Commentary

Trucker Darnell tops speed charts at Daytona testing

The Nationwide Series wrapped up five days of testing at Daytona International Speedway with little fanfare -- in case you didn't notice, writes Mark Ashenfelter.

Updated: January 24, 2008, 2:23 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

Erik Darnell, who will run for the championship in the Craftsman Truck Series this season, posted the fastest time during five days of Nationwide Series testing at Daytona International Speedway.

Darnell, driving the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford that will be driven by Matt Kenseth during the race, turned a lap of 184.744 mph during his three-day test session.

We have been working tirelessly to give the teams the best possible product to bring back here in February for the race.

-- Toyota's Laerte Zatta

The Nationwide Series field was split in half, with drivers testing for three days apiece. Tony Raines, who is looking for a full-time ride after losing his seat with Hall of Fame Racing in the Sprint Cup Series, was the second fastest with a lap of 184.532 mph in a Braun Racing Toyota.

Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Brad Coleman rounded out the top five speeds of the 43 drivers who turned laps during testing.

Busch was turning his first laps in the series behind the wheel of a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. Busch drove Chevrolets at Hendrick Motorsports before moving to JGR over the offseason.

JGR is in its first year fielding Toyotas and that's caused some extra work for Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on the No. 18 entry driven by Busch.

"The cars seem to be fast. We've just been working on getting them to suck up in the draft. That's what we've been primarily been working on," he said of the first two days of testing. "We didn't work on qualifying stuff a lot, but we were able to find some things that made the car faster in single-car runs."

One of the adjustments was getting used to having engineers from Toyota Racing Development on hand during the test.

"They provide us with a lot of good information. To this point, it's been all good, and I'm sure it will continue to get better," Ratcliff said. "As we go, they will get a better idea of what we need to get the race car to go faster. Hopefully, it will go full circle, and we'll be able to provide them with some things to make all the Toyota teams go faster."

Gibbs was brought into the Toyota fold to help elevate the program after a rocky debut campaign a year ago. Laerte Zatta, the program manager for Toyota's Cup and Nationwide programs, said the test session was vital for the manufacturer, which is using a new motor in the series this season.

A year ago, Toyotas in the Busch (now Nationwide) and Craftsman Truck Series were allowed to use engines that created more horsepower than the Cup engines. Now, the engines in those two series are in line with the Cup engines.

"We have been working tirelessly to give the teams the best possible product to bring back here in February for the race," Zatta said. "We'll take the information that we learned here back to our shop, do some work in the wind tunnel, and hopefully make some gains so all of the Toyota teams can benefit.

"We want to come back here in a few weeks with more power than how we left this test, and hopefully have all of the Camrys there at the end, competing for the win."

Jason Keller, meanwhile, just hopes he's racing in Daytona come February. His CJM Racing Chevrolet was just 37th fastest, but that's not the veteran's biggest concern.

The team said last year it would compete in the year's first 10 races while attempting to find sponsorship, and if a sponsor wasn't found, Keller would be behind the wheel. Now, though, Keller thinks the team might be close to landing funding -- but it might be tied to a particular driver and that could leave Keller on the outside looking in.

"There is a little bit of a gray area," Keller said. "I'm not trying to throw the towel in, but there are some things that have popped up that could change [his status driving for the team]. There again, we could go on as planned and work those first 10 hard and hopefully find a sponsor to go all the way.

"It's hard to go into this part of the season with a little bit of an unknown. I wish it was a little bit more clear so the guys could focus, I could focus. Instead of focusing on maybe handing out business cards down in the garage area, maybe I could focus on the task at hand."

Keller hasn't reached that point yet, but he's prepared, saying, "It might come up soon."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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