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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: This Is Only a Test

Wake up, NASCAR fans! Race season is just around the corner – and the roar of the engines at Daytona is the reminder we all needed, right?

Well, maybe. I have to admit, I stopped thinking about the Patriots’ playoff chances on weekdays in favor of checking speeds online. I took a few minutes to wonder where exactly Jimmie Johnson ran over a herd of zebras. I enjoyed Casey Mears‘s fast times every day. I got updates on the AWOL Tony Stewart‘s Chili Bowl races, and got a smile out of seeing Mike McLaughlin wheel a car again to boot. It was good for fans to see favorite (and not-so-favorite) drivers and teams back on track.

But that’s all it was. It’s not only that this year’s sessions were bittersweet, peppered with the news of the passing of first Bobby Hamilton, Benny Parsons¬†and then finally Charlie Poole. The sadness that hung in the air was palpable. I respected Bobby and loved BP in the way that fans love their favorite personalities in the garage. I had met Poole, and because Kenny and Kim Wallace have always treated me like family, felt his loss most deeply. These three men will surely be sorely missed.

But really, Daytona testing has become merely a teaser. Sure, there are cars on track. This week, we even saw what the Car of Tomorrow could do compared to the cars of today. But it isn’t really racing. It’s information gathering and drivers getting the rust off. Nobody wants to take a chance on ruining a brand-new superspeedway car, so nobody really mixes it up.

The speeds mean little, too. The teams in the Top 35 in owner points have the luxury of trying experimental setups, ones they won’t likely run in the big race unless they really hit on something special, so fast speeds are expected and slower ones can be explained away. More than likely the Daytona 500 champion will come from within this elite group… regardless of how they run right now. They’re turning laps because NASCAR says they have to, not because they desperately need any tiny increase in speed or horsepower. A couple, like defending Nextel Cup champion Johnson and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., are testing their bodies after offseason injury or fixer-upper surgery, but it’s no surprise when neither shows any ill effect.

For the teams outside the Top 35, testing isn’t quite as simple. These teams need to find every advantage they can in their attempt simply to make the field for the Daytona 500. They’re the ones truly laying it on the line, their speeds a benchmark for what they’ll need to outperform in another three weeks. The new Toyota teams are in this position, battling with brand new and still somewhat unknown cars. These stories are interesting… but less than compelling. After all, these guys have to race their way in, and the rules change in the Gatorade Duels – instead of turning laps, searching for lines and setups and power, it’s no-holds-barred, fighting to the last yard racing. That’s compelling.

Used to be, the annual test sessions had me dancing across the living room, proclaiming the return of NASCAR. Nowadays, I just take them for what they are – tests, and maybe a harbinger of an exciting season. Between now and then, the Pats have at least one more game, and I have plenty of work to keep me occupied until Speedweeks. Testing is nice, but bring on the real thing!