NASCAR & Auto Racing

It's a speed trap

Mercifully, preseason testing for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wrapped up Friday at California Speedway. Now, forget it happened.

If you've been following the daily lists of fastest laps and you're downhearted about where your favorite driver ranked, allow me to absolve you from further concern. The same goes if you're jacked up because your guy popped up on the top of those lists.

I've typed a lot of speeds during the past few weeks, and we've presented them as though they might mean something.

Look, it has been a couple of months since engines were fired in anger. Even though that "offseason" is relatively short, we understand fans crave any information they can get in the run-up to a season.

The speeds are recorded and, for lack of any real insight into how the tests at Daytona, Las Vegas and California have been going, are distributed. But if you think a list of fastest laps is going to provide any real information about what's going on, you're selling what goes on at a test way too short.

Every car has equipment to record and/or transmit data, and that is analyzed in excruciating detail. Teams break down laps into segments and compare speeds. They also compare lap-to-lap results to see how much tire wear and weight change from fuel burn-off changes speed.

How far down into the data do they drill? One crew chief said one thing from Daytona they look closely at is how far -- exactly -- a car goes on a qualifying lap. The track is listed at 2.5 miles, but if a driver runs an additional 10 or 20 feet, that can be enough to matter.

The car introduced last year, which will be used in all 2008 races, puts even more of a demand on such analysis.

"I used to be able to feel like I was more important," Matt Kenseth lamented at California. "I used to get out of the car and, if it wasn't handling right, I could tell them to change that spring and more times than not it would make it better. Or I could say that really feels like we need a different sway bar and it would help. I can't do that anymore.

"It's kind of frustrating. I won't even really necessarily ask what's in my car for a set-up before I come to the track because most of it was spit out of the computer simulation."

Some fans think the new car is too ugly to love. But a lot of the driver complaints, I believe, has more to do with what Kenseth is talking about. This car still is relatively new to them. When you don't have the "feel" of something, it's hard to convince yourself you have the kind of mastery of it you need to compete at a high level,

If you don't believe "feel" has anything do with how you like something you work with, change computer systems.

Some people believe all the technology in NASCAR will lead to its ruination. I doubt that. People used to build race cars under the shade of a tree in their yard. Just because that moved indoors to a shop that looks more like rocket labs doesn't mean the modern-day car builders aren't racers, too.

Every team could submit to NASCAR data from tests at the first three tracks on this year's Cup schedule. A computer whiz could conduct a simulated race for each track and "determine" where each team would finish. It would be statistically accurate, I guess, but there's no chance the results would turn out how they will when the cars actually run at Daytona, California and Las Vegas.

When I became the NASCAR beat writer for the Observer in 1997, I wrote in my first column that I am not nearly as interested in the "motor" part of motorsports as the people. That hasn't changed.

The mechanisms are a part of the game, but it's the people who employ those mechanisms -- cars or computers -- who make the difference.

It's that time again, folks.

Let's race.

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