Winter is a stark time, indeed, on the NASCAR landscape; although as a recent transplant to beautiful Mooresville, North Carolina, I must say the weather is pleasant compared to my home state of New Hampshire – to say the least. But in terms of racing, the winter season can be a long, barren time with little to get fans' motors running – or even started in the first place.
Sure, there are the cute little tidbits about Junior's trip to Australia, who is doing what for the holidays, etc.; but let's face it, these news stories are like giving you the oyster crackers but not the soup. They’re nice and crunchy, but carry no substance (did I write that about California Speedway once)? As the offseason hits full swing, fans’ desire to hear engines roar hits a fever pitch; they yearn for speed over sound bites once again.
Then after the New Year, along comes Daytona testing, and like the proverbial light at the end of our tunnel (vision), there is racing to talk about. It's great, say legions of fans! They get to see their favorites, sometimes running a funky primer paint scheme (Did anyone else think Jimmie Johnson was driving Herbie?) It's a chance to see how the rookies will stack up against the vets in drafting practice, and they can see how their favorite might run in next year’s Daytona 500.
Now, hang on a minute.
Might is the operative word there. There are a variety of factors that influence how teams will run in the Great American Race, and testing is just a piece of the puzzle. Testing is important to some degree – I don't dispute that – and doubly so this year, with the new car making its first foray onto the high banks at Daytona. For the rookies, it allows the chance to race against the seasoned drivers, lessening the pressure and upping their experience level heading into February. For the veterans, it gives the first glimpses into what setups they like, which setups go fast – and the chance to find a happy medium in between. And for everyone, it puts teams on an even platform in regard to track time, and it gives fans something to cheer about.
But fans should not take the test results as gospel for success come February. First off, NASCAR conducts these tests in two sessions for a reason – fewer cars on the track at one time reduces the likelihood for a large crash, like we see so often in races where the restrictor plate has become the Great Equalizer. There were a couple of minor incidents in drafting practice, but for the most part, the cars came away unscathed. An engine letting loose in the full race pack would have likely had a different result; but even in those scenarios, having 20 cars on the track makes it a whole lot more likely most drivers will walk away. However, while it is safer to test this way, coming through in one pristine piece is no indication that the race will go the same way for your favorite driver or team.
Then, of course, there is the proverbial "sandbagging." Do they or don't they run at 100 percent? Teams won't tell, but you have to wonder if Toyota's great success in the first session had more to do with newfound horsepower and handling capability… or with the teams lucky enough to be assured a starting spot in the 500 taking it easy. Many of the Toyota teams are in such a tough boat this year, so their high speeds are truly their high speeds – they can't afford not to put everything out there, as they must discover quickly what they have and what they need to do to compete in qualifying and the Twin 150's. On the contrary, the locked in teams don't have to risk their best stuff with kamikaze rubs – so they don't. They may not be sandbagging to throw off the competition (although that may well play a role), but they are trying to take care of their already top-notch equipment. You can't blame them for doing so – who wants to wreck their 500 masterpiece in January testing – but as a result, you shouldn't be shocked if Jimmie Johnson beats J.J. Yeley on race day.
You also have to take track conditions into account during this time. Six months of sitting mostly idle ensures that the rubber that was on the track in July is long gone in January – making the first session as tricky as it is unpredictable. While that's good news for teams that had tire wear concerns in testing – as various cars run on the track, a new layer of rubber will build up, which is easier on tires – it will also mean that setups found here may prove ineffective under February conditions.
Finally, you have to consider teamwork. Some teams have the advantage of testing together, as Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Casey Mears had for Hendrick in the first session. That could lead to a mixed impact on people like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., their other teammate, who will not test until Monday. On one hand, Junior's team has three cars' worth of information to start from that the others did not. But he will not get the opportunity to work with any of them in the draft, and that will hurt. It's nice to have a drafting partner to test with, and Earnhardt is an outstanding restrictor plate driver – working in the draft could have been of benefit to his teammates, particularly Johnson.
The second wave of teams has the advantage of rubber on the track from the first horde, too, which will help them make the information they glean look drastically different than their earlier teammates. Kyle Busch had just the opposite from Junior – the unenviable position of being the new guy at Joe Gibbs Racing and the first to test – a position that will put his and his team's ability to gather and share information to the test. Should Busch pass, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin will have his work to help them. If he doesn’t… it makes for two teams on a different surface with an idea of where to go, but no GPS to help them.
All in all, test season is a welcome break from Winter (especially if you live in the cold and snow – believe me, you have my deepest sympathies!), but it should be taken with a grain of salt. The fastest car from this week may well be midpack come the Daytona 500, and new drivers both to their teams and to the Cup level of racing will still have much to learn when they return in four weeks. Success today is nice for them – it just doesn't translate into guaranteed success in the money race.
But at least it's sure more fun than reruns of Law & Order.
Editor’s Note: Mike Lovecchio will be covering testing news and information in a variety of ways for us this January at Daytona. To read his reports from earlier in the week, be sure to click the links below:
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