Daytona wraps up coveted testing meet

Updated: January 22, 2011, 3:39 PM ET
Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There's a buzz at Daytona International Speedway, and it's more than the cars humming around the track.

A three-day testing session that concluded Saturday brought fans to the storied speedway a full month before season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 20. They were treated to autograph sessions, question-and-answer forums, and, of course, practice laps, from every driver in attendance.

For new track president Joie Chitwood, it was the perfect kickoff for what he hopes is a frantic month of ticket sales leading into NASCAR's biggest race of the season.

"We want testing all the time because it's the best promotional opportunity any track could have," Chitwood said Saturday. "Believe me, I'll be asking for it every year."

Chitwood shouldn't hold his breath.

NASCAR banned testing after the 2008 season at any sanctioned track as a cost-cutting measure for the race teams. Because the powerhouse organizations were outspending the little teams by millions of dollars on testing programs, NASCAR figured a quick way to even out that financial disparity was to put the brakes on testing.

The unintended consequence, though, was the lack of action the last two offseasons. The four traditional professional sports leagues all have training camps and preseason competition to build some excitement leading into the start of their seasons.

NASCAR missed that the last two years with no Daytona testing. And this week's session was only held because the track was repaved for the first time since 1979 after a pothole marred last year's Daytona 500.

NASCAR had to let tire supplier Goodyear test -- that session drew 17 drivers in December -- then opened the speedway this week for all teams to get a chance to turn laps on the new surface before they report next month for the Daytona 500.

NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton shook his head no when asked if testing could be reinstated, and said this week's session was held only to prepare for the new track surface.

Regardless of the reason, having cars on the track after NASCAR's abbreviated two-month offseason has reignited fan interest at a time when the sport is fighting to stop a slide in attendance and television ratings. The week was marked by healthy debate over NASCAR's consideration of a new points system, as both competitors and fans wait for chairman Brian France's announcement Wednesday on changes to the scoring and championship formats.

And since drivers have been on the new track surface, they've gotten a good sense of what the racing will be like next month.

"It's going to be an exciting Daytona 500 for sure," said three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon. "The drafting [is] a lot more like what you have in Talladega, but yet with the uniqueness that Daytona still brings to it. I think it's going to be very exciting, a lot of grip, a lot of three-wide racing."

Agendas have differed over the three days, as teams worked on specific items.

Few had any interest in participating in drafting sessions, and the occasional two-car hookup punctuated all of Friday and Saturday's first session. Kevin Harvick said Richard Childress Racing didn't think drafting was worth the risk of wrecking a race car.

"There's just hours upon hours put into these race cars," he said. "So when you tear one up, you're looking at putting yourself behind a month on one car to properly [rebuild] it."


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press