NORMAN — By Stephen Hawkins
FORT WORTH, Texas — One of the key moments in the development of NASCAR’s new Sprint Cup car came in a multicar test at Texas last fall.
Now six races into the first season with the new model cars, they get to race on that 11⁄2-mile high-banked track Saturday night.
“Texas really was one of the pivotal moments of the development of this car and the package that we handed off to the teams to race this year, ‘’ Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, said Thursday.
“I think we’re off to a pretty good start for the year for the package that we have. ‘It seems to me that the teams are pretty happy with what they have been handed off to start with.”
The new models look more like their passenger car counterparts. And each of the three manufacturers has a car in the top four of the Sprint Cup standings.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are first and third, respectively, in Chevrolets. Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski is second in a Ford, and Kyle Busch fourth in a Toyota.
“Every weekend is a big weekend right now for our sport and this new car. We have been very fortunate over the last two or three races to have great runs. Not just as the 2 team, but as the sport,” Keselowski said. “I think we have seen compelling racing and great battles. I think the car is doing as well as you can expect it to coming out of the gate.”
There were two testing sessions Thursday, providing more than three extra hours on the Texas track.
Greg Biffle, the defending race winner, turned the fastest lap in those sessions at 192.864 mph. That was faster than the qualifying speed for both Cup races at Texas last year — Martin Truex in the spring race (190.369 mph) and Jimmie Johnson (191.076 mph) last fall — but well off Brian Vickers’ qualifying mark of 196.235 mph set for the 2006 fall race.
“Yeah, the last time I drove this car was last year here, and it has come so far since then,” said Biffle, who was part of that October test in Texas. “It was definitely a handful then to drive and now the first few laps on the race track it has a lot of grip and is really fun to drive. You know, it is the same old Texas. We are sliding and a little loose and then tight and it is going to be a fun race.”
Truex was on the top 10 on the speed chart for both test sessions. He said the new car “is definitely different here” and that his team was still learning a lot about the car, especially on bigger 11⁄2-mile tracks like Texas.