As the NASCAR Sprint Cup season begins, there has been change after change. The new surface of Daytona International Speedway has given the teams a smoother track with more grip than ever before. It also created the new popular custom of pairing up with another car to gain speed. In practice, the two-car drafts achieved speed in excess of 200 mph, and in the Bud Shootout exhibition race, speeds were recorded as high at 207 mph. You just knew something had to be changed before the Daytona 500.
[media-credit name=”David Yeazell” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]Sunday evening, NASCAR introduced what they called two technical changes. Frontal openings that cool the engine were reduced in size and the pressure release valve on the water system is to be set at 33 pounds per square inch. The intent is to make it impossible for cars to stay in prolonged, close drafting. Thus, the high speeds seen in the two-car drafting will be lowered.
Many fans found the racing in the Budweiser Shootout to be exciting, but it had its drawbacks. It made it nearly impossible for one car to pull out and slingshot past even its drafting partner and it created the necessity for a “dancing partner” to be competitive. That has always been the case, but the practice favored multi-car teams and made the field less competitive from first to last place. Regardless of the praise from the media covering the race, it was less than what people expect from the Daytona experience. Practice and the Gatorade Duels will be the first indication of whether or not the rules change will accomplish what NASCAR is trying to do…
I’ve been watching this whole Dale Earnhardt love fest signifying the 10th anniversary of his death at the speedway, and I have to admit I’m a bit perplexed. There is no doubt that Earnhardt was special and I loved to watch him race, but it seems that concentrating on his death a decade later is a little much. I found it interesting that his son is finding it hard to deal with now. On an ESPN interview shown today, he admits that he doesn’t dwell on that sad Sunday in 2001, and that he was sure that his father would have a problem with it. It’s almost like NASCAR, in hard times, is reaching for anything that will create interest in today’s less than attractive product. If you have to use a tragic event to do it, well, why not?
It was also announced that there will be a “silent lap,” which will be Lap 3 and have asked fans to hold up three fingers during that lap. That’s almost the same scenario we saw ten years ago. Judging by the number of Earnhardt flags and stickers on campers at the tracks today, it will be a popular thing to do, but it cannot take away from what we saw today in qualifying—complete domination from one organization and once manufacturer. If NASCAR wants to boost interest, that’s where to start, but I realize that they can’t do anything about a team being better than everyone else. It’s up to the other teams to catch up.
The most pleasant surprise of qualifying today was the performance of Trevor Bayne in the Wood Brothers Ford. Bayne flirted with the pole on his run and initially wound up third before he was bumped back to fourth at the end of the day. Some forget that Bayne is a 19-year old rookie and the Woods have been struggling the last few years. Who knows how he’ll race, but if his performance at Texas last season is any indication, he’s going to only get better. It’s good to see a team that has the longevity of the Wood family perform like this. It’s enough to make me forget that Hendrick and RCR Chevrolets have dominated Speedweeks so far, and anyone in a Toyota is out to lunch in speed.
Another driver to watch in the Gatorade Duels is Chevrolet driver Bill Elliott in the No. 09 Phoenix Racing entry. Although he only qualified 17th, he has Hendrick power under the hood and engineering help from the front row owner. Match that with Elliott’s experience at this track, and Awesome Bill might have a really good day. That would be special for everyone.