Las Vegas test session gets off to windy, chilly start

1/29/2008 - NASCAR

LAS VEGAS -- Jacques Villeneuve looked as though he were preparing for the Iditarod wearing a hooded jacket underneath another jacket with the hood pulled tightly around his scruffy face. Crew members looked like they belonged in the stands at Lambeau Field with their toboggans and gloves.

Elliott Sadler might have started a new trend with a leather jacket over his driver's uniform.

There weren't enough adidas products to keep Dale Earnhardt Jr. warm as he walked through the garage with his arms folded firmly around his chest.

Welcome to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where winds gusting from 35 to more than 40 mph made the desert temperature feel like 35 to 40 as Sprint Cup teams began the first of an important two-day test at the 1.5-mile track.

"You're walking sideways around that end of the garage," said Jimmie Johnson, still a bit weary from his second-place finish on Sunday in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

The winds were so severe that Johnson said he was going to let a few other drivers take the track before he tackled it. Naturally, he was first out.

But the two-time defending Cup champion was only 15th fastest during the first session, which was interrupted by rain. Denny Hamlin, driving a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, had the fastest lap at 178.265 mph.

JGR teammate Kyle Busch led the afternoon session in which the wind subsided a bit with a speed of 183.580 mph. Toyota had six of the top 16 speeds in the morning and four of the top six in the afternoon, a good sign for the foreign manufacturer after a strong practice session at Daytona.

And while the wind was a factor, it didn't deter teams from learning what they need to know about the Car of Tomorrow that will be used on intermediate tracks for the first time this season.

"It kind of makes things a little cloudy," said Carl Edwards, who was 26th fastest during the first session and fourth fastest in the afternoon. "Some of the stuff you feel might be because of the win. I can't make a small change and say 100 percent that was the reason for the change.

"But it'll be fine."

Earnhardt agreed.

"The wind does throw you a monkey wrench, but it might be here when we race," said NASCAR's most popular driver, who was eighth fastest in during the morning and afternoon sessions his No.88 car for Hendrick Motorsports.

Hamlin was encouraged by what he saw out of his Camry for the first time on a track where handling is more essential than raw speed. He was impressed with the COT altogether, saying big strides have been made since last season.

"It seems when you go to these big tracks with these things, I'm definitely impressed with the way they drive," he said.

Hamlin went so far as to say the JGR teams are going to be more competitive than they were a year ago in Chevrolets.

"We definitely didn't think going into this year we were going to have growing pains by switching manufacturers," he said.

Busch agreed, reminding the engine package he ran on Monday came from Toyota Racing Development and not JGR.

"So I can only presume that we will come back here with more [power]," he said.

The speeds in the COT were significantly slower during the morning than they were during last year's test here in the old car. Scott Riggs topped the first session then at 183.511 mph, about 5 mph faster than Hamlin was.

"Really, you have some of the same challenges with this car that you did in the previous car," said Hamlin, his primary concern passing. "Our speeds were getting a little too high with the old car. Speeds have slowed down. I'm pretty pleased with everything NASCAR has decided to do as far as safety and the performance side.

We make our own wind gusts of 185 mph. Yeah, the wind will affect them some, but it's nothing they can't figure out.

-- NASCAR's John Darby

"Really, I think it's going to be a lot better racing than it was the first time after the track got paved."

That is the hope of four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, skeptical of the COT a year ago.

"This time last year we had a new track surface, a new time," he said. "We were slipping and sliding all over the place here. I was anxious to see what happened, especially with the weather conditions. The car, I was very happy with it."

As important as the tests here and California later in the week are because more than half the races will be run on intermediate tracks, Mark Martin isn't making too much of them.

"What they mean by it's important is if you're the slowest thing here, then you're the slowest thing here," he said. "If they're the fastest thing here, then you're going to know you're in really good shape. You learn how you stack at this test.

"I still think Daytona is the most important test because we don't have anything that can simulate anything like that, but it doesn't tell you how you stack."

Right now, Martin thinks his No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. car that was sixth fastest in the morning and the COT in general stack up pretty good.

"They've come a long ways with these things in a year," he said. "It's going to be good."

That's good news for NASCAR officials who spent the day going from driver to driver for reaction on the car. Earnhardt was so pleased that he said Goodyear could take a rest trying to make the tire better suited for the track and car.

"We're just hard on Goodyear because we expect them to be perfect," he said. "Maybe that's more than we should ask for ... so they take a bad wrap a lot. It's real easy to blame the tires when you don't have a good day."

Wind aside, most teams were happy with this initial information gathering process.

NASCAR was pleased as well.

"We make our own wind gusts of 185 mph," said series director John Darby, discounting the wind. "Yeah, the wind will affect them some, but it's nothing they can't figure out."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.