Sunday, January 12, 2003

Speed not crucial at Daytona testing

The Greenville (S.C.) News

Halfway through preseason testing for the Daytona 500, the numbers say Mike Wallace and Kurt Busch have the fastest cars. The numbers sometimes lie.

About half of the Winston Cup teams expected to participate either full or part time this season took part in three days of test runs at Daytona International Speedway this week. The rest of the teams - those that finished in the even-numbered positions in the 2002 team-owner points - are scheduled to test Tuesday through Thursday.

Daytona testing is not so much about squeezing every ounce of speed from new cars as it is about fine-tuning new driver-crew chief combinations and ironing out aerodynamic and horsepower wrinkles. Many teams - in particular those at the top levels - typically don't show all their cards in January. The more important speeds will be registered when teams return to Daytona in early February.

Wallace, driving for a team that plans to run a limited schedule this season, posted the fastest lap of standard test runs with a speed of 184.053 miles per hour. When a large group of cars ran in a drafting pack - as they will in competition, the speeds increased significantly, and Busch had the top speed: 184.999.

Other top drivers in single-car time runs were Mike Skinner, 183.786; Michael Waltrip, 183.572; and Bobby Labonte, 183.539.

Elliott Sadler, who has moved from the Wood Brothers team to Robert Yates Racing, had the fastest single-car run in a Ford at 183.505. Perhaps tellingly, he was the only Ford driver in the top 10.

Tossed into the Daytona mix this year are some new variables. Chevrolet and Pontiac are racing with updated models, and all teams are dealing with new NASCAR rules that have made all four competing models very close in aerodynamic qualities.

"We think we're pretty good - at least as good as the competition," said General Motors engineer Terry Laise. "The Dodges may be better than what they're showing right now. At this time of the year in these tests, people hold a little bit back."

Other than situations in which new drivers are working out communications issues with new crew chiefs, the Daytona tests are generally no-brainers for drivers. They get in the car, drive it for several hours while technicians scan computer information about shocks and springs and then wait while adjustments are made for another run.

Veteran Jeff Burton compared it to "acupuncture in the eyeballs."

In fact, Burton said, drivers in Daytona tests often spend more time on competitors' cars than their own.

"Here at Daytona people try things that are visual, that you can see," he said. "You just try to be observant and look and see what other people are doing, because a lot of things here you don't think would work do work. When you see someone doing something or you just watch what everybody is doing, it can sometimes spark an interest in an area you otherwise wouldn't have interest in."

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