The ban on testing at tracks on the race schedule was designed to save money in a tough economy but it's apparent that, after one of the best big-track shows in recent memory - in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway - NASCAR's frugal policy saved a lot more than that.
The biggest saving appears to be in wear and tear on the organisations that compete in Sprint Cup racing as, by this time last year, teams had criss-crossed the United States for two test sessions in Daytona and one each in Las Vegas and Fontana - at a minimum. This year, drivers, owners and crews arrived for Speedweeks fresh in body and spirit, full of pent-up enthusiasm, harbouring undiluted dreams of winning the Daytona 500 or, in the case of the lower-tier organisations, simply making the field.
“If you look at the crew guys, they're not beat up from having to run across the country all winter,” Shootout winner Kevin Harvick noted, “The drivers are excited to come down here. Everybody is excited to be at the racetrack, smell the fumes of the cars, drive laps. There's just that added enthusiasm.
“It's like everybody got a wake-up call and said 'hey, we need to get our stuff together'. We have never not been able to go to the racetrack and not test. Now you get to come to the racetrack, and it's like taking your favourite toy away. It's almost like you got grounded for a few months, and now you get to come out and have fun with it again.”
Against that backdrop, the Shootout was a rollicking good time, with records set for different leaders (14), lead changes (23) and cautions (eight). After a fourth-place finish, Jeff Gordon said the race was 'absolutely madness'.
Less than 24 hours later, Martin Truex Jr - who wasn't eligible to race in the Shootout - won the pole for the Daytona 500. Truex drives for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, the product of a difficult birth during the off-season, but was also happy for the test ban, as the principals of the organisation spent the winter cobbling together Dale Earnhardt Inc and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
“I think that a little bit more time off gets you prepared better,” Truex said, “We came down here with a better racecar than we've ever come down here with, without even testing. It gave the guys time. With all that went on this winter with us, with our team, with moving shops and combining our efforts, I think testing would have hurt us more than helped us.
“I think it was to our advantage that nobody could test, because I think we would have been a little behind if we had to. I think that it would have taken away from our efforts at the shop and getting everything prepared just right. As far as coming down here and testing, I think it hurts not going to the downforce tracks a little bit as a driver, but I think I did enough racing online to keep the rust off.”
Insiders have warned not to expect every race to equal the drama of the Shootout, however, where drivers were willing to up the ante in risk-taking because no championship points were on the line.
“Last night, nobody was giving an inch,” Jimmie Johnson said before qualifying on Sunday, “The bump-drafting was back to slam-drafting. From here on out, until the last restart [in the Daytona 500], it's going to be pretty calm - at least, that's what I'm hoping.”
Maybe discretion will be the better part of valour for the rest of Speedweeks, but it's already apparent the lack of testing may have helped rather than hurt the level of competition. Just look at the sleek, beautifully-prepared racecar the Wood Brothers brought to the track after spending the winter getting it ready. Bill Elliott duly qualified fifth in the #21 Ford.
If Harvick has his way, testing at NASCAR tracks will be a thing of the past.
“I hope we cancel testing every winter,” he admitted, “I hate testing.”
If the Shootout is an indication, he's right. Who needs it?
by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service