Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Rules Focus at Daytona Pre-Season Testing

By Dave Rodman

Practices: Thursday & Friday 9-12a 1-5pm (ET)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Earnhardt Ganassi Racing suffered through a subpar 2011 Sprint Cup season as a group and after some major changes to EGR's structure, no one's readier for the 2012 season to begin than Jamie McMurray and his teammate, Juan Montoya.

McMurray, who won the 2010 Daytona 500 and two other plum victories later that season, struggled to finish 27th in points last season.

So with virtually a full field of Cup teams expected to test Thursday through Saturday during Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway, McMurray's anxious to gauge the impact of EGR's new team manager, Max Jones, and his own team's new car chief, Randy Cox, from the former Red Bull Racing, and a new engineer, Dave Winston, who came from Penske Racing.

Montoya, who also won a race in 2010 after qualifying for the 2009 Chase, but struggled to 21st in the points last season, is working with a new crew chief, former Hendrick Motorsports engineer Chris Heroy.

But this test is going to be everyone's first chance to work with a complete new rules package that's a result of information gathered during recent tests at Talladega this past October and at Daytona in November.

"While we have had other tests with these setups, this is the first opportunity for the entire field to test together and get more comfortable with this package as it relates to their cars," NASCAR vice president for competition Robin Pemberton said. "This three-day test will allow the engine tuners for these teams to be able to work with their engine packages and see how they relate and react to the new cooling regulations."

While some of the elements were tested, others are new and being seen on-track by the teams for the first time, including smaller radiators with a two-gallon capacity; a smaller cooling system overflow tank with a capacity of a half-gallon; and the radiator inlet being moved up, closer into the front-center bumper area.

Along with electronic fuel injection, which underwent multiple tests in 2011 preparing for its full implementation in ' 12, teams last year also tested a rate reduction for rear springs, making them softer to get the rear spoiler out of the air; a smaller rear spoiler; and a baseline restrictor plate of 29/32nds of an inch (1/64th-inch larger than the plate size for the 2011 Daytona 500).

NASCAR's made it no secret that their changes are designed to break up the two-car drafting formations that teams have gradually discovered is the quickest way around the biggest speedways. The teams' necessary goal is to continue that style of racing.

"You're going to work on trying to stay locked together and making that [tandem drafting] still work," McMurray said. "I personally hope that no one can do it, and that it doesn't work but I don't know that. They've changed the rules a lot so it will be really interesting to see, when we get down [to Daytona] to see if you're able to stay locked together.

"Because if you are, and those other guys can't -- it's 10 miles per hour difference in speed if you can stay locked together or not -- so yeah, I'm anxious to get down [to Daytona] and see what the cars are going to be like."

Montoya's pretty much on the same page as his teammate.

"Our goal is to figure out what we need to do to make our Target Chevrolet better before we come back down to Daytona [for Speedweeks]," Montoya said. "We've completely redone our cars so it'll be interesting to see what we have when we unload on Thursday. We want to gain as much knowledge as possible. I guess we'll have to see if the changes NASCAR made were enough to break up the tandem drafting or not."

Clint Bowyer tested with his new Michael Waltrip Racing team and crew chief Brian Pattie last month strictly for the purpose of building relationships. His new teammate, Mark Martin, is testing with new crew chief Rodney Childers on Wednesday at New Smyrna Speedway, about a half-hour south of Daytona, and said both sessions were much more important on a personnel level than a mechanical one.

"These tests aren't incredibly important from the car hardware side, it's more important for us as a new group working together to work through the areas like communication, flow, learning everyone's names, routines and things like that," Martin said. "That's really the critical part of the test. From the hardware side, we do have a number of things we want to run through at these tests, but all teams are doing those kinds of things.

"These tests are valuable because we want everything to be working like a smooth-oiled machine by the time we get to the Daytona 500. Then, by the time we get to Phoenix, we want to be acting like we've been racing together for years."

"New Smyrna will be fun because it's a handling track," Childers said of the half-mile, high-banked oval. "With Mark's short-track experience, I'm looking forward to his feedback and him pointing us in the right direction."

Martin did say the new regulations have done more than pique his curiosity. Last season, he almost uniquely worked with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon in the tandem draft but this year he's going to pay a little more attention.

"The one other thing that I am going to focus on this time at Daytona, more than I did a year ago, is working on tandem drafting," said Martin, who finished 10th and 33rd at Daytona last season. "We didn't do that last year and it's going to be even more of a challenge this year. Rodney and I want to look toward being ahead of the curve on the two-car tandem or explore areas that will give us an advantage."

"The Daytona test will be about us working on our qualifying setup for the first day and a half and drafting the rest of the time," Childers said. "The most important thing is the draft, making sure our cars can do what they need to do. We'll probably work on some cooling to see if our cars can push longer than some of the others."

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