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NASCAR looks for more practice time
With a new Sprint Cup car coming in 2013 and an effort afoot to improve the product on the track, NASCAR is looking to add additional tests to next year's schedule.
The current testing ban was announced at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2008 for the following season as part of the sanctioning body's effort at cost containment. Since then, testing has picked up as Goodyear rolls out new tire combinations for existing tracks or after tracks were repaved.
However, NASCAR is now considering lightening the ban — if it's amenable to teams. Adding five to seven test dates was one of several topics that have been broached with team "business types," according to vice president of competition Robin Pemberton.
"We told them there's a bunch of things we're looking at for next year exactly the way we look at everything at this time of the year, whether it's the testing policies and things like that," Pemberton said. "If they felt like they could talk to their principal parties — if it came up or any ideas that they would be open to or not open to — so we can prepare for 2013."
Pemberton says the testing policy is one of the "most reviewed" programs in NASCAR. It's of concern because of a desire to "help maintain a competitive balance in the garage area" without watching the teams go broke in the process.
But after four seasons without full-blown testing, why change the policy now?
"Knowing that the teams, quite a few of them now as the economy has gotten better for them, venture out and test at more places more often, it's time to look at that again because it's obvious that the best and the most quality testing is done at the tracks that host our events," Pemberton said.
Matt Kenseth, NASCAR'S 2003 Cup champion, doesn't believe testing is a necessity. While he agrees with Pemberton that logging laps on the actual tracks where Sprint Cup competes makes the most sense, he doesn't believe the new car warrants a change in the policy.
"I like no testing," Kenseth said. "It's the same for everybody. This new car, honestly, is really not that different. It's a new body. The chassis is the same. The ground clearances are the same."
He also is aware of the costs involved.
"I'm not an owner, so I don't have to pay for it," Kenseth said. "At Roush, I really shouldn't say there's a testing ban, but we haven't been anywhere to test. We've been told pretty much we can't test. It costs a lot of money to go test, and we feel like a lot of these tracks we don't learn a lot from."
Teams could, however, learn from testing on tracks the frequent.
"If they could totally eliminate Nashville, Little Rock, road courses (Virginia International Raceway, Road Atlanta or Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, SC) and let us go to the tracks we race at," Kenseth said, "I think that would be OK because the costs would end up being about the same. I don't mind testing. I don't think it's necessary most of the time, but I don't mind testing."
His owner, Jack Roush, certainly minds the expense, as does Richard Childress. Roush, who scaled back his Sprint Cup operation from four teams to three this season for the first time since 1996, would love to operate at NASCAR's full allotment of squads, but sponsorship has been difficult to secure.
"Right now, under the present economic circumstance with sponsors and teams, to open the testing policy is a bad economic move," Roush said. "It would cost the teams more money to be able to test. The testing that makes the most sense is the testing at Michigan and Pocono where you test the day before the race.
"But to have open testing, to go wherever you want whenever you want is unnecessary and costly."
Pemberton says opening the tracks a day early won't serve teams that are looking to test at a particular track — particularly at a venue where either a driver or an organization as a whole has a weakness.
"It may be useless for some and better for others," Pemberton said. "We have to look at what is best for competitive racing across the board. We know one aspect may have a better economic impact than the other, but we're also doing this to give everyone a fair shot at being competitive and putting on better races."
Perhaps the group of drivers who have suffered the most during the testing ban has been incoming rookies — particularly racers such as Joey Logano, AJ Allmendinger, Landon Cassill and Aric Almirola.
Pemberton doesn't believe that limited opportunities to test has discouraged prospective Cup candidate to the tour but feels it could "be discouraging" for the newcomers who have attempted to gain equal footing among the established racers.
"This is so competitive I would think drivers need to be able to practice and have ample opportunity to look at data or to reflect on how they were practicing and what the vehicles they're driving handle like so their crews can make better decisions on chassis set up," said Pemberton, a former crew chief. "From time to time things like this happen where we have to protect the garage and we limit testing, and I would say that it's tough. I would say it's been very tough.
"But there's a light at the end of the tunnel when you look at the crop of rookies that are coming up — probably some of the best talent from across the board from the K&N Series, the Truck and Nationwide series."
Next season, NASCAR's potential Sprint Cup rookie crop could include Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon — one of the most impressive freshman classes to date. Still, without sponsorship, there will be no funds to test.
Similar to Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing downsized from four to three teams. But Childress has a personal investment at RCR with two grandsons coming down the pike — Austin and Ty Dillon — and testing at some point will become a necessary evil.
Ty Dillon, 20, is currently third in the Truck standings and will make his Nationwide Series debut on Saturday. Austin Dillon, 22, is third in the NNS and made his Cup debut last year in Kansas. Although the boys have backing in their respective series, it will take at least three times the budget to graduate to the Sprint Cup Series.
"We'll have to test," Childress said. "There's going to be a reason to test more next year, but I don't know if that's enough. Every time you test, it's like running a race. It's expensive. With the economy like it is, we won't be taking all three cars to the same test, that's for sure. It's too expensive. You just can't do it."
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