Speeds, drafting style may bring changes
Well, that was … unique.
New-look cars (noses and paint schemes), average speeds well over 200 mph, a surface we knew was Daytona but sure resembled Talladega, two-by-two drafts that evolved into four-car freight trains and the second-place car being deemed the winner.
Yep, NASCAR must be back.
The Budweiser Shootout from Daytona International Speedway typically gives fans and pundits alike a barometer from which to gauge the following weekend’s Daytona 500. But Saturday night’s edition raised more questions than provided answers.
Kurt Busch — long a solid plate racer with a knack for missing the big wreck — scored his first Daytona win, even though he was beat to the finish line by three one-thousandths of a second by Denny Hamlin. However, NASCAR ruled Hamlin ducked below the yellow “out of bounds” line to make the race-winning pass of Ryan Newman. Therefore, Hamlin was relegated to a 12th-place finish due to his transgression.
While the ending raised issues (the nearly-annual yellow line rule will be dissected once again), the average speeds and two-car drafts will be in the spotlight throughout the week. And most expect NASCAR to make changes to the rules package in the interest of safety and — let’s be honest — excitement.
The 200 mph mark has been the ceiling of speed NASCAR has tolerated on the two plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega). Despite safety improvements, there is no way to predict what a car will do when turned sideways or backward at that rate of speed. And following a car-in-the-grandstands near-miss at Talladega two seasons ago, NASCAR is more vigilant than ever about keeping the action within the field of play.
A $20 million repave of Daytona has produced increased grip and low tire wear that, combined with cool temperatures and mechanics’ ingenuity, had in-draft average speeds at 206 mph on Saturday evening. Concurrently, driver ingenuity gleaned from races at Talladega and January testing at Daytona has spawned the two-car draft phenomenon.
Unlike in the past, two cars hooked together are actually faster than a four-, five- or six-car, single-file draft. This due to the lead car acting as the steering wheel and brake, while the follower the engine and spoiler. This new plate-track version of “co-opetition,” as Darrell Waltrip so accurately dubs it, holds true to the old axiom that if “two’s a party, three’s a crowd.” In short, the third car brings nothing to the table, and is actually a liability.
“The front car (in the two-car pack) gets the clean air, the motor,” Second-place finisher Ryan Newman said. “The back car takes the air off the front car's spoiler. Even though he gets the air taken out of his motor, he's still pushing the car in front of him and he's getting that help. If there was that third car he doesn't have the air in the column to help propel him forward, so the front car has got the biggest motor, the second car is just helping push along, and the way the drag works out.”
The question on everyone’s minds, though, is whether NASCAR will make changes to handicap the two-car advantage or adjust spoilers or restrictor plates to bring speeds down. Drivers were varied in their opinions about what, if anything, should be done, while NASCAR’s competition director, Robin Pemberton, gave this insight following the event:
“You can do a lot of things,” Pemberton said. “You have to do what’s best for the large group, whatever that is. We’ve talked to some of the engineers and crew chiefs and solicited some different ideas and talked to them about the methodology of how they do things.
“We’ll have to take all that and put it together. We’ve got some time. That’s the good news, being Saturday. We’ve got some ideas. We just have to get together and talk about them.”
Reading in between the lines, changes are coming. How extensive they are and how they change the complexion of the draft remain to be seen.