JOLIET, Ill. -- Rookie Casey Atwood was in his element Thursday when practice began for the inaugural Tropicana 400.
''I do this stuff every week,'' Atwood said, referring to learning a new race track. ''Now everyone is getting a taste of what the rookies face every week.''
The Winston Cup competitors, many of them getting their first look at the new Chicagoland Speedway's 1.5-mile, D-shaped tri-oval, were generally impressed with the layout and the speed at the $130 million facility about 40 miles southwest of Chicago.
''It's going to be exceptionally fast, especially for this inaugural race,'' said Ricky Rudd, who was eighth overall at 182.389 mph.
''The track has a tremendous amount of grip,'' he added. ''Generally, new race tracks have their best speed when they're first built. The winters are pretty severe here and I think the next time we come back I don't believe the speeds will be as quick because the track will have weathered in.''
Rudd compared the new Chicagoland track to the similar tri-oval at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
''It was extremely fast at first, too fast,'' he said. ''Then a couple of winters set in and the track gave up a little grip to where now you don't hear anybody complaining about the speeds.''
Mark Martin's Ford led the speed parade on Thursday at 183.867 mph, followed by the Chevrolet of Jerry Nadeau at 183.399, the Taurus of Jimmy Spencer at 183.231, Bill Elliott's Dodge at 182.877, the Fords of rookie Kurt Busch at 182.531 and Rusty Wallace at 182.506, and the Monte Carlo of Joe Nemechek at 182.395. Following Rudd and rounding out the top 10 were the Chevys of teammates Mike Skinner at 182.352 and rookie Kevin Harvick at 182.334.
Wallace, who was fastest among the drivers who tested here, was happy that his fast lap in the first of the two practice sessions nearly duplicated his quick lap in testing.
''I'm happy with my speed for qualifying now and the way the car feels,'' the 1989 series champion said. ''We worked on our race setup the last hour and a half.''
Rudd didn't have Wallace's experience on the track, but he was also pleased.
''I didn't even drive around it in a street car, but we've adapted pretty quickly,'' he said. ''It's not a real difficult track. It's not like going to a road course that you've never been to before. The track is pretty user-friendly.''
Atwood, well down the speed chart with his top lap of 181.196 in a Dodge, actually found the new layout to be a bit unusual.
''It's a weird shape,'' he said. ''The back straightaway isn't even straight. It's like you're in a full circle all the time. It reminds me of Las Vegas a little bit, but it's a little more banked.''
Atwood said the long day of practice probably negated any advantage obtained by drivers who tested here.
''I think you're going to see the same results,'' he said. ''The people who are normally fast, whether they tested or not, will be fast tomorrow in qualifying.''
One of those is likely to be series points leader and three-time champion Jeff Gordon, who generally thrives on new tracks.
Although Gordon was only 12th fastest on Thursday (182.260), he is expected to be a factor in Friday's qualifying that will determine the 43-car field for Sunday's race.
Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief, said, ''Since we tested here, we had some ideas, but the track is going to change a lot. It's already gone through a lot of changes just sitting over the last month or so.''
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