By now everyone knows that NASCAR has banned testing at all NASCAR-sanctioned tracks (including regional short tracks like Greenville-Pickens and Irwindale Speedway). Daytona was always going to be a race disconnected to the rest of the season, but now that the schedule heads to three straight intermediate tracks we will really find out how important testing is. So what will 2009 look like?
So far teams and drivers have praised the decision for cutting costs (not to mention less rigorous weeks for the drivers) but I’m not easily convinced. Maybe it’s my skeptic nature, but I just have a hard time believing the sport can simply shut off the testing spigot without consequences. Can it really be that simple? The common answer is “yes”, that teams didn’t really gain enough information to justify the expensive outlays for testing at tracks around the country. If that is the case, then why did teams persist with testing on their own? Why such an emphasis on multiple-car teams and devoted testing teams? In 2007 Hendrick Motorsports reportedly tested as many as 50 times during the offseason. They won the first five CoT races and 9 of 16 CoT races for the year. Obviously Hendrick would likely have won some of the races without such extensive testing, but it’s also pretty clear that testing contributed significantly to their success.
NASCAR was in a tough position and they had to help out the teams. Testing is very expensive and a ban saves millions of dollars for the teams, which will directly help the teams struggling to attract sponsorship. On the other hand, these bottom teams are also the ones that most need testing to stay competitive. The top teams will test no matter what. Whether it’s finding other tracks not under NASCAR’s umbrella, having a rival tire company build Goodyear knock-offs, extensive wind tunnel testing or simply building their own personal test tracks, the big boys will find a way to test their cars. It’s the teams like Petty, the Wood Brothers and newcomers like Jeremy Mayfield Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing that will potentially fall even further behind without testing. Both Mayfield and Baldwin have credited the testing ban for easing their path into the Cup series. Creating more opportunities for small teams to compete is a good thing. But making the field and actually competing equally with the top teams are two very different things. How long can Mayfield convince a sponsor that running in the 30′s is a reason to keep funding his team?
One of the major complaints last year from drivers, crew chiefs and fans (and a lowly blogger or two), was that the CoT(Car of Tomorrow until proven otherwise) didn’t offer exciting racing. It was hard to drive, harder to pass and near impossible for crew chiefs to tune. So how will teams improve the CoT without actual on-track data? I think that’s a question that NASCAR will have to answer in the coming months. Saving teams money is great, but if the poor product costs the sport fans and ultimately teams then what did NASCAR really do?