Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Drivers tackle the boredom -- and the Car of Tomorrow -- at Daytona testing
By David Newton ESPN.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Clint Bowyer was bored. He'd just finished running a dozen or so laps around Daytona International Speedway and felt like little more than a passenger as he got out of his car so his crew could work on the setup.
He wondered whether it was worth going back onto the track until he looked over his shoulder and saw somebody pouring concrete.
Daytona testing is giving four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon a chance to warm up to the Car of Tomorrow.
"I said, 'Well, it can always be worse. I'll get back in,'" Bowyer said.
Testing at Daytona often is boring for the drivers who do little more than hold the car wide open around the 2.5-mile track. Even in the Car of Tomorrow, making its debut here, this can be a cure for insomnia.
But it was a necessary evil to determine how the new car would handle in the draft, whether blistering on tires would be a problem and how much horsepower is necessary to be a contender for the 50th running of the Daytona 500 next month.
"It's all for a good cause," Bowyer said. "It still is boring."
Not all were bored during two-and-a-half days of testing that will be duplicated next week for the other half of the Sprint Cup series field. Two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson had more fun than usual learning to handle the car over the bumps and tight corners that will make this a totally different experience than last year's COT race at Talladega.
"We've had more input and outcome of how our car is going to be set up than I ever have here," he said. "So I actually have enjoyed the test."
He should. His car, as well as those of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Casey Mears and Jeff Gordon, was the fastest off the truck. The three were near the top of the speed charts in drafting as well, which has to send fear into the rest of the garage after HMS won half of the 36 races a year ago.
"This Car of Tomorrow, it's going to be a whole new world for all of us, especially taking it to the bigger tracks," said Johnson, referring to the car that will be fully implemented this season. "You'd think after Talladega we would have enough sorted out to come here and everything would be fine, but it's been a handful and I'm really excited about that.
"It's going to help teams like the 48 that sort through problems, that sort through that stuff. It's going to give us a bit of an advantage."
Lowdown on Daytona testing
Who surprised? Who disappointed? Get all the news and results from this week's NASCAR Sprint Cup testing session at Daytona International Speedway. Jayski
Gordon, who has been skeptical of the car since it was introduced last year at Bristol, is starting to warm to it as well.
"It's much better than what I anticipated," the four-time Cup champion said. "I will be honest, it was fun out there for sure. The thing I like about it is there's a lot more opportunities to pass now. The most I ever saw in a group was about six cars, but in those groups you were able to make a lot of moves.
"I saw some out-of-control moments as well. There's more positives than negatives that I can see right now."
Gordon and most of his peers agree the car will help create a good race next month. They weren't saying that last season after Talladega.
"I've always said this car was designed more around restrictor plates," Gordon said. "Not necessarily intentionally. It's just the way the aerodynamics are on this car it suits the restrictor-plate tracks, the big two-and-a-half-mile tracks, very, very well."
Carl Edwards agreed.
"The drafting is fun," he said. "The cars slide around quite a bit. Ours stayed pretty free so it was fun to drive. I like having to drive the car the whole way around the corner. That's pretty neat."
Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, working with a new crew chief for the first time since entering Cup in 1999, said the test has been a learning experience.
"It's like anything when you get in a habit, whether it's a good habit or bad habit, sometimes that's hard to break or change," said Kenseth, working with Chip Bolin now that longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser has been promoted to general manager at Roush.
"The Vegas tire test helped a lot. I had to do a lot of things different at that racetrack than I did with the other car through the two days. But there are certain things about the car where maybe you have to be a little more careful with it, or it's a little more temperamental, or you've got to drive a little slower to go faster."
It's much better than what I anticipated. I will be honest, it was fun out there for sure. The thing I like about it is there's a lot more opportunities to pass now.
-- Jeff Gordon
Toyota officials are excited about the prospects for their second season. Drivers who struggled here a year ago were among the fastest all week, particularly on Tuesday afternoon when J.J. Yeley and Kyle Busch were first and third on the charts.
"A.J. Allmendinger said it very well when he said he was dead last in the test a year ago," said Lee White, the senior vice president and general manager for Toyota Racing Development. "[Monday] he was bouncing around the top five all day with 40 cars -- and good drivers and good teams there.
"That by itself makes a fairly strong statement about the progress since a year ago."
Busch, making the Toyota debut for Joe Gibbs Racing, shared that enthusiasm.
"The cars have been driving well and have some speed, which is nice," said Busch, who moved to JGR after being replaced by Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports. "It's hard to come down here and find something. We're pretty good."
"Coming to Daytona to test is probably one of the most miserable things we have to do all year because it's so repetitious," he said. "You make changes, find something small and make another change, and go in the other direction and lose two or three-tenths.
"You just want to go ahead and beat yourself against the wall. We ended up fifth overall in single-car runs and fastest in drafting. It doesn't necessarily mean much, but the car drove really good."
John Darby, the Sprint Cup series director, said he's had few complaints from teams outside of tire blistering, a problem he's confident they will correct.
Gordon said it's important for everybody, including NASCAR, to remain open-minded about the new car moving forward.
"We've got to think outside the box a little bit," he said. "In that sense, the challenge is as great as it's ever been."
Even if it does get boring for Bowyer.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.