Reading testing tea leaves more fun than testing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Hours and hours of testing at Daytona are over for the Nextel Cup teams. Eleven test sessions over seven days, to be exact.

After all that track time, hundreds of monotonous laps on the 2.5-mile oval, figuring out who will win and who won't in 2007 should be easy, right?

Uh, wrong.

Testing has its merits, but using the results to determine which teams are good and which aren't for the upcoming season is a mistake. It's like trying to pick the winner of a spelling bee by asking each kid to spell "cat."

Most teams find a way to run a fast lap or two over the course of several testing sessions at Daytona. That tells you nothing.

And going by the speed charts alone doesn't help, either. For example, Kurt Busch turned a blistering lap of more than 191 mph on the final day of testing Wednesday.

The chart doesn't tell you that Busch was driving a Car of Tomorrow model with an altered restrictor plate that has larger holes and allowed more horsepower.

So we learned zero about how fast Busch is. What we learned is the COT, just like the current Cup car, is too fast to race without a restrictor plate.

Some drivers were consistently fast during Daytona testing: Ricky Rudd, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Raines, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Green and David Gilliland.

"But not being on top in Daytona testing doesn't figure much into the whole scheme of things," said Mark Martin.

He's absolutely right. Martin has moved from the No. 6 Roush Racing Ford he drove for 19 years to the No. 1 Army Chevrolet of Ginn Racing. Being fast wasn't as important as getting comfortable with a new team and new car.

And some established teams that have been together for years spend part of the testing time experimenting with unusual combinations they aren't likely to use come race week.

Fast times at Daytona only tells us where a team is with its restrictor-plate program. Being fast at Daytona and Talladega doesn't mean much for the other 32 races of the year.

We'll get a better feel for that later this month with a test session on the rebuilt 1.5-mile oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The best we can learn from the Daytona tests are trends for the upcoming season and which teams look ready for a strong showing in the Daytona 500.

And even that is iffy. One word to keep in mind about Daytona testing -- sandbagging.

It's the art of the bluff. Sometimes teams are holding a full house when a pair of 4s is showing.

Gordon, for one, thinks the Toyota teams might have played a little Daytona poker.

"If anything, I felt like the Toyotas weren't as fast as I thought that they would be," Gordon said. "But I'm hearing they have truck motors in the cars right now. There are a lot of unknowns."

Gordon compares it to Dodge's return to Nextel Cup in 2001.

"I remember coming down here and Dodge sandbagging until [returning for the Daytona 500]," he said. "So you never know what's going to happen here."

Bill Elliott won the 2001 pole in a new Dodge and finished fifth. Toyota gladly would take those results in its inaugural Cup race.

If Toyota was sandbagging in Daytona testing, the other teams are in trouble. Toyota had drivers in the top 10 on the speed chart in eight of 11 sessions over the two weeks of testing. A Camry driver ranked in the top three in three sessions.

What really matters is how the cars look during a drafting practice. Some test sessions are single-car runs where the cars are spread out and race alone on the track.

How fast a car is by itself means little when it comes to racing in a large pack only inches apart during the Daytona 500. So the drafting sessions are what mean the most of the teams.

It was especially important to the Dodge teams, who are breaking in a new nose on the Charger. The Dodges weren't so hot the first week of testing, but things improved in the second week when Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Montoya and David Stremme raced up front most of the time.

Testing is a chance to see what you've got, then make it better. It's setting a foundation for your dream home, but you still have to build the house.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.