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Caraviello: Toughest part of winning at Infineon may be before race begins

June 25, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

SONOMA, Calif. -- Toughest part of winning at Infineon Raceway may be before race even begins

Back during his days as a crew chief in NASCAR's premier series, Robbie Loomis once took Jeff Gordon to a road course in Virginia to prepare for the annual event at Infineon Raceway. They put in a certain steering box, toyed with the front-end settings, and thought they had a combination that would work on race day. Then they made the long trip out to Northern California wine country, put the same setup in the No. 24 car, and realized just how wrong they had been.

"We couldn't make a lap," remembered Loomis, now vice president of race operations at Richard Petty Motorsports. Out came the steering box, in went new front-end settings, and suddenly one of the sport's top teams was scrambling on the fly. It's a scenario many crew chiefs can relate to -- gathering information at a non-NASCAR-sanctioned road course in preparation for the race in Sonoma and thinking they've hit upon something, only to find out that the information doesn't translate to the Sprint Cup track. The process has become so bedeviling that some teams have eschewed road-course testing altogether in advance of Sunday's race.

"This time, with the success of last year's race and qualifying, we felt like we could come back and just work from that baseline of where we were last year."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

"I just felt like when we came here last year, we weren't really where we needed to be with the things that we did at the test, the way that the car travels with the elevation changes," said Kevin Harvick. "And there's just a lot of differences with the surfaces and things like that. We didn't do any testing. Finally, we just ended it."

Granted, in an era of limited testing stemming from the ban NASCAR implemented for cost-saving reasons in the depths of the recent recession, usable information for any sanctioned track can be difficult to come by. And yet, when it comes to road courses, many teams make annual treks to places like Virginia International Raceway and Road Atlanta in an effort to make small gains in areas they feel like will help them when they arrive at Sonoma or Watkins Glen International. Kyle Busch credits work at Road Atlanta with helping him sweep the two Sprint Cup road courses in 2008, and the No. 18 team returned to the Georgia course in advance of this weekend's event.

"Hopefully, that's our biggest help," Busch said. "I feel like that place is closer to Watkins Glen than it is Sonoma, but knowing what we run here at Sonoma versus what we run at Watkins Glen or what the difference is it takes in setup, you learn what you can to make your car better at Road Atlanta for Watkins Glen, and then you make the changes that you know to make for Sonoma. That's kind of how we play it."

It's an inexact science at best, given the often stark differences in grip, track surface, temperature and elevation from one layout to another. Last year, Busch's team went to Kershaw Motorsports Park in South Carolina to do road-course testing and the driver felt the effort wasn't worth the results. Gordon's team grew so frustrated with the lack of transferable information they were getting from VIR and Road Atlanta that earlier this month they struck out for a new venue, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, to prep for Infineon. The No. 24 team went there with road-course specialist Boris Said, who is driving a Hendrick-built car this weekend. Although Gordon feels confident the test was productive, there's always the risk that the information gained will be lost in translation from one track to another.

"A lot of places we've run into that before," said Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief. "You get it going at that track, and it's hard to say, oh, I'm going to go give up 90 percent of the track and work on this one area. If there are other cars testing there and you're two seconds off, you're wondering, what's going on? It's tough. You struggle with that everywhere. We'd never been to Mid-Ohio before, so it will be good to see how all that works. We may leave here saying, boy, we shouldn't have done that."

Given the lack of certainties, some teams simply don't bother anymore. Prior to this weekend, Juan Montoya said the last time he was on a road course was last year's event at Watkins Glen. "A lot of times, it's hard," he said at Infineon. "The places that you can go, they are just very different. You don't have a place similar to this somewhere close." Defending race winner Jimmie Johnson hasn't road-course tested this year, either, and it's because he's grown frustrated with being led in one direction by test information only to have to go in another once he arrives in Sonoma.

"I was just talking with Boris [Said] about the two tracks that he went to. He left Road Atlanta and thought that they found some things that made sense, and then went to Mid-Ohio. And none of it really applied to Mid-Ohio, so now they're coming here with two test sessions under their belts and not sure what's going to work. And more confused," Johnson said. "We've been through that song and dance year after year. This time, with the success of last year's race and qualifying, we felt like we could come back and just work from that baseline of where we were last year. No doubt that I am going to need a few laps to kind of get my rhythm of road course racing again, but at least we're not chasing the setup, we'll just be getting me reps."

"I think a lot of guys just want to go and get in a rhythm, but after you've been to these places eight, nine, 10 times, you pretty much know what you need to do."

--KEVIN HARVICK

Harvick agreed. "I think a lot of guys just want to go and get in a rhythm, but after you've been to these places eight, nine, 10 times, you pretty much know what you need to do," he said. "And it's not like when we used to come here and everybody was always trying to come up with new transmission ratios and things to get better. Now, you're kind of in a box, and I'd rather see my guys fresh and the cars prepared right in the shop instead of taking them out of the shop for a day or two and really having to go to the race track, and be miserable by the time you get to the end of the week. Whatever week it is, it just makes for a long week for those guys, and I would rather just have them fresh and [doing] the things we know we need to do for this particular race track."

It's far from a recent phenomenon. Even back in the days when NASCAR allowed organizations seven tests a year on Cup tracks, Loomis said race teams rarely ventured all the way out to Infineon, preferring more geographically convenient layouts like VIR. Sometimes drivers would come to Sonoma on their own to take part in the driving school, but that was more to familiarize themselves with the race track than to gain any kind of technical information. The last time he tested at Infineon, Loomis remembers, was in the late 1990s with Wally Dallenbach Jr., and the session paid off with an eventual third-place finish. Even though NASCAR teams can no longer test on the venues they compete at (other than Goodyear tire tests), Loomis is still among those who is a firm believer in the process.

"There's probably only 10 or 15 percent of good you can get out of testing those other tracks, especially when you're not on the same tire," said Loomis, crew chief for Gordon during their 2001 championship season. "So you've got to make sure you understand 100 percent of what you're doing with that 10 or 15 percent. ... It's definitely enough to help you win. With everybody running as close as they do, if you get a 10 percent better understanding of what you're doing, that can go a long way."

Loomis' belief is that you test for tracks where you have the best chance of winning. Following that lead, RPM drivers Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger, both former road-course drivers, have each tested three times for Sunday's event -- twice at Road Atlanta and once at VIR -- beginning as far back as late last year. There's always the danger that the information won't translate. "I hope that's not the case," Loomis said. Saturday's practice sessions saw Allmendinger run consistently in the top 10 and Ambrose in the top 15, but the race will ultimately determine whether the effort paid off.

"Both those guys are really good on road courses," Loomis said. "We just wanted to make sure we did our best to give them their best shot."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.