CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Nextel Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson had developed a kind of love affair with Lowe's Motor Speedway. And it was true love. He loved more than its manicured grounds and amenities; he loved every bump and crevice in its asphalt surface.
"It gave it character," said Johnson, who has won the past two Coca-Cola 600s and three of the past four races overall on this 1.5-mile speedway. "And my style and [crew chief Chad Knaus'] setups were perfect for the track. But I've never been so bold as to say it's my race."
And now, he said, history may not matter at all. When the 600 takes the green flag at 5:15 p.m. today, Johnson and the rest of the 43-car field will be looking at a whole new set of circumstances.
During the offseason, the racetrack surface was ground and partially resurfaced, flattening and smoothing those character-making bumps.
"We're still trying to understand the race track," said Johnson of how he feels about the new surface and his chances for a third straight 600 victory. "The surface has changed, but we're making great strides. I'm actually very happy."
That last remark may not be good news for the rest of the field. And the resurfacing project may not be immediate good news for race fans watching this race.
After qualifying Thursday night, a number of drivers complained about a possible deterioration of competition that could be the immediate result of the track changes.
"I'm not saying it's too fast safety-wise," said Gordon, who was second quickest during qualifying and one of 18 drivers who broke the previous track record. "But we are going too fast to put on a good race.
"In my opinion one of the reasons we cut the spoilers and went to softer tires was to cut the speeds and create more passing. What they've done here goes in exactly the opposite direction. The cars are faster. The tires are harder and have great grip."
Gordon said that means drivers who didn't run as well here are going to run better and drivers like Johnson, who raced well here because they had figured out how to handle the bumps have been thrown off a bit.
Third-place qualifier Matt Kenseth said the speedway's promoters made the changes in an effort to create more side-by-side racing and tighter competition, not less, but may have to wait to see that happen.
"It's like when they paved Atlanta awhile back and I was watching the race from home," said Kenseth, who drives the No. 17 Ford. " I fell asleep in the middle of it. But now, it's one of the most exciting places to race as the grip has gone away. That might happen here. But right now passing will be difficult."
Drivers said turns 3 and 4 used to be one of the great corners on the circuit, a stretch of track where a driver could run the bottom, the middle and the top. They can't now. In Turn 2, there used to be a bottom line, but none on top. Now there's a top groove and none on the bottom.
Still, not everyone agrees. Newman, who won the pole for today's race with an impressive run of 192.988 mph in his No. 12 Dodge, said he would probably be complaining, too, if he had qualified third or fifth. But, as it is, he sees only positives: a 60 percent smoother racetrack, good grip and great tire wear.
"It's at least a half-second faster," he said. "Turns 1 and 2 make it tougher to pass. But it's good."
Newman said yesterday that he will start on the outside of the front row, exercising the rarely used pole sitter's prerogative of choosing his front row position.
The decision is expected to give him a better line in to the first turn, but Newman may have more to worry about. At the end of practice yesterday, he felt an unidentified vibration.
"We don't know if it was the engine, tires or what," said crew chief Matt Borland. "It got better afterward. Usually it doesn't get better. ... Usually if the engine is vibrating, it's going to go and it's going to go pretty soon. [We've] torn everything down. Everything looks as good as normal. We're still looking. By [today] we'll either change it or give it a blessing and send it on its way."
If the team changes the engine, Newman will start at the back of the field. With 600 miles to race, he should have time to recover.
But, for now, the 600 sounds much the same as it always has with the field's drivers holding their own, unique positions.
"Right now the track is smooth and fast," Kenseth said. "It's not a disaster. We'll just have to wait until after 600 miles to see what happens."
Johnson, who turned in the fastest lap(185.414 mph) during yesterday's two final practice sessions, agreed with that.
"This was my favorite racetrack," he said. "I hope it will be again."
Coca-Cola 600 lineup
At Concord, N.C.
(Car number in parentheses)
1. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 192.988. 2. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 191.925. 3. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 191.259. 4. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 190.779. 5. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 190.739. 6. (5) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 190.685. 7. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 190.490. 8. (0) Mike Bliss, Chevrolet, 190.355. 9. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 190.114. 10. (38) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 189.980.
11. (42) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 189.860. 12. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford, 189.800. 13. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 189.580. 14. (25) Brian Vickers, Chevrolet, 189.527. 15. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 189.474. 16. (21) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 189.328. 17. (50) Jimmy Spencer, Dodge, 189.281. 18. (77) Travis Kvapil, Dodge, 189.241. 19. (09) Johnny Sauter, Dodge, 189.168. 20. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 189.122.
21. (49) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 189.109. 22. (23) Mike Skinner, Dodge, 189.009. 23. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 188.844. 24. (41) Casey Mears, Dodge, 188.831. 25. (7) Robby Gordon, Chevrolet, 188.739. 26. (44) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 188.719. 27. (91) Bill Elliott, Dodge, 188.646. 28. (10) Scott Riggs, Chevrolet, 188.633. 29. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 188.587. 30. (1) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 188.501.
31. (07) Dave Blaney, Chevrolet, 188.363. 32. (22) Scott Wimmer, Dodge, 188.088. 33. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 187.976. 34. (18) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet, 187.859. 35. (97) Kurt Busch, Ford, 187.852. 36. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 187.617. 37. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 187.598. 38. (01) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 187.383. 39. (43) Jeff Green, Dodge, 187.110. 40. (31) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, owner points.
41. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, owner points. 42. (4) Mike Wallace, Chevrolet, owner points. 43. (37) Kevin Lepage, Dodge, 188.278.
Failed to qualify
44. (11) Jason Leffler, Chevrolet, 187.611. 45. (32) Bobby Hamilton Jr., Chevrolet, 186.968. 46. (66) Hermie Sadler, Ford, 186.819. 47. (36) Boris Said, Chevrolet, 185.739. 48. (34) Jeff Fuller, Chevrolet, 185.420. 49. (00) Carl Long, Chevrolet, 185.211.