The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is and always will be an aspect of NASCAR that is constantly evolving. Since the playoff system’s inception in 2004, the Chase has seen a change in tracks, cars, point systems, the number of drivers allowed in it, and the introduction of the wild card system.
The year of 2013 marks the 10th Chase for the Sprint Cup. Despite the age of this system, it is still developing. There seems to be something new almost every year. While nothing has changed in format this season, a new NASCAR rule provides a different mindset for the final 10 races this season.
With a ban on testing at NASCAR sanctioned tracks for many years due to economic reasons, NASCAR announced a major change in its policy for 2013. Sprint Cup Series organizations are now given the opportunity to test at up to four tracks on the schedule. Organizations, like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, can take their multi-car teams to any track of their choice for as many as three days to gather data and test setups for upcoming events.
In an era with a new racecar and many track repaves, this new policy is a big plus to teams, who have had to use computer simulation and testing at non-sanctioned tracks to gain an edge in the recent years.
So far this season, teams have been taking advantage of these test sessions. Richard Petty Motorsports tested at Sonoma earlier in the year to prepare for the road course races. Stewart Haas Racing tested at Pocono Raceway to get ready for the two races on the schedule at the 2.5-mile racetrack. Some, however, waited longer to use their limited tests – and for a very good reason.
Many in the sport know that it is all about getting hot at the right time. Gaining momentum and peaking in the final 10 races is what it takes to be the Sprint Cup champion. Many remember Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship as a prime example of this. The driver of the No. 14 barely made the Chase, but captured five wins in the 10 races to win the Cup. That’s why teams put everything they can into those final weeks. That’s where it counts the most.
For teams like Hendrick Motorsports, scheduling their tests at crucial times is very important.
“We are going to New Hampshire next week,” Jeff Gordon said at Pocono over a week ago. “We are going to Richmond and a couple weeks after that I think we are going to Texas and then we are going to Homestead in the next month.”
In Gordon’s eyes, Hendrick Motorsports’ test plan fits all four cars of the organization.
“For me I think we have a good game plan that works for all of us. Again, I said earlier that it’s a compromise with the organization. When you have four teams, not everybody is going to be perfectly suited. But in this case, I think it suits our needs to get ourselves in the Chase and if we get in the Chase, then it suits our teammates to be very competitive in the Chase.”
While Hendrick Motorsports has a clear plan to test in the coming weeks as the Chase nears and gets underway, they will not be the only ones who take this approach. Certainly the contending teams of the Chase will be taking advantage of testing at the important tracks on the schedule.
The choices of when and where to test add a strategic layer to the Chase. For some teams, it may be necessary to test at very specific and unique tracks, perhaps tracks of weakness. For others, the strategy may be to test at tracks that are very similar to others on the Chase schedule. Some may choose to test earlier; some may wait until later in the year. The options seem endless.
It’s all about getting on that hot streak at the right time and testing is likely to become a major part of who does.
Only time will tell if testing truly will make a major difference in the Chase. As of now, teams certainly think it will.