Rain can't dampen hopes of level playing field
January 17, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Editor's note: Cars are on the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Day 2. Testing has been extended to 7:30 p.m.
CONCORD, N.C. -- When it comes to competing in the Sprint Cup Series, an organization like Front Row Motorsports is often at a disadvantage. It doesn’t have as many people, as much sponsorship or the superior research and development capabilities of the top teams on NASCAR’s premier circuit.
What it has now, though, are updated race cars -- an improvement mandated by NASCAR’s move to the more brand-identifiable Generation-6 vehicle beginning with the 2013 campaign. No question, it’s an added financial and managerial hurdle for a small team, but one that in the end could help an outfit like Front Row achieve its goal of becoming more competitive with the organizations that have historically dominated the sport’s top tour.
“By NASCAR making the decision to change these cars, it forced a team like Front Row Motorsports to go through their whole inventory and build new components,” said David Ragan, who drives the team’s No. 34 car. “Where in years past, what you raced at Homestead was legal the following year, and you didn’t really have to spend any money on your inventory. But now, the smaller one-, two-, three-car teams are forced by the sanctioning body to go through their whole inventory, clean up parts and pieces, (and) build new pieces. ... That will help close the gap a little bit.”
"We like to be prepared, and we will (be) here in the next few weeks."
-- Brian Pattie, Michael Waltrip Racing crew chief
Given that Front Row’s top driver finished 28th in final points last season, the team will surely try to take advantage. Thursday was scheduled to bring another step in the Gen-6 car’s progression, but persistent rain canceled the first day of a two-day test at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The cars will be on the track Friday until 7:30 p.m.
“It’s really about the teams right now,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president for competition, “and most of the feedback is that everybody‘s got enough work to do that they would rather run one good day than to run on Saturday.”
Rain or shine, work on the new car continues inside team shops, where organizations are building up their fleets in preparation for the season. That process is slower than teams are accustomed to, because they don’t build all the parts themselves -- the deck lid comes from a single supplier, Composite Resources of Rock Hill, S.C., while hoods are obtained through respective manufacturers. Brian Pattie, crew chief for Clint Bowyer’s car at Michael Waltrip Racing, said his team is behind relative to what they’re used to, but believes that will change.
“Don’t take it the wrong way -- being behind is not a bad thing when you have new cars,” Pattie said. “It’s just, we’re not where we were 12 months ago prepping for Daytona. But we will be. The guys are working six days a week, 14-hour days trying to get ready. Come the week after the (Daytona) 500, we should be in really good shape.”
Pattie said each of MWR’s three full-time teams has six cars built, compared to 10 or 12 apiece at this point a year ago. Ragan said Front Row, which also fields the entries of David Gilliland and Josh Wise, has about seven total cars built.
“We’ll need to have about triple that,” he added. The rush isn’t necessarily for Daytona, but to be ready for the ensuing weeks once the 38-race season begins for real. Toward that end, Pattie believes teams will eventually catch up.
“We like to be prepared,” he said, “and we will (be) here in the next few weeks.”
The Charlotte test also offers teams another opportunity to roll through NASCAR’s laser inspection system, which will debut for 2013. The device -- which uses lasers to scan different points on the car -- was also available for teams to try at Charlotte, Talladega and Martinsville last season, and Pemberton said teams have been in and out of the NASCAR Research and Development Center matching the new system to what they see in their simulations back at the shop.
“We’ve been doing that all winter,” Pattie said. “(We’ve) been working with NASCAR since probably (the 2012 finale at) Homestead … so we won’t have a problem when we get to the 500.”
Pemberton said teams will go through the new system at Charlotte to help work out any final bugs. “We’ve gotten some pretty good feedback about it,” he said. “Teams, now that they know how we’re going to measure, they’re able to recreate a similar type of number system at their facility, not using a laser platform. … Some of them have done a really nice job. They’ll come in, and the numbers will match identical to what they had at the shops.”
The continuing rain shut down the garage area early Thursday afternoon, leaving teams just one more track day to fine-tune their Generation-6 vehicles before they head to Daytona for Speedweeks. Much like the test last month at Charlotte, when Kasey Kahne turned what would have been a track-record lap, not all the cars on site had all their 2013 pieces in place. This time around, though, drivers are warning not to read too much into Friday’s speed chart -- particularly since very cold temperatures are in store.
“It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are,” Ragan said. “Certainly you would like to be as fast as you can, but you just want to go through some trial and error … to help us make some better decisions for (Las) Vegas and for California.”
“Just like Daytona, it’s like the first day of school,” agreed Bobby Labonte, who drives the No. 47 car for JTG Daugherty Racing. “You can make a lot out of it, but I don’t know if it’s going to be true gospel that the lineup tomorrow afternoon, you’re going to say, ‘Well, that’s the way it’s going to be for the year.’ There’s no way it can be. But you’ll see the teams that are doing the right things, they’re going to always continue to do the right things.”
And teams like Front Row will keep playing catch-up, even with a fleet of new cars.
“These teams that have money more in their bank account, they can go test more, they have more employees, they can R&D cars at a faster rate, so they learn at a faster rate,” Ragan said. “So absolutely, the playing field was very level when everything was all new. But now each team is learning at a different rate, and some cars are going to be stronger than others.”