OK, I’m somewhat confused – and, yes, I’ll confess I’m not the smartest guy in the media center. However, been around a while and seen and learned a lot.
I’m trying to get a grip on just what NASCAR is doing to reach its competitive goals prior to the start of the 2012 Cup season – more specifically, for the Daytona 500.
I thought that, overall, it was pretty simple: To wit, bring an end to the tandem drafting prevalent at Daytona and Talladega over past two years and, in so doing, placate and please the disapproving fans.
To that end the sanctioning body created several rule changes before testing began. Among them were a bigger restrictor plate, a smaller rear spoiler and reduced cooling capabilities.
I understand these rules were something of a starting point and as testing went on the results seen, or not seen, could bring about more legislation.
Interestingly, during testing NASCAR asked the teams to run in big packs, as they used to do. First came a large group of 20 cars and later a pack of 10.
It looked like old times at the 2.5-mile Daytona track and many fans and drivers alike welcomed the break from two-car drafting.
But then teams went back to tandem drafting and speeds increased. Kurt Busch, in a two-car hookup with Regan Smith, topped 206 mph.
Given that, it makes sense for NASCAR to eliminate the two-car “dances.” It’s been embedded in our minds for years now that cars reaching speeds of more than 200 mph in racing trim is an absolute no-no, primarily for safety reasons.
Sure enough, two-thirds of the way through testing NASCAR mandated that the cars be equipped with a smaller restrictor plate – the same one they had earlier – and radiator grille openings would shrink as would radiator pressure.
This was done to reduce speeds, right? Well, not necessarily. Sprint Cup Director John Darby said the changes were not made to cut the miles per hour; rather, they were made to reduce RPMs, which increases the chances for engine survival.
Darby also said the target race speed was 200 mph and that NASCAR would like to see that reached in bigger packs rather than in two-car tandems.
In other words, if NASCAR can produce race speeds of 200 mph in the Daytona 500 as the cars form into the large packs they once did, then all is well.
Which, by the way, is the source of my confusion. I can understand the desire to eliminate two-car drafting, although I don’t believe it was entirely evil, but isn’t to replace it with “big pack” racing at over 200 mph a return to, first, a style of competition once widely disdained and, second, to re-establish speeds once considered taboo not a case of, uh, dejavu all over again?
Sounds like NASCAR is trying to retreat to its past to find answers for today.
Even some competitors were confused. Jeff Gordon said he approached Darby and said the drivers couldn’t run the speeds they were, right?
“And when I saw the reaction of, ‘Well, we feel we’ve learned some lessons and we’re fine with that,’” he added, “meant it somehow speeds had become accepted and I think that’s a good thing.”
Gordon said it seemed NASCAR had collected enough data to make it feel comfortable with the way the cars were running. He added that doesn’t mean they won’t get airborne – perhaps the most frightening scenario in high-speed racing – but rather, “I think NASCAR has learned some things that are going to help that change dramatically.”
Frankly, if the cars do run 200 mph in large packs the drivers aren’t likely to be too uncomfortable. On the worn Daytona surface it didn’t take long for slipping and sliding to begin. The drivers had their hands full.
But now that the speedway has been repaved there is more grip. A lot of loose conditions have been removed. Racing is more in the drivers’ hands and, so, hitting 200 mph routinely is not at daunting as it was – in theory, anyway.
The ongoing problem is the two-car draft. It still produces higher speeds and the majority of drivers think that while rules may cut down on the number of “dances,” the practice won’t be eliminated.
To boot, they say the Daytona 500 winner is going to be part of a tandem draft – again.
At this moment, competitors add, that’s inevitable.
NASCAR would like the situation to be otherwise, which it’s already made very clear, right?
So, I repeat, the ultimate solution could be that NASCAR returns to the past: The days of big-pack, freight train racing and – from days longer passed – done at speeds at, or above, 200 mph.
Is that what it’s all about? Is all this something out of “Back To The Future,” or am I hopelessly confused?
I am sure we will all find out. It’s abundantly clear the final legislations for the Daytona 500 are not yet enacted. Which, by the way, is nothing new.
“We’re not done yet,” said Robin Pemberton, president of competition. “We’ll work on packages and plate sizes from now until the start of Speedweeks.”
The results will, to say the least, be interesting.