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Whether or not NASCAR's testing ban works, there is intrigue in watching who can beat the system

 By Mike Mulhern

  Ah, the mystery of testing. That's intriguing to Lee White, the Toyota racing boss, who figures some teams are probably going to try to fudge the intent of NASCAR's current testing ban.
   Two years ago NASCAR tried to limit testing by keeping teams from using standard racing tires. But some teams simply went to Goodyear's rivals and bought tires and went testing anyway.
   That proved an expensive rule, which NASCAR had planned to change for this season…until the economy went south.
   So instead of opening up testing this year at all NASCAR tour tracks, as was planned, teams once again have to sneak off to whatever non-NASCAR tracks they can find, certainly not a cost-cutting venture.
   But White says NASCAR's new test ban will create some interesting twists, which should be fun to discover: "Certainly the mystery of how it's going turn out in NASCAR without regular testing at the tracks we race on to me is one of the most exciting aspects of the upcoming season.
   "That is part of the mystery of how this whole thing will turn out – that's why it's fascinating to watch." 

Lee White (R) and Brian Vickers (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

In fact 14 Chevrolet teams have been testing extensively this week at General Motors' Arizona proving grounds. How that will set with NASCAR is uncertain.
"Someone is going to find a way to circumvent the spirit of what NASCAR has tried to bring about here," White says.
    "A couple of weeks ago I heard that one team made a deal to rent 52 or 53 days at Rockingham -- basically to block everyone out. 
    "But I also heard that NASCAR got pretty upset about that. It was flying in the face of the spirit of what they're trying to do, which is to save everybody some money, until the economy gets stronger."
    But no Daytona 500 testing? Now that's certainly strange, regardless.  
    "But when we went to Daytona and tested for three weeks, everyone ended up running the same speeds…and that's what everyone hated because nobody could pass anybody," White says. "So, maybe, just maybe, this will mean there will be people who aren't all running the same speed, then there will be lapped cars -- people to pass, and picks…and a lot of different scenarios.
   "And maybe that will make it more fun to watch."

Joey Logano couldn't test at Daytona so he ran bobsleds in the snow (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

There are positives, White says, to the test ban: "The test limitation is saving Toyota some money and allowing us to do other things -- like taking on some 'customer teams' like Robby Gordon and the Germains….which is frankly good for our image."
   However NASCAR testing, of course, is more than just a technical exercise; it's been a traditional marketing tool, with drivers doing tons of interviews, drumming up ticket sales.
   Owner-driver Michael Waltrip, however, isn't crying over the testing ban: "I don't know how many tickets testing at Darlington actually sells for the race.
   "I just know that in desperate times you have to take desperate measures, in order to stay afloat. 
    "Banning these track tests, and limiting the tracks we can go test at, will save the teams money."

   And cost-cutting is the rule in every part of this sport, and White says Toyota, though it may be the auto maker in the strongest financial situation overall, has a sharp pencil too.
   "There is probably not anything on this earth here that Toyota is involved with now that is not under some level of review regarding budget expenditure….and that includes everything TRD (Toyota Racing Development) does," White said.
    "There is a review of everything. 
    "I'm not in a position to tell you that anything has been cut.  Certainly if contracts have expired, it's very likely that contracts have not been renewed…or if they are being renewed, they are certainly being renegotiated.
   "Certainly the first thing that is easy to reduce are the 'soft' activities:  TV ads, print ads, track activation (pace cars and signage), show cars.
   "But the last thing you'll see any of these four manufacturers (in NASCAR) reduce is cars on the track. That is what it takes to gain the hearts and minds of the consumers, and hearts and minds of the fans. 
    "You'll see the four manufacturers still out there with cars going around the track.
   "But I just spent an hour on the phone with my managers in California and North Carolina reviewing travel policies, because we've been tasked with reducing our costs by almost 25 percent."

Michael Waltrip (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

So how will this season really shape up, with all the team mergers and fired crewmen?
   "I don't think we'll know the reality until the thing pans out," White says. "We probably won't know the reality until about halfway through the season. 
    "Four or five weeks ago every time I turned on the news, all I saw was the 'Detroit Three.' That was the only thing anyone in the whole country was talking about. 
   "Now it's not even a blip. 
    "Things change so quickly.
   "So I don't know what it all means until we get to Daytona…and certainly when we get to Fontana and Vegas. 
   "Daytona is Daytona. It's going to have a full field.  It's going to have enough cars to fill out the field certainly in the Cup race, and probably the Nationwide race, though I understand the Truck race will be a little short (of viable entries). 
    "The real test will be when we get to Fontana, when we get to Vegas, and find out how many teams make the trek out West."
    Waltrip, always the optimist, insists "There will be 50 cars in Daytona (for the 43-car field).
   "There will be 45 or 46 or 47 for the first eight or 10 (Cup) races…and then you'll weed some out. 
   "It's just a matter of folks looking at every dime and figuring out what best to do with it. Therefore it's getting more difficult to bring new business into our sport. And it's equally challenging to retain sponsors.
    "I'm maybe an eternal optimist, and I'm definitely a race fan, but I don't think NASCAR has lost any of its marketing juice. 
   "If you think back as recently as 2004, if there was a full field in the race, the bottom of the field was pretty suspect (filled with part-time runners).  And yet the racing has continued to be entertaining. 
    "People don't go to count cars; they go to watch competition. And nothing will change, in my opinion. 
    "I have my doubts whether we ever see a short field in Cup all year long."

Joey Logano (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

And even if there are a few short fields, "it's not a bad thing at all," Waltrip adds. "There are always waves. Cars come and cars go. 
   "We started 2007 with the most competitive cars in the history of NASCAR.  It was crazy. There were 53 cars that had money when we started the season. 
   "We're going to start 2009 with considerably less than that…but there are going to be opportunities for guys like Tommy Baldwin (the veteran crew chief and fledgling car owner). And I think Phil Parsons is starting to talk about having a team to race in 2009 as well. 
   "There will be opportunities for guys to come in and learn what it takes to have teams in NASCAR at the Cup level.
   "And all you really need is enough people for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon to pass, and everybody will be happy."

    Of course the testing ban will hurt the smaller NASCAR teams and newcomers like Joey Logano.
   "Joey and (newcomers) Marcos Ambrose and Scott Speed are going to be affected by the test limitation," White says. "So they're going to have to 'front-up' and race every week without having a lot of testing. And that's going to make it challenging for those guys.
   "That's the challenge right now -- developing these young drivers.
    "There has been a lot of discussion with NASCAR about trying to add a little extra time each weekend, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, for rookies.
   "I suspect that is about all you're going to see, though, because no one is going to spend the money for extra days just dedicated to rookies to help them develop. 
    "It's all part of the mystery, to see how this works out."
   However White concedes the testing limit may be a considerable strain not only on newcomers to NASCAR but also to their sponsors, who will have to be more patient than usual. And sponsors have become notoriously impatient for results the past few seasons, regardless of who is at the wheel.
   David Reutimann, the promising driver that Waltrip has been bringing along, knows that well. He had UPS as sponsor but lost it.

David Reutimann (L) and Lee White (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

Waltrip admits sponsorship issues dogging his team. "But we will definitely run the full season with David," Waltrip says. "We look it as part of the investment in the future of our team.
   "David is obviously a fast driver who can win races at the Cup level. We believe that. We think that the investment in that future means we cannot afford to not run that car."

   But there are also some veterans who might be lost in the economic shuffle. Owner Bill Davis' decision to call it quits after 15 years in the sport has created a bit of chaos in that part of the sport's world.
   For one, Mike Skinner is looking for a ride, and Toyota's White is looking for a place to put him. "There's a lot of effort going on right now  to find a seat for Mike Skinner," White says. "Mike has been a great advocate for Toyota for four years and has done a lot of great work for us.

   "Both him and his wife Angie.  They're loved within the company, and we're working pretty hard to find a quality seat for him in the Truck series."


Mike Skinner (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)



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