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CUP: Letarte – Tests Hold Value

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The garage area at Charlotte Motor Speedway hasn’t been crowded during testing the last two days, despite the fact that teams will be racing all-new cars when the Sprint Cup season begins in two months.

Only 15 drivers made runs Wednesday morning.

Roush Fenway Racing hasn’t been represented here on either test day. And several of the sport’s top drivers, including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, are missing.

There are numerous reasons for the low car count. The rules package that will be in effect at the start of the season is likely to be somewhat different from the current status, and tires also likely will be different. So some teams see this week’s testing opportunity as generally lacking in value.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been here both days, however, and Steve Letarte, his crew chief, says there is much to be gained.

“It’s a lot of opportunity,” Letarte said. “Any time you can get on a real race track that you race at, it’s good. You get a lot of data on the cars (computer linkups are allowed during testing). There’s a lot changing with the surface over time here that you can keep up with.

“I think we all know kind of which rules are in question. NASCAR has kept us up with conference calls. Even though the rules are not 100 percent, we can learn a tremendous amount. Any time you get on track, there’s a lot to be learned from that.”

The Tuesday and Wednesday runs were Earnhardt Jr.’s first experiences in the 2013 car.

“It was important for us because he hadn’t been in the new-generation car yet,” Letarte said.

Letarte said one of the biggest positives about the new cars is the identity factor. They are designed to more closely resemble the Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota street models.

“This car is the perfect example of technology helping the sport,” he said. “My boy (Tyler) at 9 years old can tell the difference between a Chevrolet and a Ford. Anybody walking through the parking lot can tell.

“If you’re into racing, you want to watch cool cars go around the track. I think the simple fact is in ’13 we have cooler cars.”

The fact that the three competing models are designed quite differently – the cars’ rear decklid is the only identical part – could lead to one camp claiming the other has an advantage, but Letarte said he doesn’t expect major problems in that arena.

“Any time there’s the opportunity to politic, you’re going to have it,” he said. “But the difference now and 15 years ago is that there are tools. You can take the cars off the track and measure them and take them to the wind tunnel.

“I think NASCAR has come a tremendously long way in that. There will always be politicking, but we have the tools and technology to kind of answer those questions without involving rules changes.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.

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