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Wednesday, January 15, 2014
What was learned at Daytona testing

By Brant James
ESPN.com

Austin Dillon
It shouldn't be surprising Austin Dillon topped the speed charts at Daytona testing, but it should raise excitement.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Preseason Thunder? Not so dramatic. Mostly just a constant, nagging drizzle that wiped out most of the first pre-Daytona 500 testing sessions for Sprint Cup teams on Thursday and Friday.

But even with all the leaning on tires, checking Twitter feeds and undergoing mandatory NASCAR drug tests, drivers had plenty of time to make some of the first news of 2014 at Daytona International Speedway.

1. Austin Dillon ramps up the anticipation: Yes, testing performance is worthless in terms of points and trophies.

Yes, the Sprint Cup rookie producing the top speed -- 195.109 mph single-car runs -- may have no relevance to his Daytona 500 performance. And yes, for a Richard Childress Racing team with DNA entwined with restrictor-plate racing, the more shocking result would have been a speed outside the top 10.

But, hey, give the 23-year-old credit for seizing a moment. He put the primer-black No. 3 Chevrolet atop the leaderboard in its return to Cup competition, 13 years after it was shuttered with the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

If there was anticipation of the fabled car returning to the Daytona 500 -- and there was, a lot of it -- it will be even greater now, but also with curiosity over what the former Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series champion can accomplish in his second attempt at the Sprint Cup season opener.

2. The most thankless job in NASCAR is coming open: Maybe a young engineer or car chief, eagerly seeking a big break and career-defining job, is out there.

Maybe he's an established crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports or elsewhere, completely comfortable with the work and performance with his current driver but feeling ready to replace Steve Letarte after this season as crew chief for NASCAR's most popular and most breathlessly scrutinized driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Either way, that person is out there somewhere. A year from now, his life will have changed drastically. Good performances? Junior did it. Bad performances or bad call on that wedge adjustment? Letarte would have done better.

Letarte was at times mauled by Earnhardt's fan base despite helping resurrect his performance -- with a win, two Chase for the Sprint Cup appearances and a fifth-place points finish in 2013 -- since taking over the No. 88 program in 2011.

It will require a special character to not only hold the job but also succeed in it, as evidenced by the litany of predecessors who attempted with various degrees of success at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and HMS to cultivate the driver's obvious abilities.

Earnhardt, asserting a maturity that Letarte helped develop, said he doesn't require a certain set of traits in a new crew chief as much as a positive force and an ally.

Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said last week that the team will address the position at the end of the season, but Crew Chief Silly Season 2015 will begin in haste, especially the speculation facet, especially if Earnhardt, who enters the season with high expectations and an apparent wave of momentum, flounders in the early races.

3. Tinker time: NASCAR appears set to tweak qualifying formats and points structures as telegraphed by chairman Brian France and his stated desire to "incentivize risk-taking."

A new points system, in theory, would place greater emphasis on victory, moving away from a format used from 1975 to 2003 that rewarded consistency.

That system was slightly modified in 2004 and 2007 with the advent and later modification of the Chase. The points system was simplified in 2011 but stayed much the same.

A new qualifying format is also on the docket after the Daytona 500, said vice president of competition Robin Pemberton.

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson sees opportunity in a new qualifying format.

"There are some details we're working on and trying to finalize all of those things," he said Friday. "I can tell you that the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series will not be single-car qualifying at all this year, and we're still working on some of the final details of that."

For a driver who has won six of the past eight championships, all this change might seem like a way to derail what peer Denny Hamlin last season so aptly dubbed "The Jimmie Johnson Era."

Johnson said he thought he understood NASCAR's intention regarding qualifying but actually didn't.

"I thought I knew it, but [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] brought me up to something different," Johnson said Friday. "The last I heard was the town hall meeting we had, then I disconnected and was brought up to speed yesterday. It's way different, certainly will build a lot of excitement, tough to figure out.

"The great thing, as Chad and I were discussing: There are opportunities within that to get it right and get a bunch of poles."

Back to the drawing board, NASCAR.

4. Rookie Year 2.0 for No. 10: Stewart-Haas Racing's four-driver lineup has amassed a weighty four Sprint Cup championships and 95 wins in a combined 43 seasons at NASCAR's highest level.

Danica Patrick's contribution to those statistics? One rookie season in 2013. While team co-owner/driver and three-time champion Tony Stewart expects he and new additions Kevin Harvick and 2004 series champion Kurt Busch to at least qualify for the Chase, expectations are tempered for the junior member of the lineup.

"It's not that we're discounting Danica, but it's still a work in progress," said Stewart, who is still convalescing from a broken leg suffered in August but expects to race in Speedweeks. "She's still learning. This year, I think, will be a big year for her.

"I think having that first full season under her belt now and being able to go to every place twice and get the feeling of what a Cup weekend is like, I think all the new [will have worn] off of that this year and I think she knows more what to expect and it's more a matter of focusing on the things that she can be better at."

Patrick produced her only top-10 finish and pole at the Daytona 500 last season before finishing 27th in points.

5. Roush Fenway is talking comeback: Carl Edwards entered the Chase nine points off the lead in the standings after winning the final regular-season race at Richmond but finished 13th, 137 points off the pace of Johnson.

Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards said he believes Roush Fenway Racing is ready to compete at the top level again.

That was 118 points behind Matt Kenseth, who had left the organization before the season to join Joe Gibbs Racing. RFR's Greg Biffle finished ninth in points with one win.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was named rookie of the year but did not qualify for the playoffs. It was an adequate year unless considered through the filter of one of the series' most meticulous and demanding organizations, and owner Jack Roush has never hesitated to institute change as a motivational or re-organizational tool.

Stenhouse got back crew chief Mike Kelley, with whom he won consecutive Nationwide titles in 2011 and 2012, but otherwise they just had a good talk. And vice president of competition Robbie Reiser found a way to bend the laws of time.

"We've got Robbie Reiser working about 25 hours a day, which is good," said Edwards, a two-time winner last season. "We just sat and talked for the last hour, hour and a half about the state of Roush Fenway, what we're working on.

"We've communicated better than we ever have. But I think for us as a company, the simple way as a company is we feel like we have the best people. We feel like we have the best manufacturer support behind us. We believe we have drivers, including myself, that are as good as anybody in the garage … that we can compete.

"We have to put all of that together, and we have to have a really strong leader like Robbie Reiser to put all of it together and see the results that we think we should have."