DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. The new tires for the Daytona 500 will be given their first major test Thursday, and Ryan Newman hopes he learns the secret to managing them.
''We're trying to get the feel of the car and understand what the draft is going to be like and what the new tires are going to do,'' said Newman, winner of a series-high eight races last season and one of the favorites to take the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.
Two 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway should serve as a preview to the season-opener Sunday. With tire wear expected to play a major role in the 46th edition of stock car racing's premier event, Newman knows finding the right chassis setup is extremely important.
''We've tried a few things,'' he said on the eve of the 50-lap events that set most positions for the 500. ''Some of them didn't work, but we learned from them.
''You can feel the tires falling off and it sounds like a lot of people are struggling with it.''
Goodyear has brought a slightly harder right side tire to Daytona this year.
That has given the cars a different feel making the drivers think the rear end wants to slide out from under them in the turns. In response, the teams have changed the setup of the cars, making the right front tires wear badly.
Ben Leslie, crew chief for Ricky Rudd, one of the fastest drivers here this week, said the tires will make just 35 or 36 laps about as far as a tank of gas will allow.
But there are no guarantees.
''If your car is not handling good, you're either going to be forced to take a chance and hope that tire doesn't blow out because of excessive wear, or you'll have to bite the bullet and pit before you actually have to for fuel,'' Leslie said.
Goodyear spokesman Greg Stucker said the company's engineers have worked with the teams in practice to help them understand what the drivers are feeling on the track.
''The teams actually freed the cars up for this afternoon, the cars feel better, the tires are living and I think the whole package is nicer,'' Stucker said. ''I think tomorrow will be a pretty good indicator of what we're going to see on Sunday.''
Greg Biffle and Elliott Sadler locked in the first two starting spots in the 500 with the fastest laps in last Sunday's pole qualifying. Each will start from the pole in one of the twins, although it doesn't matter where either finishes.
''My main goal tomorrow is to stay out of trouble,'' said 500 pole winner Biffle. ''I'd like to stay out front as much as I can.''
And, of course, he is wondering how the tires will work.
''Tires are a big deal,'' Biffle said. ''The guy's car that is handling the best is the one that is going to win Thursday and Sunday.''
The 125s will set positions 3-30 for the 500 14 from each. Other criteria will be used to fill the final 13 spots in the field.
Michael Waltrip, the defending Daytona 500 champion and winner of two of the last three, was 30th fastest among the 45 drivers who practiced Wednesday. But he wasn't worried about tires or anything else.
''We feel we've got the car exactly the way I want it,'' Waltrip said. ''Every since we rolled the car out on the track during the test session in January, we've been following a plan. That is to make our car handle as well as it can and run as fast as it can in race configuration.
''If you win or things go the way you want them in the 125s, you're ready. If it doesn't go the way you want it to, you've got another couple of practices to work on it and get it better for Sunday.''
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