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No rest, just tests for drivers

Winston Cup brings its version of spring training - in winter - to the fans.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- The fastest car during three days of Winston Cup testing last week at Daytona International Speedway was not much to see. No paint, no decals, no gleam.

Just gray primer.

But Mike Wallace's No. 09 Dodge, like the other 23 cars turning laps, was perfectly dressed for the occasion. What better way to establish a baseline for 2003 than in a base coat?

Little more than one month after Tony Stewart was crowned champion at a black-tie banquet in New York, NASCAR is full-throttle into its first official event of the year: mandatory testing for the Feb. 16 Daytona 500.

"This is a great way to start the year," Wallace said.

Half the drivers tested last week, with the rest, including four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., due Tuesday-Thursday at the 2.5-mile trioval.

Hoping to turn the annual January test into a sort of spring training event, NASCAR officials dubbed the session "Preseason Thunder," complete with T-shirts and driver forums for fans at Daytona USA. There is no admission charge for the daily test sessions, which are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Though most on-track action consists of single-car runs in qualifying trim -- not terribly exciting for spectators or, for that matter, drivers -- the garage was buzzing.

Not only are there the usual driver, crew chief and manufacturer changes to coo about, but this season all teams are adapting to changes in the cars.

All the cars.

All four manufacturers went through body changes during the winter. Chevrolet and Pontiac are totally redesigned, modeled after the already similar Ford and Dodge. Ford has a new tail piece, Dodge a new nose piece.

But the biggest change is that all four makes have essentially the same body style, referred to as a common template. NASCAR now requires that the bodies of all makes rest on the frame at the same place, a move that should greatly reduce the bickering about perceived aerodynamic advantages.

In technical terms, every car must measure 60 inches from the middle of the rear axle to the front edge of the roof, with an inch of leeway. Inspectors will use the same template -- the F3 -- to measure every car from the front of the roof to where the spoiler sits on the trunk.

"It's very critical in the world of aerodynamics," Winston Cup director John Darby said.

For years, manufacturers resisted a common template, not wanting to lose their brand identification for all-important street sales. Now, the only way to tell one brand of Winston Cup car from another is by the grill treatment.

"The funny part now is when I look out there at all the cars, they all look identical," said veteran Rusty Wallace, who switched from Ford to Dodge with Penske Racing teammate Ryan Newman, last year's rookie of the year. "There's no distinct difference between the cars that you could see in the past."

Drivers are encouraged.

"One car doesn't have to be lot wider or narrower or taller or have a bigger spoiler or different valance height," said Mike Skinner, whose No. 4 Pontiac was among the fastest last week. "I think that's all a bunch of malarkey. I think these cars ought to have the same everything. Make us work on the cars."

Unlike race weekends, NASCAR's role during the January test is to help teams adjust. Last week, things were pretty quiet at the NASCAR trailer, Darby said. But by the time Speedweeks roll around in February, he expects to hear some griping.

"Ford and Dodge can probably still argue because there's a little bit of a shelf on the nose of the Chevrolet and Pontiacs to help bring out the identity of the car," he said. "The Chevy and Pontiac guys will argue that Ford and Dodge guys don't have that shelf. Just through the identity of the cars there's enough appearance differences that there will always be areas you can point at.

"But that's not all bad."

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