DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – More than a dozen NASCAR drivers showed up at Daytona International Speedway on Friday, signing autographs, posing for pictures, meeting with sponsors and answering questions.
They did all the usual stuff for this time of year – except drive.
With NASCAR restricting testing at its tracks, the sport’s “Preseason Thunder Fan Fest” had a distinctly different feel.
No roaring engines. No exhaust fumes. No burning rubber. Not one lap around this famed superspeedway.
“We were joking in the car earlier that we’ve kind of lost the thunder in ‘Preseason Thunder’ because we’re not testing,” defending Daytona 500 champion Ryan Newman said.
The lack of testing was the hot topic as NASCAR kicked off its monthlong preseason. There was talk about a possible four-peat for Jimmie Johnson and speculation about how all those off-season changes will affect teams this season. But the foundering economy dominated conversation, and it centered on NASCAR’s testing restrictions.
NASCAR suspended all testing at its sanctioned tracks in a cost-cutting measure that could help teams save several million dollars in their budgets. It also left drivers not knowing what to expect when they return to Daytona early next month and get on the track for the first time in seven months.
“Nobody really knows where they stack up right now,” Carl Edwards said. “It’s a little nerve-racking.”
There has been plenty of testing, just not where it matters. Drivers have taken laps at places like New Smyrna Beach, Rockingham and General Motors’ proving ground in Arizona.
“If NASCAR just said, ‘Hey, you can go to Daytona and test,’ we’re going to be here because that’s very effective,” Jeff Burton said. “I don’t know how effective Rockingham – which is an extremely rough racetrack, very low grip on tires that we’re not going to race anywhere – I don’t know how effective that is other than shaking the rust off.
“New teams can receive benefit from it. But you’re not going to fine-tune a California setup at Rockingham, I can promise you that.”
New teams weren’t thrilled about the new rules, either.
Reed Sorenson, recently signed to drive Richard Petty’s famed No. 43 Dodge, said a lack of testing was hurting new teams and teams that underwent significant changes more than the established ones like those at Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing.
“It definitely hurts us a bunch,” Sorenson said. “I think it helps a lot of the teams that have worked together for a while and obviously helps the teams that were fast all last year. But it’s one of those things you can’t do anything about. We’re still trying to test anywhere. We tested Rockingham and are going to go back there again, but it’s not the same as testing at the tracks you race at. It’s a lot different.
“We just have to work extra hard those first 10 races to try to figure out what we need in the cars.”
NASCAR used to hold two test sessions at Daytona in January, giving teams an early look at what they had and what they needed to do before the season-opening race. Although some drivers felt like it was the least valuable testing session of the season, they conceded it could be missed when they take to the track next month.
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