DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Blue skies, warm air. Cars on the race track.
That's how the 2011 edition of NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Daytona kicked off last Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, the first of MWR's two-day NASCAR Sprint Cup Series test.
At stake are preparations for the 53rd Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 20 and important data-gathering on the track's brand-new asphalt surface.
And -- oh yeah -- anticipation.
"It's going to be wild," said No. 56 NAPA Toyota Martin Truex Jr. of the Daytona 500, the series' traditional season opener. "It's going to be fun. I love racing here. Here and Talladega (Superspeedway) are some of the (most fun) races for us as drivers until you get in a wreck, and then you're just pissed off, and you're pissed off until you come back and hoping to finish the next one."
Last year's repave -- only the second at 2.5-mile Daytona and the first since 1978 -- began after the NASCAR Sprint Cup event on July 3 and ended in early December. Aside from first laps on new asphalt, Thursday also marked the first day of at-track work for new crews, new team members and new personnel combinations. Also, the getting-to-know-you process with several technical changes: NASCAR Sprint Cup cars are sporting a reconfigure splitter and will use Sunoco Green E15 fuel in 2011.
Truex drafted in the afternoon with teammate David Reutimann and the MWR cars topped the speed charts.
But his work wasn't limited to just the track.
Truex visited the media center during his lunch hour where he talked to the assembled journalists about the test and the upcoming season.
On Thursday night, Truex attended Pre-season Thunder Fanfest signing autographs for an hour in the infield and answered questions on stage.
Rain plagued the second day.
Jet dryers, not stock cars, steamed across the track all Friday morning, beating back moisture from overnight storms.
The cars roared to life early in the afternoon, hitting the track for the second day.
Truex and the NAPA team spent their limited time on the track working on single car qualifying runs.
"We kind of struggled on those runs," said Truex who spoke to USA Today's Nate Ryan for 20 minutes during the rain delay. "We know what we have to work on. Overall we were happy in the draft but we continue to search for speed when we are alone on the track."
While the action heated up late on-track, plenty preceded it. Several drivers visited Daytona's infield media center during the morning delay, followed by NASCAR President Mike Helton, Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton and Managing Director of Competition John Darby, who participated in an update session during Friday's scheduled lunch break.
Among the topics: Helton confirmed that drivers now have the opportunity to pick the national series where they want to contend for a championship.
Expect drivers to continue to compete in all three national series, he said, but declaring a championship stake in one series means broadening opportunities for future stars.
"The hope for this is.there is a level of focus and a level of exposure offered to younger drivers who have personalities that deserve to get attention and be developed along the way [in the NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series]," Helton said.
Possible changes to the NASCAR points system also were a discussion topic. Helton said it's an ongoing process, but an enjoyable one.
"The main goal is to get one that's just easier to understand and simpler, but you have to do that with credibility around the championship," he said. "And we're getting a lot of great input from the drivers about the tweaks that would go along with something like that, so it's actually been fun to work on."