Ford's newest: Joey Logano (L) and teammate Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
So pre-season testing is over, a couple days at Daytona last week, a day at Charlotte, and the kickoff Daytona Shootout is only 28 days away.
Testing is over?
Well, not so fast.
The 'official' testing may be over, but teams expect -- and apparently need -- more testing, especially on the mid-size tracks, before heading to Las Vegas for the new season's first major test on one of those key tracks in the March 10th 400. Drivers will face 12 events this season on 1-1/2-mile tracks. For many drivers this Charlotte test was the first significant run on one of the 1-1/2-miles.
Ford's Greg Biffle says the Charlotte test Friday was really his first run with the new model "in the configuration we're actually going to race it in."
Partly that may be because there apparently has been a significant shortage of 'real' car parts.
That the entire 2013 program is still evolving is not necessarily a good sign. In fact, the sanctioning body, though it says it's got the package all figured out, will probably have to make some tweaks during the early season. And who opens with an edge, well, that might not be the key indicator of who's going to have what as the season goes on.
But then all this uncertainty might be a good sign too....because it could lead to some Sunday drama on the track...something sorely lacking the last two seasons.
Jeff Burton makes it clear what the real bottom line is here: "Is it an exciting day at the track, whether you are watching it on TV or watching it at the track? Without that, the sport is in trouble."
So when the Charlotte Media Tour opens Monday, two things to consider: expect to hear a lot of 'positive' PR push about the upcoming season...and take a close look at just what the NASCAR 'media' itself includes this year. The changing shape of NASCAR media over the past few years has been one of this sport's major stories, if not well covered at all.
Toyota's Martin Truex Jr. -- a lot of questions still, so more testing likely (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Daytona test proved one thing - which Dodge's chief NASCAR engineer Howard Comstock had warned about -- that the bumpers on the new 2013 stockers don't match up...and that that could create some serious issues.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. learned that point when he triggered a big crash at Daytona by tangling with Marcos Ambrose. Earnhardt drives a Chevy, Ambrose a Ford.
"I had Junior pushing me," Ambrose said. "I got caught on the edge of the bumper, and with the shaped noses and the tires, spun me out.
"It was hardly even a bump. It was just enough at the wrong angle, wrong time.
"We used to get greedy with the old cars; it was very easy to bump-draft. You had a good, square surface to push from. You could get across on an angle and still get away with it.
"I guess we are used to that.
"I got a couple shots from him down the backstretch, and we carried some steam. The third shot spun me out. I definitely think it's a consequence of the new shape."
Earnhardt said he and Ambrose were trying to set up a passing run.
"I thought Marcos was backing up to me, like he was laying off the leader a little bit and looking to get a run on the back straight," Earnhardt said.
"I was trying to push him and had a hard time getting our bumpers lining up. That's the first time I pushed it forward, and his car sat up on top of that roll bar....and we ended up getting turned.
"You definitely have to be more careful pushing people. The cars are really tail-happy, and real loose because of the downforce they have on the back of the cars. A little bit more of a handful, especially in the draft toward the back of the draft, where the air is real dirty."
A lot of pressure this season on Richard Childress' teams to start winning again. But will Kevin Harvick (R) be distracted? And what about teammate Jeff Burton (L)? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
At Charlotte Motor Speedway a last minute test was scheduled, though Thursday's snow cut the session very short. What came out of that? Well, some speed numbers: Ambrose' teammate Aric Almirola fastest at 194.021 mph, just ahead of teammate Carl Edwards at 193.673.
But speed isn't the issue, of course. It's handling, and it's tires. Drivers are pushing Goodyear for softer tires.
Meanwhile down in South America, Robby Gordon is winding up the Dakar Rally. He (and navigator Kellon Walch) won Stage 13, in Chile; that's Gordon's second stage win of this two-week Dakar and his ninth top-three.
What Gordon might have planned for Daytona and NASCAR this season is still not clear.
Robby Gordon, in the Chilean desert, winning another stage in the Dakar Rally. Will he be back on the NASCAR tour this season? (Photo: Robby Gordon)
And in other NASCAR news, the National Motorsports Press Association will induct three men into its Hall of Fame this weekend, veteran TV sportscaster Ken Squier, legendary NASCAR exec Jim Hunter, and Pocono Raceway's Dr. Joseph Mattioli. Hunter died in 2010; Mattioli, last year.
Among the key early season stories to watch is the Richard Childress operation. "I think that by anybody’s measurements we didn’t have a good year through the company last year," Jeff Burton concedes. "We went almost the whole year without winning a race."
Will this 2013 project help put Childress men back on firmer footing? And how much of a distraction will be the push to develop Childress' grand kids? Plus, how will the Kevin Harvick story play out? Harvick is expected to leave at the end of the season and move to the Tony Stewart camp.
"I think it is easier to start over than it is taking an existing vehicle and starting over," Burton insists. " It gives us a chance to stop and say ‘Okay, what is the best way to develop a car?' And through that, build a program that works for that. I think the timing of that is good. Whether that will yield results or not, we will see."
The 2013 Goodyears? A big question for drivers, who want softer tires, and Goodyear, which wants to avoid right-front blowouts (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The 2013s have been in development for nearly two years, but the pace of testing has been painfully slow, in part because of some major rules changes.
And Toyota's Martin Truex Jr. says "There are a lot of questions to be answered: What is this car like? What is it going to feel like? What kind of balance is it going to take to make speed? What kind of shift will take place in the balance as the fuel burns off?
"The suspension package and some of the rules that we have this year, especially in the rear suspension, are a lot different...the aerodynamic package, the aero balance of the car, everything is completely different.
"It's going to take some time to figure out those things."
Aric Almirola: fastest at Charlotte in the latest 2013 test. He's a fast driver, for sure, but that hit at Kansas was a hard one. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR has cut some weight off the cars, which Truex says "is definitely a step in the right direction."
Truex calls that "a positive, from the tire perspective."
"One of the things we've struggled with at tracks like Charlotte, where the tire doesn't wear out super-fast, is keeping the heat out of the tires.
"The drivers all want a tire that wears out, so the car will start to slide around, so it gets hard to drive and puts on a better show...and is a lot more fun to race.
"Hopefully, that (cutting weight) will help them just be able to build a tire that we can have more fun and put on better races with."
Actually the tire issue could be a major one early in the season, because Goodyear needs lead time in building the 3,000 or more tires NASCAR racing demands each weekend. With the rules still in some question, Goodyear will likely open the season on a conservative note, rather than risk blowouts.
Another thing to keep an eye on is how well the new Chevrolet runs early. The early line seems to be that the smart money is on the Rick Hendrick teams.
"GM waited a long time to release their car and unveil it, so I don't know if they had something figured out and didn't want people seeing it until late in the game and couldn't change it or are continuing to work on it and develop it," Ford's Biffle says. "But to be the last one to unveil a car and wait that late and be ahead of everybody, they obviously have something figured out."
Another thing that will be carefully watched as the season opens is the Penske-Roush camp, with Penske -- and champion Brad Keselowski -- now in Fords, with engines out of the Jack Roush-Doug Yates shop.
Biffle says he doesn't anticipate any major change in how the two teams work: "Probably for the engine shop will get another opportunity to have more engines on the track and collect more data.
"I think it will be similar to maybe Stewart-Haas and the Ganassi group: They're both GM, but they're competing against each other.
"So I don't see a tremendous amount of stuff crossing back and forth (between Penske and Roush)...but maybe some trends of things we're working on, or we've found.
"But I don't think we're going to be sharing full notes or anything like that."
Yes, it was cold Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and just how much crew chiefs can translate from the chilly test is debateable. But Scott Speed was certainly suited for the weather. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)