Using a diamond grinder to even out rough patches in the asphalt at Lowe's Motor Speedway produced calamitous results last spring. Drivers set record speeds on the 1.5-mile oval as their stockcars zoomed over the smooth-as-ice surface, but they struggled to maintain control when they hit spots on the track that hadn't been smoothed. The result was a crash-fest that brought the Coca-Cola 600 to a crawl, taking 5 hours 13 minutes to complete as the race was slowed for a record 22 cautions.
With anxiety running high as NASCAR's Nextel Cup circuit returned to Lowe's for this weekend's UAW-GM 500, track officials decided to "re-grind" the entire oval to ensure a uniform racing surface. Then, to help the cars stick to the track better, they hauled out a contraption called the Texas Tire Monster -- a 12-wheel trailer that drags a dozen Goodyear tires behind it -- and drove it countless laps around the oval. The idea behind the "Monster," devised by engineers at Texas Motor Speedway, is to coat the asphalt with rubber by scraping used tires over it. The result helps racecars stick, rather than skid.
Based on Thursday's qualifying, the Monster did its job -- perhaps all too well, depending who's talking.
Grip wasn't a problem as drivers took turns running fast laps around the oval to set the starting order for Saturday's UAW-GM 500. Thanks to the new grip, in fact, speeds jumped even higher, with Elliott Sadler setting a track record in his No. 38 Ford to win the pole with his lap of 193.216 miles per hour.
"'Bout scared me half to death," said Sadler, 30, of Emporia, Va. "I'm glad it's over with. Pretty cool to run a fast lap like that."
Starting alongside Sadler will be Ryan Newman, the only other driver to top 193 mph (193.126). Newman held the previous record for the track's fastest lap (192.988 mph), set in May. Jimmie Johnson will line up third in his Chevrolet (192.850) but must drop to the rear at the start because he blew an engine during practice.
Drivers had two practice sessions Thursday to fine-tune their cars' handling and get used to the revamped surface. While nearly everyone said track officials had succeeded in improving grip, not everyone was comfortable with the result, arguing that too much grip was a bad thing because it enables cars to go faster than drivers and tires can handle. When cars have less grip, drivers naturally lift on the throttle to keep from spinning out.
"I'm kind of scared on how much grip is out there right now," Sadler said. "It's too much grip for this racetrack. I liked it better two years ago when you slid around a lot."
Said veteran racer Mark Martin: "Right now it rolls the eyes back in your head, it's so fast. It's too fast. There's no need is us going as fast as we're going in these cars around here. "
The escalation of speed has been staggering since the surface was retooled. Before that, the fastest lap at Lowe's was 188.877 mph, set in October 2004. On Thursday 37 cars topped that speed; 24 cars topped 190 mph.
"It's extremely fast, but I'm having fun with it," said Carl Edwards. "Until I hit something, I'll enjoy it."