Daytona testing to shed light on 2014 lineups
January 08, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Complete Preseason Thunder schedule
It's been just over a month since Jimmie Johnson stood on a stage in Las Vegas and was honored for winning his sixth championship in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but engines are set to fire again Thursday at Daytona International Speedway as Preseason Thunder begins its 2014 edition. As much a promotional event as it is an on-track test, these next several days in central Florida never fail to whet the appetite of race fans waiting out the short, cold days until the Daytona 500.
That will certainly be the case again this week, when just the sight of Jimmie, Jeff, Junior and the rest of NASCAR's stars on the high banks of the sport's most famous track will have motorheads from coast to coast pining for Feb. 23. And yet, the most interesting part of this year's Preseason Thunder may very well be when the Sprint Cup haulers head back to North Carolina, and the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series teams arrive for their first tests at Daytona since 2008.
The following season, in the midst of a financial recession, NASCAR eliminated all testing at sanctioned tracks in an effort to save teams money. Testing has been gradually opened up in the years since, but Daytona had remained solely the province of Sprint Cup teams until this week into next, when the Nationwide and Camping World Truck circuits will each have two days of their own at the 2.5-mile facility. What's going to make all this so interesting is, deals on those respective tours are often famously late in coming together, meaning that the Daytona test will offer the most extended glimpse yet of exactly which drivers are competing for which teams in 2014.
Not everything is a mystery. Nationwide lineups are set at Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, JR Motorsports and Richard Petty Motorsports, and a few other teams have their rosters partially in place. Over in the Truck Series, ThorSport Racing remains intact, and Brad Keselowski Racing has revamped its lineup, and a few pieces are in place at Turner Scott Motorsports. But many question marks remain, ranging from some drivers whose returns are expected but not yet formally announced, to others whose status for 2014 remains as murky as the waters of Lake Lloyd.
For instance, it seems fairly likely that Martinsville race winner Darrell Wallace Jr. will be back in a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck, but that deal has yet to be formally announced. Neither has the breakdown for KBM's second truck, or Penske Racing's No. 22 car, in which Ryan Blaney will run a limited slate. And then, what of Justin Allgaier? Nelson Piquet Jr.? German Quiroga? Reed Sorenson? Ron Hornaday Jr.? Miguel Paludo? There are a lot of familiar names still out there, many of them belonging to past or potential national series race winners, none of them yet attached to an official ride for the coming season.
Then there are the agreements that are coming together on the very eve of testing, with teams set to roll toward Daytona this week. Monday brought the double-barreled announcements of Chase Elliott signing on for a full Nationwide season with JRM, and Sam Hornish Jr. inking a seven-race deal on the same circuit with Joe Gibbs Racing, where he'll share a ride with Kyle Busch. Elliott Sadler will also be back with JGR, which is putting the final touches on a Nationwide lineup that's also likely to include Matt Kenseth in the same limited slate he ran last season.
In fairness, this kind of 11th-hour musical chairs at the Nationwide and Truck level isn’t exactly new, given that deals in those circuits traditionally come together much later than those in the Sprint Cup Series because of the smaller dollar amounts and shorter durations involved. As an example, Brad Keselowski Racing didn't officially announce its 2013 lineup until the middle of last January, a degree of timing that's far from unusual. Many of those drivers facing uncertainty at the moment may well have rides secured by Speedweeks. But having Daytona testing being back on the schedule for all three of NASCAR's national tours almost forces a look at this before the picture is fully developed.
With good reason, of course -- Nationwide haulers roll into Daytona on Saturday, and Truck Series transporters on Monday, and somebody has to test the vehicles carried within. In some cases, we may not know who those drivers are until they arrive in the garage area. Many deals on those levels are likely pending sponsorship, opening the possibility that drivers could test for their 2014 teams even though their rides haven't yet been formally announced. And who knows, maybe there will be a surprise or two. Regardless, the Truck and Nationwide portions of Preseason Thunder should give everyone an early glimpse at how the driver rosters for those two circuits are shaping up.
This is all something the big boys in the Sprint Cup ranks went through months ago, in the flurry of pending transactions that took place toward the end of the 2013 campaign. And in fairness, we've already seen many of those guys in their new livery already, thanks to a December test session at Charlotte that had Kyle Larson in the No. 42, Kevin Harvick in the No. 4, Kurt Busch in the No. 41, Ryan Newman in the No. 31, and Austin Dillon in a vehicle that would become the No. 3. But there's something about Daytona that makes those moves seem that much more tangible, that much more permanent, that much more like a preview of what's to come when the series soon returns to the same facility for real.
But with a few exceptions -- such as, who'll be in the Phoenix Racing car beyond the Daytona 500, and will anyone be driving for BK Racing? -- Sprint Cup rosters are essentially set. That's not the case on the Nationwide and Truck tours, where the jockeying for rides and sponsorships will continue beyond testing, and in some cases right up to the brink of Speedweeks itself.
The big speedway is in the midst of a rebuilding project, with the track's old infrastructure being dismantled and a new one being put up in its place. With the Nationwide and Truck circuits back in town for Preseason Thunder, the Daytona Rising project won't be the only work in progress.