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Fanning the Flames: Drivers Weigh In on the Test Ban & Crew Chiefs Weigh In on a Driver

A few random reflections while “watching” (read: daydreaming during) America’s Best Dance Crew with my fiancé. Yeah I know, you can let me have it…

  • Anytime Richard Childress wants to deliver the punchline to his team-swap joke, I’ll be ready. Clint Bowyer doesn’t belong in a Cheerios driver suit any more than Casey Mears belongs in a Jack Daniel’s one.
  • When DW said early on last Sunday that, “This is a Mark Martin type of race,” I knew Mark was in trouble. Since 2005, a Martin type of race is a race in which someone other than Mark wins.
  • Larry Mac somehow manages to sound more excited and incredulous each and every week when he throws out his, “(Insert name here) has just ran his fastest lap of the afternoon! And we’re on lap 275!” You’d think at some point he’d see it coming…
  • Have you ever seen a car without a left-front fender not only survive, but finish like Jeff Gordon did at Vegas?
  • With that in mind, it was with a rather defeatist attitude that Reed Sorenson told his crew, “We’re done, guys” after he popped the backstretch wall on lap 138. You realize you’re driving a tank, right buddy?
  • Check that: It’s the “Nellis Straightaway.”
  • Kyle Busch’s pass of Bowyer late in the Shelby 427 was so well executed. Although Bowyer quipped that it “wasn’t magic,” Kyle certainly played it well, just running him up the hill ever-so-slightly without so much as breathing on him. That, folks, is how it’s done.

Here’s a couple questions, too, as we head back down to the land of cotton:

Q: Hi Matt. The engine problems at Las Vegas aside, do you think the testing ban is the reason for some of the smaller teams (i.e., not Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs and Childress) are showing more success this year? I can’t help but think that, with a body that can’t be touched and tires being the same for everyone on any given weekend, it’s helping the Michael Waltrip Racings and Team Red Bulls of the sport. Thank you. – Ashley Anne Kline

A: Thanks for the question, Ashley. That’s a popular subject that’s being bantered about these days: Just how much of an impact is the test ban having? It’s obviously had an effect, but whether it’s positive or negative across the board is virtually impossible to ascertain – and it’s certainly specific to each individual team.

We see what we deem “surprise showings” by a couple of teams early in the season every year. 12 months ago, Elliott Sadler sat ninth in the points standings while Bowyer, Gordon and Denny Hamlin were struggling. The year before, JJ Yeley, Sadler, David Stremme and David Gilliland were top-12ers after the Vegas race, just as Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart sputtered.

Here’s the bottom line: a handful of teams are going to get off to unusually hot starts each season while others… well, not so much. But water always finds its level, and that’s the key point to remember here. I don’t believe for a second that Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin, and Ryan Newman are going to be stuck in second gear all year, the same as I don’t believe Bobby Labonte, David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip will all be title contenders in November.

Now, is Waltrip’s organization improved? Without a doubt – as is Red Bull Racing. To that end, I spoke with the newest addition to the Five O’Clock Shadow Club, Mr. Waltrip himself, about testing just a month ago. In typical Waltrip fashion, he had his unabashed opinions:

“My philosophy on testing is that it’s a colossal waste of time and money, because we can go to the wind tunnel… see, the cars are set up so precisely when they leave the shop. The guys go to the seven-post rigs and shake, they do simulations, and they understand what the cars are going to do when they go into the corner.”

“We used to not know how to set up a car using a computer. We’d blow a car in the wind tunnel and couldn’t wait to get it to the track to see how it would run. Now, they blow cars in the wind tunnel and they know exactly what they’ll do when they go to the track – it’s gotten that precise.”

“When you go to a racetrack and test, you basically are burning up tires and burning up gas and taking employee’s time at home away, which is a negative because the schedule is so intense. So I think the testing ban, which is temporary, needs to last forever, and I betcha NASCAR will decide that that is the case.”

So, there you have the second-tier team point of view. Now, how about the view from the top – and when I say top, I mean the pinnacle. Jimmie Johnson addressed the topic just this week:

“If a team is off, it’s going to be tough to catch up [due to a lack of testing]. In that final two hours of practice sessions, that’s all you get in race trim. If you’re trying to find and develop new technology, it’s in that final two hours before the race. It sounds like a lot, but we have limited tires, we’re trying to keep the mileage down on the chassis and on the engine. And that stuff… it’s going to be tough for a team to catch up if they’re out [behind in the points standings].”

As for whether the ban was good for the sport in general, he says it is – although it’s coming from a guy who has yet to experience an engine failure like a couple of his teammates.

“I think this year, it was a great call on NASCAR’s behalf,” he continued. “They hit this one right on the head. With the economic climate like it is, it saved a ton of money on preseason testing, and it will throughout the year.”

Unlike Waltrip, Johnson would welcome a return to the days of random testing. That, I’m sure, is because it’s not his dollar being spent on a Monday in Greenville-Pickens or Sparta.

“Hopefully, when the economy comes back they can find a good balance,” he said. “I don’t think we need to test as much as we have in the past. And a lot of that’s just because of the rules they’ve made. We’ve had to test a lot to develop a tire because a tire hasn’t been made available to us.”

“[But] if they opened up testing to a limited amount on the correct tire, where you can collect data and make those tests useful, I think the teams would benefit from that greatly in the future.”

Q: What’s up with Sadler the last two weeks? He looked so good at Daytona but really bad at California and Las Vegas. I hoped the contract problems he had in the offseason would light a fire under him. Is Richard Petty Motorsports using the [new] Dodge engines? – Terrence Ross

A: I had a couple crew chiefs weigh in on Sadler for me. You’ll be disappointed to know it was done in confidence, so you’ll get no naming of names here.

One swears up and down that Elliott is a great guy and very well liked (although I think we all knew that anyway – he’s a good ‘ol Vu-Gin-Ya boy afta all). But the fact is, he can’t carry a team. The cars have to be right and thus far, the machinery isn’t where it needs to be at RPM (nor was it as GEM). Another says the one variable on Sadler’s teams is Sadler himself. Many crew chiefs and team members have come and gone, and for some reason it just hasn’t all clicked.

Look, Daytona and Talladega are anomalies on this circuit. Not everyone “knows” the draft, but by being in the right place at the right time with the right buddy, it’s (I hesitate to use this word) easier to notch a solid finish.

Elliott’s a decent drafter, but the intermediates just don’t agree with him – he can’t get the car right. Luckily, sponsorship still does, so he’ll have a chance to end his four-year drought again this year.

And no, RPM is not using the next generation (R6P8) Dodge engines. They’re not comfortable with its reliability just yet – although it’s notable no Dodge team has officially retired from a 2009 event due to engine failure. Penske’s highly confident in it, and when their engine’s humming, you better believe that Kurt Busch is a happy man…

Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow.

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