By Tim Packman, Motor Racing Digest
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Last year, NASCAR drivers were told “have at it, boys” in regards to how they raced. This year they were told, “here’s what you have” for racing at the newly-paved Daytona International Speedway.
With the old splitter replaced by a formed nose, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers showed off the new package by-product in Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout with two-car packs buzzing around the 2.5-mile superspeedway locked together like passionate love bugs in summer. That, and speeds rose up to top the 206 mph mark for the first time in generations causing eyebrows in the NASCAR tower to rise, as well.
As a result, NASCAR officials put their technological heads together and issued a rule changed to reduce the air intake via the front grill, and dropped the psi release valve on the radiator. This will produce higher temperatures at a faster pace, thus forcing the two-car tandems to swap spots – or drafting partners – to cool their engines more frequently.
This leaves teams and fans wondering if the multi-car packs in the draft like days of old will take place on Thursday, or for the rest of Speedweeks action.
“You’ll never see that happen; you’ll never see three cars in a line continuing to push each other,” said Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. “For one, the guy in the middle would be scared out of his mind. He can’t see in front of him, and he’s getting pushed from behind.
“The whole game has changed. Not just the way we drive, but the way our spotters spot. They spot the car in front of us now instead of us.”
Spotters have always been important at the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. Now, it seems, their value and how a driver relies on them is growing each time the cars take to the track after a rule change.
“I think the spotters are more important with the two-car drafts than any other time,” said Jamie McMurray, the defending Daytona 500 champion. “It is more important than ever and I think your spotter has to be a racer in order to anticipate what the lead car is going to do.
“Loren Ranier (former team owner) is my spotter and I’ve always said what makes him a great one is that he can stand up there and watch the race unfold. He’s really good about reading other drivers and kind of knowing what to anticipate. “
Another team owner, who is also a driver, participated in the rain-delayed practice sessions on Thursday and gave his brief assessment of what happens to the second car in the new draft.
“These cars heat up in a couple laps pretty good,” said Tony Stewart, still looking for his first Daytona 500 victory.
Proof of his statement came to fruition during the second session when Casey Mears pulled into the garage area with white smoke spewing from his No. 13 Toyota. Just before that, he was the second fiddle in the draft dance as the group of cars exited Turn 2 and headed down the backstretch.
NASCAR isn’t opposed to making more changes, if needed, leading up to Sunday’s Daytona 500. That just depends on what takes place in the Gatorade Duels on Thursday afternoon.
“I think what you will see are the guys practicing that exchange enough so we will get it down where you can exchange in one corner, and not lose much momentum,” McMurray said. “Juan (Pablo Montoya, teammate) and I practiced it 10 times, and the 10th time was really good.
“When we get in the race and guys get used to it, I think we will be able to get the swap down so it happens really fast.”