LAS VEGAS, Nev. The preliminaries are over. Now it's time to see if NASCAR's rules changes will make as much difference as the sport hopes.
This weekend will offer the first real test of whether a shortened rear spoiler and softer tires will result in more passing on intermediate tracks like the 1 1/2-mile oval Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
More passing translates to more excitement, NASCAR figures.
''The performance of the tires has always fallen off at Vegas, but the new tire is falling off a little bit more,'' said 2002 series champion Tony Stewart.
He was among more than 50 Nextel Cup and Busch Series drivers who tested here in January to try to get comfortable with the changes.
''It's what a lot of us drivers have wanted for a long time, because the fuel mileage and track position games we saw played last year have been taken out of the equation,'' Stewart added.
That's exactly what NASCAR had in mind in the offseason when it cut three-quarters of an inch from the rear spoilers to reduce downforce, making the cars harder to drive in the corners. At the same time, NASCAR asked Goodyear to provide softer tires.
''We're trying to get our arms around the downforce and aerodynamics of the race cars and ultimately bring those numbers down,'' Nextel Cup director John Darby said. ''We're going in the right direction, if the test out here is any indication.''
The season-opening Daytona 500 was a restrictor-plate race, where the rear spoiler height was actually increased a half-inch from last year to curb speeds at one of NASCAR's fastest tracks. The tire Goodyear brought to Daytona was a little harder.
And, two weeks ago on the 1.017-mile oval at Rockingham, the tire was virtually the same as what was used in November. The abrasive track at The Rock has always been hard on tires, anyway.
But the changes are expected to be most noticeable at tracks such as Las Vegas, the site of Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400: 1 1/2- or 2-mile ovals that make up more than a third of the 36-race Cup schedule.
''It's a great idea,'' Stewart said. ''Now we have to budget our tires. We can't go out there and just run flat out the whole time, and with that comes a lot more passing.
''Guys who get in too big of a hurry and go out and abuse their tires early in a run will get passed by guys at the end of a run because they're more patient.''
In the last few seasons, harder tires and big spoilers made the cars ''aero dependent,'' a term describing handling in traffic that made passing difficult.
That promoted strategies such as taking two tires or no tires on pit stops to gain track position, or simply trying to make gas last longer.
Stewart thinks the latest changes should make a difference.
''When it was like that a few years ago, you saw a lot more passing, and the racing just seemed to be better all around,'' he said. ''By taking some downforce away from us and giving us some softer tires, it's given us a combination that's allowed us to race.''
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who has won at Las Vegas, also likes the changes.
''The new tires will benefit the teams with good communication.'' Gordon said. ''I believe we're one of those teams.
''The track grooves are beginning to open up here, so we should be able to run low or up a couple of grooves once the tires begin to fall off. The key will be communicating exactly what the car is doing to your crew.''
Jimmie Johnson, one of Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammates, said the testing in January made it clear that NASCAR accomplished what it set out to do.
''They've reached that goal,'' Johnson said. ''It's going to make the race in Las Vegas a lot different from what we've seen here in the past.''
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