FORT WORTH, Tex. - The sight of 200,000 race fans still amazes Ricky Rudd.
He stood in the garage area of the Texas Motor Speedway, looked at the grandstands with its 170,000 seats and an infield crowd of another 30,000 fans, then shook his head. A veteran of 28 racing seasons on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series isn't easily impressed, but Texas steals his breath.
"It's incredible," he said. "We have racetracks that have trouble selling tickets, and then there's Texas. It's amazing every time we come here."
While the 1.5-mile raceway has become the modern template other facilities measure against, many fear it still lacks in a very important place - the track itself. New and improved works well in the grandstands, but it's a racer's worst enemy.
"It's a one-groove race track," Jeff Gordon said. "Ride around the bottom as fast as you can get after it. It's super-fast right now. I think the only thing that would help is if it got warm and the sun came out. I think that is about the only thing that would help."
The pavement at Texas is five years old. It still has a lot of grip, which forces everyone to the inside groove around the fastest track on the circuit. Cars that jump to the middle of the track or, even worse, to the outside groove will find the going treacherous today in the Samsung/RadioShack 500 (12:30 p.m., Fox-Ch. 54).
With all the good things Texas represents - huge crowds, a big purse and a spectacular facility, the racing has lagged.
"You can't pass," said Todd Bodine, who tuned up for the race with a fourth-place finish in Saturday's Busch Series race. "There's no outside groove."
As the pole winner, that suits Bobby Labonte just fine. His Interstate Batteries Chevrolet qualified at 193.514 mph.
Elliott Sadler, one of the few drivers who feel the raceway might be a little racier than everyone believes, is second on the grid at 193.313 mph.
"I think, if you look at the track this year, the surface is a lot grayer-looking," he said. "It was so black looking last year. It's even like a half-groove more than what we had last year in qualifying. The Busch cars opened it up a little bit and I think you're going to see more of that during the race. I think we'll definitely have more grooves to work with Sunday than what we had here last year, just because the surface is wearing down some and we might have to move around a little bit."
Ryan Newman is third in the lineup at 193.140 mph, followed by Jimmie Johnson in fourth at 192.747, Jerry Nadeau in fifth at 192.630, Bill Elliott in sixth at 192.294, Gordon in seventh at 192.226, Kevin Harvick in eighth at 192.041, Joe Nemechek in ninth at 192.020 and Rusty Wallace in 10th at 191.843.
As the pavement gets older, like its sister track at Atlanta, the racing should get better. Atlanta's asphalt is two years older and cars can go three-wide through the corners. Texas is getting better, but most say it's still a year or two away from being a place where drivers enjoy the experience as much as the fans.
The speedway's popularity with the fans led one to file a lawsuit against NASCAR. Francis Ferko, who lives 30 minutes from the speedway, is suing NASCAR because he feels it sanctioning body owes Texas two racing dates each year.
For the most part, the drivers seem to like the idea of racing twice at a track build between Fort Worth and Dallas. A second and third racing groove would only strengthen Texas' chances of a second date.
"It's early to tell, but I don't see any black on that second groove," Rudd said. "It doesn't look like there's been much racing going on up there, and there certainly isn't much rubber up there. I would say you'd have a better chance racing side-by-side this time simply for the fact that the track has weathered some.
"Atlanta was a single-groove racetrack. It weathered and, all of a sudden, the grip wasn't all that great on the bottom so you went to the top. I could see a better chance of that happening here this week than it has in other weeks, but, right now, I don't want to get out of that bottom myself."
Bodine said the lack of grip in the outside groove makes the first few laps very critical since half of the cars are in the outside groove in the two-wide lineup. There was a 10-car crash on the first lap during the inaugural race at Texas in 1997 and another huge pileup in the first 10 laps a year later.
"I'm the inside (line of the starting lineup) so I'm not quite so worried about (today's race)," Bodine said of his 19th-place qualifying effort. "The thing about this place is you have to tiptoe the first little bit and not worry about racing the first five or six laps. You just want to get in line and then let things settle down. The inside is still the fast way right now, so you've got to get down there."