NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Dialing It In: To Test or To Win?

For years, many have looked at the Sprint All-Star Race as a test session for the following week’s Coca-Cola 600. With no points on the line and a testing ban in place by NASCAR, Saturday night’s Sprint Showdown and All-Star Race provides the perfect race scenario to try new and experimental parts that would be too risky to try under normal conditions.

According to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch, however, the determining factor is how well you are running week-in and week-out. If teams are competing for wins every week, they have the freedom to go for the All-Star win without trying new things. If a team is struggling to stay up front, the potential rewards are much greater than the potential pit falls from a failed part or experiment.

“I think if you’re a team that’s running well, you use it as a ‘Go out and have at it. Go get the win.’ If you’re a team like the Roush [Fenway Racing] guys, use it as a test session,” Busch said. “Those guys right now, unfortunately, they’re there every week but they’re not contending. For me, being one of those guys, I would use it kind of as a test and learn. ‘Yeah, we wanna win. We’ll take the chances if we need to and try to get up there and try to get it.’ You gotta learn and make your car better for the 600 and for the points race here next week. We’re going for broke. We’re gonna try to win this thing.”

The Roush camp currently sits third, seventh, 10th and 22nd in the series standings with Matt Kenseth leading the charge. While 2010 has not been a stellar year for Roush Fenway, or the Ford camp in general, Kenseth has four top-fives and seven top-10s in the first 12 races of the season.

Looking for his second All-Star Race victory, Kenseth was 17th out of 18th on the speed charts at the end of Friday’s lone practice session. The 2004 All-Star Race winner jokingly said he hoped his team was testing something after his practice results, and then explained the exhibition event allows drivers to be more aggressive rather than providing teams a test session.

“We really approach every race basically the same,” Kenseth said in response to Busch’s comments. “The only time that, in my opinion, this race really changes is like last year when you had three-wide off of turn 4 and they wrecked. You might not have that in a 600-mile race. Somebody probably would have lifted, but, other than that, it’s about the same. Yeah, you’re out there going for the win, but every week if you’re in position, you’re gonna go for the win. Here, if we don’t get running better, we’re running 14th, how do you go for the win from 14th? You can’t, so you still have to be in position to win and be competitive. I wouldn’t say we really use it as a test.”

Kenseth’s Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle agreed, to an extent. With his last win coming 56 races ago in September 2008 at Dover, Biffle is forced to race his way into Saturday night’s main event.

“Anytime you’re practicing you’re trying to learn and certainly we’re learning for next week, and we’re trying different stuff,” Biffle said. “We’re trying all kinds of stuff. Facts are that we’re sort of using it as a test, but, at the same time, we’re trying to get our cars as fast as possible so we can get in.”

The idea of using the All-Star Race as a test for the Coca-Cola 600 is not, as Busch says, limited to teams that are not running well. Even Hendrick Motorsports’ Jeff Gordon said Saturday night’s race would be a test for next Sunday. Gordon has been in a position to win on a number of occasions this season, but has yet to visit victory lane. With frustration building, a win in Saturday night’s All-Star event could be the catalyst Gordon is looking for in terms of momentum.

“It’s a test session that we hope still results in a win tomorrow, but it’s a test session for us to really try some unique and different things for next week, qualifying as well as for the race,” Gordon said.

Busch should know a thing or two about using the All-Star Race as a test, though. In 2008, he and JGR teammate Denny Hamlin both suffered engine failures before the end of the 100-lap event. Busch had led a race-high 38 laps before the engine lost power and eventually failed. Hamlin’s engine also let go 84 laps into the race. Both clearly had something under the hood they were trying out, and at that point in the season Busch was leading the points with three wins – so much for his point about only testing when you’re not contending week-in and week-out.

Either way, the Sprint All-Star Race allows teams the opportunity to hang it all out on the line, whether that is under the hood, in the suspension or how the guy behind the wheel acts on the track. Regardless, what typically results is some of the best action all year and, in any case, some useful notes heading into the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600.

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