Originally created 11/10/05

Testing their limits



ATLANTA - Greg Biffle did a double-take when Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove his race car into the garage area during a recent test session at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Something wasn't right.

The car had all the right sponsor decals. It was red. Earnhardt Jr.'s pit crew was working on the car.

Then it hit Biffle: Earnhardt Jr., who normally drives the No. 8 Chevrolet, was driving a car with No. 15 plastered on the side.

At the other end of the garage, Tony Stewart's orange-and-white Chevrolet was making frequent stops after running laps. Like Earnhardt Jr., Stewart's Home Depot crew was doing all the work. And like Earnhardt Jr., it had a different number.

NASCAR president Mike Helton and vice presidents Jim Hunter and Gary Nelson were in the garage, too, monitoring tire wear.

"How do they allow this to happen?" Biffle asked.

Although NASCAR limits the number of tests for each team, it created a loophole big enough for a 3,400-pound race car by allowing substitute drivers or cars.

Earnhardt Jr. officially was substituting for his teammate, Michael Waltrip, and he was doing it in one of his cars, not Waltrip's. Denny Hamlin was driving in his own test, but he was working out one of Stewart's cars.

"If they made a rule where you have to drive the car you test, that would stop all this," Biffle said. "Imagine seeing Dale Jr. driving the No. 15 Chevrolet and not the No. 8."

NASCAR said it allows changes to help teams when drivers get hurt or sick. Teams, as usual, took it a step or two further.

Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart didn't break any rules.

They merely took advantage of the vagueness of the NASCAR rule book.

Under the current rule book, teams are allowed five two-day tests and four single-day sessions. But the loophole in the rules allows some teams to get extra test sessions.

Biffle said he's never used a teammate's number to gain an extra test. With all five Roush Racing teams in the Chase for the Championship, there aren't any extra test sessions to give.

"We all know these cars are the same and switch between shops," Jimmie Johnson told the Dallas Morning News. "If (Biffle) was able to tell that it was my car with the No. 25 stickers on it, he's better than I am.

"I was filling in for the 25 team."

NASCAR knows it has a problem. In fact, it admits teams have violated the spirit of the rule. That's why NASCAR probably will limit all testing to five different tracks next year.

Teams, of course, will find ways to get around the new rules. They will create ARCA Re/Max teams and continue to test when and where they want.

And with any number they want.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@bellsouth.net.