DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It’s been a long time since drivers and race teams have looked forward to testing. But when the three-day Preseason Thunder opens Thursday at the Daytona International Speedway everyone will be eager to log as many monotonous laps as possible.
NASCAR’s sixth generation car has created a real challenge for teams getting ready for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500. Brand identity has returned to give each manufacturer a distinctive look, and the changes are so dramatic last year’s setups now are useless.
“We need to understand how the 2013 cars work,” said Scott Miller, executive vice president of competition at Michael Waltrip Racing. “We hardly have any miles on them. This car is a whole new beast for us. Daytona is going to be an exploratory test. There are a lot of things we are going to test down there.”
Chevrolet will debut the new SS, a car originally built in Australia. Toyota will stick with the Camry, while Ford has the Fusion. Dodge has withdrawn from the sport.
The track opens at 9 a.m. all three days. NASCAR will restrict the morning sessions to single-car runs, and then open the 2.5-mile raceway to multi-car drafts in the afternoon.
NASCAR didn’t release the specifications for the new car until a month ago. Most teams still are waiting to build up their fleets until the upcoming test is over because most believe the sanctioning body will make more changes.
“The test will be a work in progress for NASCAR, the teams and the drivers,” said former crew chief Larry McReynolds. “I’d love to say we will roll in there and everything will be outstanding with the new car with no changes or modifications needed, but there will be no way that will happen. We’ll possibly see NASCAR make small tweaks every day, if not every day during the lunch break and then again at the end of the day.”
McReynolds will be part of Speed TV’s 12 hours of live coverage (1-5 p.m., daily).
Since every team basically is starting from scratch, there will be a greater emphasis on getting a jump on the competition. That’s why everyone has a lot of things they want to accomplish at Daytona.
“It’s too early to say whether anybody is ahead of anybody yet,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “A situation like this is where everybody is kind of scrambling to learn as much as they can. There are some teams that will stand out, I’m sure.”
Unlike a typical race weekend, NASCAR will allow cars to be fitted with electronic devices to measure speed, aerodynamics and other variables. Teams will have more engineers with computers at the test than mechanics. The routine is tedious – running a lap or two, followed by several minutes of computer downloads. Changes to the cars are done in small increments – often less than 1/16th of an inch at a time so engineers can get precise information. Then it’s back on the track to start the cycle over again.
During a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, drivers said the new body styles unexpectedly created a lot more speed. In fact, some said the cars felt too fast.
“I’m interested to see how NASCAR will respond to the people complaining about the cars being too fast,” said retired champion Darrell Waltrip. “Are we going to let them run at Daytona and Talladega (Superspeedway) like we did last year? Are we going to let them run over 200 mph or are we going to see NASCAR slow the cars down to a point the racing won’t be as good at those big tracks?
“We need those fast speeds at Daytona and Talladega to put on a great show.”
The search for that speed starts Thursday.
PIT STOPS: Sprint is the new title sponsor for the exhibition race Feb. 16 at the Daytona International Speedway, replacing longtime sponsor Budweiser. The Sprint Unlimited at Daytona will be among pole winners from the previous season … Clint Bowyer will be the newest NASCAR driver to drive in the Rolex 24 at Daytona later this month. He will drive with Michael Waltrip and Robert Kaufman in a Ferrari 458 GT. Other NASCAR regulars scheduled to drive in the 24-hour sports car race are: Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Nelson Piquet Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger.