Drivers, owners debate testing ban as Daytona practice looms
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- With the 2010 NASCAR season winding down, many top teams are already looking ahead to next season. In years past, that meant offseason testing, but NASCAR banned that two years ago as a cost-saving measure, and is only lifting it at Daytona in mid-December and mid-January because of a recent repaving job there. But is it time to ease the moratorium even more than that or do away with it for good? Drivers and owners shared their thoughts on that subject with SI.com last week.
Most, including Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, say no because it would cost more money and teams would spend even more time on the road. Bear in mind that once drivers were given a taste of what it feels like to be out of a car for nearly 2 1/2 months, it's understandable that many don't want to add two- and three-day tests back to their schedule.
"Personally, I like it as it is," said Hamlin. "I think that our season is longer than any other sport and, obviously, you can really get saturated with it at times because it is so long. I think cutting back on testing [has helped] a lot of these guys stay with their families a little bit longer and I think that's pretty important. I think it was a good thing when they cut back the testing. I don't think that the racing paid any price when they did it. If anything, it became more competitive."
However, one of the sport's top drivers and team owners does see some value to testing in a slightly different form.
"I think it would send the wrong message in this economy because it is very expensive," Jeff Gordon said. "It is one of those things where there are teams out there that can't afford to do that amount of testing, but will force themselves to because other teams are. For us, if we are not testing, we are going to find a way to get an edge and are going to spend money in other areas. You have to look at this sport across the board. We have the Daytona test in December and another one in January, and with the new repave I think it is important to do that. They are talking about another test at Kentucky because they may be repaving there, and how we are going to handle that?"
Gordon has a simple solution to the testing issue and it is one that doesn't require any extra days at the track -- just maybe a little extra time during practice.
"Every team out there has data acquisition," he said. "We have talked to NASCAR about having the data acquisition on the cars on Friday during practice and we can take it off for qualifying or just take it off on Saturday. We wouldn't need to test if we could do that. And we all have that equipment already. But it does take time to put it on and take it off, so there are some issues there. It's not a clean-cut, simple thing, or we would be doing it.
"All we need is the latest data from the track. There are travels, loads, bumps and seams, and that allows us to come back and dissect through it without having to go to the race track for two or three days and test."
One argument against testing would be that strong teams would simply get better while the weaker teams would fall farther behind. From team owner Rick Hendrick's point of view, the biggest problem with modifying a testing policy is getting the owners to agree.
"NASCAR has looked at it and you can't get any of the team owners to agree," he said. "If everybody will agree on something, we could do it. We don't need to go back full-blown. And then some owners say we want 10 tests and then they call you and say they don't want any tests.
"Until the owners can agree on what they want, I think NASCAR is going to keep it like it is."
Hendrick agrees with Gordon's data acquisition compromise for Friday practice and has asked NASCAR to implement that.
"That would be something that as fuel injection comes along and you can plug and play, and NASCAR will be more open to that," Hendrick said. "If you go back and look, testing didn't hurt anybody or help anybody -- it was about the same. I think where it really hurts is if you have a rookie who is trying to come into the sport, they don't get any extra time on the track."
Of course, talk to every driver in the garage area and you will get varying opinions. Jeff Burton of Richard Childress Racing sees both sides of the issue.
"I like to test, but I am a proponent of the testing policy that we have in effect today," he said. "I think that if we can save the car owners some money by not testing and not having a negative impact on the race, then I think that is a great thing. If we believe that not testing hurts the racing, then we should test some more. But I don't have any evidence that's going on.
"I think going to Daytona is a great idea with the repave. There is Kentucky and there is a possibility of some other race tracks being paved. I think that we should go to those race tracks to test for obvious reasons. Short of that I don't think that testing should be allowed because it saves the car owners a lot of money and doesn't negatively impact the racing. The teams that are best suited for testing or not testing are the teams that are going to be successful, and it is your job as a team to structure your team so you can be successful no matter what the rule is."
The biggest motivating factor to return to testing would be to catch up to the four-time Cup championship duo of driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. They have set the standard for what it takes to win championships, always seeming to be a step or two ahead of any other combination in the sport.
Johnson would like to see a return to testing.
"I understand the economy and the difficult situations that puts the race teams in," he said. "We've talked about it for years and there are a few options that would work, but at the end of the day, I think a handful of test sessions for all of the race teams at different tracks -- where we can collect data -- would be beneficial for everyone. There are arguments that say come in a day early, let the teams have the day and go about it that way. At one point, we had, I think, five test sessions that were open test sessions for the sport to come in and run. That would be an option. Or, you open it up and let teams travel to maybe five tracks of their choice to collect information.
"Yes, it is going to cost a little bit of money, but teams are going to get so much out of it from a technical standpoint. I think it will help improve the racing, or at least take it in the right direction and make all the cars competitive."
When 7-Eleven announced just a few days after the IndyCar Series season ended that it would not return as the primary sponsor for Tony Kanaan's car at Andretti Autosport, it was the beginning of the end of an outstanding combination in the sport. Kanaan was Michael Andretti's pick to be his driver when he purchased the team from Barry Green in 2002 and moved the operation to what was then the Indy Racing League in 2003. Kanaan delivered the team its first championship in 2004 and won 14 series races in his eight seasons, making him the winningest driver in the team's history.
Kanaan showed his loyalty to the team in 2008 when he turned down an offer to drive the No. 10 IndyCar at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing to sign a five-year deal with Andretti that ran through 2013. Ironically enough, Dario Franchitti took over the No. 10 and has since won two IndyCar titles and two Indy 500s.
Last week, Andretti and Kanaan reached an agreement to terminate the contract after just two seasons, leaving the talented driver from Brazil without a ride for 2011. Just moments after announcing Kanaan was leaving, the team announced Ryan Hunter-Reay's new contract will keep him with the team through the 2012 season. The two sides actually agreed to the new deal the night before the 2010 Indianapolis 500.
Kanaan told me on Sunday night that despite the setback, he is prepared to move on and find a quality ride for next season.
"It's not a good position to be in because Andretti has been my home for what seems like forever," he said by phone from his Miami home. "Obviously, I understand what happened there, and unfortunately that is life. It's not a good position for me at all. I have nothing right now. They announced it on Friday and I haven't had time to talk to another team yet."
Kanaan is easily the best of the four drivers at Andretti Autosport. Ryan Hunter-Reay had an outstanding initial season with the team by winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and finishing sixth in IndyCar points. Danica Patrick is better known for her celebrity than what she has done on the race track and Marco Andretti has struggled to live up to the high expectations that come with being Mario Andretti's grandson and Michael Andretti's son.
Kanaan is a true race driver and, in many ways, is the most intimidating driver in IndyCar. So how does the best driver on the team end up losing his ride?
"You should ask Michael Andretti that question, not me," Kanaan said. "It's a matter of funding. They don't have the funding to run my car. Some people think it is just my salary, but it's the reality of the racing community and the world right now. Financially, they can't afford to run my car and can't guarantee anything. Michael didn't sign me for five years to let me go after the second year. He got surprised by 7-Eleven, so there are no hard feelings. I respect Michael and can't thank him enough for all he has done for me."
There are no openings at the two best teams in the series -- Team Penske and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. That leaves teams such as Newman-Haas, Panther, Dreyer & Reinbold and De Ferran/Dragon Racing as options for Kanaan.
"I have to look at every single team that I have a possibility to race for, so let's see what is going to happen," Kanaan said. "Right now, I know a lot of people want me in the series and I will try to see if I can get the help from every single sponsor I have, but there is no guarantee. I want to race and I'll still be racing. My heart is in IndyCar and I have no doubt they want me. But financially, what can we do to make that happen? This is going to be a restart, and I think I'm pretty good at that."
Kanaan and fellow Brazilian Gil de Ferran would be a great fit because they are friends and Kanaan could give the team the boost it's looking for.
"Gil's team is attractive but do they have the funding to run two cars? I don't know," Kanaan said. "Newman/Haas is attractive and has had some great drivers. Dreyer & Reinbold with Justin Wilson as a driver and me, if we could make that happen it would be a great combination.
"So maybe I'm not taking a step back, but a step forward. I think I can add a lot to the team that I go to and we can build something together."
Kanaan was the "team leader" at Andretti Autosport, always willing to help set up the race cars for his three teammates and shouldering the burden of testing. Now, the trio of Hunter-Reay, Patrick and Marco Andretti will have to do that on their own.
"No offense to him, but somebody else needs to win. Everybody but them wants somebody else to win. I like Jimmie as good as anybody. But for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us needs to make something happen. I can promise you that."
"There is a balance there. I think you're always going to feel like you're always one behind. You're always going to feel like the scorecard isn't even. My brother [Kurt Busch] said it last weekend. He's been wrecked by Jeff Gordon however many times and he's done it back to him once and he still feels like the scorecard isn't even. I've got that same thing with other drivers. I've been wrecked by them a few times and finally I get back at them and do something to them and then they want to come back and pay me back because they didn't know the scorecard wasn't even. We all need to sit down at the beginning of the year and figure out how many times everybody needs paid back. 'Look, all right, I'm going to wreck you five times this year, so just plan on it.'"
With just three races to go, the Chase has the closest spread between the top three drivers at this stage of the season since 2004. Finally, NASCAR has the type of Chase it has so desperately needed, and the trip to Texas this weekend will allow Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick the chance to duke it out at one of the sport's premier facilities.