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NASCAR: Manufacturers, teams use races as test sessions for upcoming Chase

HAMPTON, Ga. – Toyota brought a few tricked-up engines to the Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend for a 180-mph dress rehearsal for the upcoming Chase for the Championship.

While that experiment didn’t work – three of them failed – it won’t keep all three manufacturers from using the rest of the season as a glorified test session.

Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer both had experimental engines for the race. Toyota picked those two drivers because neither had anything to lose. Hamlin missed four races earlier this season while recovering from a broken vertebra, so he won’t be in the playoffs. Bowyer clinched his spot in the Chase a week earlier.

Toyota was trying to find more power and the only way to make sure it was both fast and reliable was to run them under race conditions.

Hamlin’s team found a problem after pole qualifying and changed one engine. Both Hamlin and Bowyer blew up their engines during Sunday’s race.

If the experiment worked, Toyota drivers probably would have used the new engines during the Chase. Since they didn’t work, the company will look for other ways to gain an advantage.

“We’re trying some different things,” Hamlin said. “We know that. That’s part of being the ‘Guinea pig’ for the rest of the year is that you’re going to have these mechanical failures because you’re trying to get better. We have nothing to gain from this point on other than save face.”

Asking everyone else to make sacrifices for the playoffs isn’t new. Race teams often use non-Chase drivers to test out new suspension components and setups, while manufacturers try to get all of their teams to share as much information as possible.

And that sometimes creates some apprehension.

Penske Racing is trying to get Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano into the Chase. Roush Fenway Racing is trying to get Greg Biffle qualified. Both teams are part of the Ford camp, so they’re expected to share information – even if success comes at the expense of a manufacturer teammate.

“It almost works the same, in my opinion, as two teammates coming down to racing for the championship,” Biffle said. “They’ve shared information all along, they’re looking at each other’s setups and doing all that. I don’t think anything really changes as far as a team goes when it comes down to if two guys are racing for the title.”

Biffle said his team will share basic information with the Penske team at the Richmond International Raceway this Saturday in the final race before the Chase starts. But neither team is likely to share all of their secrets, Biffle said.

“We don’t share that much technical data as much as drive files and engines and things like that,” he said.

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have been involved in tight championship battles in the past, which really challenges the flow of information. Both drivers work for Hendrick Motorsports and their owner, Rick Hendrick, expects everyone to have an open book.

If Biffle makes the Chase this Saturday night, he will face a similar in-house test by racing against Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards.

“If it came down to Carl and I running first and second in the points, that’s a good question of how that information flows,” Biffle said.

As soon as the playoffs start Sept. 15 at the Chicagoland Speedway, Bowyer won’t be asked to do any more experimenting. In fact, he hopes to be using ideas that have proven to be successful under true race conditions.

“We're pushing hard for the Chase to try to win a championship – certainly on the engine category, with our chassis, everything,” Bowyer said. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s part of motor sports. Everybody at TRD [Toyota Racing Development] – it’s been a rough weekend [at Atlanta]. They do such a great job. There’s a reason we’re up front. It’s because they’re building big horsepower pushing for the Chase and trying to learn as much as we can for the Chase.”

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
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