By STEVEN COLE SMITH
In preseason testing, drivers spend a lot of time waiting around to drive. (Photo by LAT Photographic)
Early in the afternoon of Jan. 14, NASCAR Nextel Cup driver Ryan Newman drove his Dodge nearly 187 mph in preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway. Exciting, yes?
No. “If you take your rental car and drive through the tunnel, then back through the tunnel, then through the tunnel again, it’s about the same thing,” said Newman. There’s a great deal of sitting and waiting, while the crew adjusts spoilers and tire pressures and checks spark plugs, then sends the driver out again for three or four laps. Rusty Wallace, Newman’s Penske teammate, referred to himself as a “test dummy.”
It might have been more exciting had Newman’s best lap of 186.703 mph placed him near the top of the speed charts, but last year’s winningest driver was 24th. In a suggestion of manufacturer parity, Ricky Rudd was the fastest in his Ford at 188.470 mph, John Andretti was second in a Chevrolet at 188.198, and Ken Schrader was an unlikely third in his Dodge at 187.793. The quickest cars were about 5 mph faster than last year’s top speeds.
Pontiac, you will recall, is gone, but it isn’t through with racing—-it will spend a little money fielding road-racing GTOs, most likely with the NASCAR-connected Grand-Am series. And it also might have been more exciting had this test not been at a superspeedway, as the majority of NASCAR’s Cup rules changes, most involving aerodynamics and downforce, aren’t in play here. At Daytona, the cars “feel just like they did last year,” Wallace says. “I can’t tell a difference.”
Daytona’s “Preseason Thunder,” which certainly sounds compelling, began Jan. 6 with the Nextel Cup cars that finished in odd-number points in 2003, and ended with Busch Series testing Jan. 21, with Craftsman Truck testing in the middle. Aside from a handful of minor-to-moderate crashes, most notably by Nextel Cup drivers Jimmie Johnson and Michael Waltrip, there was not a great deal of news. Otherwise Jeff Gordon’s close-cropped haircut, which revealed a receding hairline that suggests associate sponsorship from the Hair Club for Men might be in the future, wouldn’t have made headlines.
It was, however, odd to enter Daytona’s infield and see all the Winston red replaced by Nextel yellow and black, reflecting the initial impact of the communication company’s 10-year, $750 million deal to replace Winston as title sponsor of the Cup Series. It might be a coincidence, but we could have sworn our AT&T cellular phone got better reception here last year.
Also gone are the big orange Union 76 balls at each corner of the track, as Sunoco is now the Official Fuel of NASCAR. Apparently Waste Management remains the Official Garbage Collector, so it’s nice that some things haven’t changed.
Overshadowing the Nextel Cup testing was the much-discussed changes in the points system, rumored until it was made official Jan. 20. Prior to the announcement, the majority of drivers had little good to say about the system that will have Cup drivers race as usual until the season’s 26th race, at which time NASCAR will “adjust” points of the top-10 cars to where the points-leader has only a five-point advantage over second place as they began the final 10 races. NASCAR insists that the media not call it a “playoff,” which means it is a playoff.
After the announcement, drivers suddenly seemed to like the system a lot better, possibly due to a circle-the-wagons rally from NASCAR. “I think it’s awesome for the fans,” said Busch driver Jason Leffler, even though the only changes to the Busch and Craftsman Truck Series will be the addition of five more points to the race winner. Those two series are not part of the don’t-call-it-a-playoff system.
Also not far from the minds of all the teams here is that some pretty established drivers and cars enter 2004 without full sponsorship. Evernham Dodge driver Bill Elliott would like to run a dozen or so races in his farewell season but only has sponsorship for three, and the Daytona 500 is not one of them.
Even so, Elliott was more cheerful than we have seen him in years. (How do you like the new points system, Bill? “What do I care?” he says, grinning.) Roush driver Jeff Burton also lacks full- season sponsorship for his Ford, as oil company Citgo has left the sport, as does the Dale Earnhardt Inc.’s No. 1 Chevrolet (it lost Pennzoil), which John Andretti will drive at Daytona. Jimmy Spencer is also looking for a sponsor for his Dodge, as team owner Jim Smith is getting tired of putting his own company, Ultra Wheels, on the quarter panels.
Undeniably there’s renewed interest in the Craftsman Truck Series, thanks to the sudden addition of Toyota’s deep pockets to the wardrobe. Thus the biggest question arising from Preseason Thunder—-other than, “Can you get Dale Junior to autograph this for me?”-— was, “What’s wrong with the Toyotas?”
The fastest truck was Steve Grissom’s Ford at 182.994 mph. The fastest of seven Toyotas was the Darrell Waltrip-owned Tundra driven by David Reutimann, son of modified legend Buzzie Reutimann, at 180.022, a grim 18th on the speed charts.
Are the Toyotas slow, or are they sandbagging? “They’re just slow,” said one insider, suggesting the company, faced with a lot of work and little time, saw no point in stressing the superspeedway program, since there are so few big tracks on the truck schedule. Of course, it would not have been smart politically for newcomer Toyota to come to Daytona and take, say, three or four of the top spots on the speed charts. The Japanese are inscrutable, and they have hired some inscrutable drivers.
With the Craftsman Truck Series getting Toyota and its first-ever Friday night race at Daytona, and the Cup Series getting a new sponsor and points system, this leaves the Busch Series without any artificially generated attention for 2004. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led every lap of the Busch race at Daytona last summer, dominated testing with a 181.036-mph lap in his Chance Two Chevrolet. Moderate changes to the aerodynamic package seem to have affected the Fords the most, for some reason. “We’re struggling,” said Roush driver Greg Biffle, the 2002 Busch champ who plans a full season for 2004 in both Busch and Nextel Cup.
So what are we to make from Preseason Thunder 2004? Probably not a lot, said Wallace. “This is important, don’t get me wrong, but when the green flag drops at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 15, you’ll see that who was quick this week won’t necessarily be that quick then.”
At least he hopes so: Wallace’s Dodge was only 15th fastest.