LAS VEGAS Michael Waltrip is trying to keep an open mind about the slew of changes NASCAR has thrown at the teams.
Waltrip was among more than 20 Nextel Cup and Busch Series drivers taking part in the first of four days of testing this week on the 1 1/2-mile oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
''I think change is great, especially with the way our sport has historically addressed change methodically and with a lot of information going into the decision.,'' Waltrip said Monday after several hours testing his Busch car.
This, however, is the biggest round of changes in a single season in NASCAR's history.
The changes in Cup include new tires intended to wear out more quickly than the previous tire, shorter rear spoilers to decrease downforce on the back of the car, and aerodynamic changes to the bodies that have forced teams to rebuild the cars they will race on the 1 1/2- and 2-mile ovals about one-third of the schedule.
The only change for the Busch cars is the softer tire, but Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, said he could tell the difference almost immediately.
''From what I can tell, there will definitely be less gas-and-gos,'' Waltrip said, referring to the strategy used by many top teams the past few years to change only two tires or run more than one stint between gas stops on the same tires.
''The tire is good in the beginning and it's fine at the end. It just seems to me that there's more give-up than usual. At Vegas, you always have a lot of give-up, that's nothing highly unusual. But, what I'm experiencing today with my car, you can run your good times for a couple laps and then they fall off in a hurry.
''I hope it will make the cars more drivable when the tires are new. We really struggle with getting our cars so loose on new tires so that they don't start pushing when the tires get old. So, we're looking for more consistency where we can put a setup under the car so that when the tires are new we can just go hard and race from the get-go instead of slipping and sliding around and having to stay clear of other cars because the cars are so loose the first 10 or 15 laps.''
Tommy Baldwin, crew chief for Cup rookie Kasey Kahne, said the transition so far has been pretty smooth, even for his inexperienced driver.
''Everybody's worked very hard at getting that aero balance back to where it was before this template change,'' Baldwin said. ''The tires are going to help us in the beginning.
''We will have to work on aero grip, we just have to find it in different areas. It's still a key balance in making the car go fast. ... We're all faced with the same things and I don't think it's going to be as drastic of a change as everybody's thinking.''
Baldwin said he doesn't expect the competition to change much, if at all.
''You'll still have the same guys running up front, the same guys in mid-pack and the same guys running in the back as you did in the past,'' he said.
NASCAR's stated reason for all the changes for 2004 is to take the emphasis off pit strategy and fuel conservation and to switch the emphasis from the aerodynamic devices on the outside of the car to mechanical grip under the car.
But Veteran racer Kenny Schrader isn't so sure all the changes will work.
''It's just so much harder to pass now, not because of tires and one-groove stuff, but just because there's 35 very good cars out there,'' he said.
The cars remain in their 2003 configurations for the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 15, and the race the following week on North Carolina Speedway's abrasive 1.017-mile oval already ate up tires and put little emphasis on aerodynamics. So, the race March 7 at Las Vegas will be the first race test for all the changes.
''Daytona is Daytona and Rockingham will still be the same old Rockingham so, really, Vegas and Atlanta (on March 14) are the first two races where we'll have to start working on different strategies, if there are any,'' Baldwin said.
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