertainment stage and two-level garage where fans can watch the Nextel Cup teams at work.

Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. also changed the 1.5-mile track to give fans faster and more side-by-side racing, repaving the oval and raising the banking to 20 degrees from 12. Pit road was moved 275 feet closer to the main grandstands.

His strategy seemed to pay off. Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 drew about 156,000, who saw 28 lead changes among 11 drivers -- up from 22 lead changes a year earlier -- before Jimmie Johnson won for the third consecutive year.

But what might be a sound business proposition for Smith also ran headlong into the ire of Tony Stewart and several other Cup drivers.

They spent most of the weekend griping that the upgrade had turned the track into a monster. They said the new racing surface, together with subsequent changes made by tire maker Goodyear and NASCAR to control the higher speeds, had created a risky situation.

After the Busch series race Saturday -- in which 18 drivers spun out, hit the wall or hit each other to trigger a track-record 12 caution periods -- many braced for another crash-fest Sunday.

It wasn't as bad as they had feared, but there were nine accidents involving a dozen cars, and even the top two finishers -- Johnson and Jeff Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate -- said they struggled to keep control of their Chevrolets.

"You're going to get reaction from the drivers when you do something to the track," and the repaving initially "does make the cars more difficult to drive," acknowledged H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Speedway Motorsports.

"You just have to go through the aging process" that gives the asphalt more grip and makes the speedway less troublesome, he said.

Stewart wasn't so patient. After finishing third in Saturday's Busch race, he stepped into Smith's new media center and unloaded: "If you look in the last 36 hours and look how many cars got crashed, if I were a car owner, I would send a bill to the racetrack," the two-time Cup champion said.

"They're the ones that started the chain of events," added Stewart, who drives the No. 20 Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing. "It's just frustrating. There is no grip out there. Look how many top-10 teams and top-10 drivers crashed today. What are they going to say, we all forgot how to drive?"

Criticism comes easy to the outspoken Stewart. But Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing said racing here was like driving on "black ice," and his teammate, Matt Kenseth, called it "treacherous."

When the Cup teams tested here in January, speeds soared, compared with those on the old layout. Drivers were averaging 190 mph or higher; the previous track record was about 175 mph.

That made NASCAR and tire maker Goodyear nervous, because the high speeds were putting tremendous loads on the tires, posing blowout possibilities that could cause crashes.

So Goodyear brought a harder tire to Las Vegas. But, drivers said, the tires were so stiff that they couldn't get enough grip to control their cars, especially on the newly laid asphalt.

After Sunday's race, Johnson and Gordon called on stock car racing to find ways to avoid a repeat of what many called a weekend in "Spin City." More planning and testing are necessary, they said.

"We have made these cars go a lot faster," Gordon said, adding that NASCAR must "make sure we don't come back [to Las Vegas] like this."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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