I was a little confused looking over the results of last week’s NASCAR Winston Cup test session at Daytona.
The test was for odd-numbered teams, but there were a lot of cars with even numbers showing up in the results. I finally figured out that the “odd” referred to the team’s finishing position in the 2002 points. Duh!
After a slow start on Tuesday, Tony Stewart turned the quickest lap Wednesday morning in his new Chevy, circling the 2.5 mile oval in 49.181 seconds with a speed of 182.997 mph. Rookie Casey Mears, taking over the No. 41 Ganassi Dodge, was second quickest at 49.197. Stewart, with nothing to prove now that
he’s a Winston Cup Champion, has nevertheless cut back his extracurricular activities, including the Indy 500 and the IROC (International Race of Champions) series in order to focus more on his Winston Cup job.
Wednesday afternoon, in near perfect conditions, Mike Wallace took the No. 09 Dodge past 184 mph, turning the fastest time of the three-day test session.
Thursday’s times were a bit slower due to warmer and windier conditions, and Stewart’s teammate Bobby Labonte was fastest at 183.539 mph, driving James Finch’s No. 09, significantly raising the standard for speed in Wednesday’s round of testing at Daytona International Speedway, boosting the preseason
mark past 184 mph. Racing pundits extrapolate that this means a possible pole speed in the 186-187 mph range for the Daytona 500, eclipsing Jimmy Johnson’s 2002 pole speed of 185.831 mph.
Understand, though, that these tests are run without full NASCAR inspections, so teams are trying things out that may not be fully usable in actual competition. This is the first season of the common template as well, with only minimal differences in aerodynamics among the four “makes” of car: Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, and Pontiac.
One thing that will be different at Daytona this year is the traffic jam in the garage area. I’m not referring to race cars, but to the hordes of fans and hangers-on that have recently become the bane of crews and drivers trying to get some work done. I, along with numerous other motorsports writers, noted in 2002 that the situation had gotten out of hand. I recall that in 1998 when I attended the inaugural Winston Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway I was appalled by the throngs of people choking the garage area, and it has only gotten worse.
Finally, in response to complaints by competitors, teams, and working press, NASCAR is going to limit the number of extra passes given out to sponsors and teams, as well as instituting a system of fines for drivers giving autographs in the garage area. This enables the drivers to be the nice guy, saying, “Gee, I’d love to give you an autograph, but NASCAR won’t let me.” NASCAR plans to have scheduled autograph sessions for fans to alleviate the inevitable complaints. Personally, I think it’s about time. Do
other major sports allow fans to traipse through the locker rooms and dugouts, bother players on the bench, and generally make a nuisance of themselves? I’m just glad that NASCAR came to its senses before somebody got run over, killed, or seriously hurt in the garage area. Not to mention the danger of being in close proximity to Tony Stewart or A.J. Foyt in a bad mood!
While the NASCAR boys are testing at Daytona, it’s not the only hot spot for motorsports in Florida. Three CART teams took to the runways of Sebring International Raceway on Thursday and Friday. Newman-Haas racing is auditioning drivers to team with Bruno Junqueira, while Dale Coyne Racing is returning to competition after more than a year away. Herdez Competition is
also involved in the Sebring test with Roberto Moreno, who will team with the injured Mario Dominguez for 2003.
At Homestead, several IRL teams put new car/engine combinations through their paces. Michael Andretti (Team Andretti Green) and Kenny Brack (Team Rahal) were joined by Helio Castroneves (Team Penske), 2002 series champion Sam
Hornish (Team Panther), along with Al Unser, Jr., Jacques Lazier, Tony Kanaan, Buddy Rice, Tomas Scheckter, Felipe Graffone, and Vitor Meira.
Andretti, who won CART races at Homestead in 1997 and 1998, is looking forward to returning to the venue for the IRL season opener.
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist.