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This is not your father’s Daytona.
The mass drafting packs of 30 cars hurtling at nearly 200 mph just a few feet off each other’s bumper on their way to the inevitable Big One may be a thing of the past.
But that doesn’t mean that when the green flag drops at 12:19 p.m. for today’s Daytona 500 and the first race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season there won’t be edge-of-the-seat excitement.
“It is definitely going to be stressful,” said Tony Stewart, who won Saturday’s Nationwide race. “We’re going to have some guys that look like soapy dish rags at the end of this race tomorrow. It is going to be very mentally taxing.”
The old Daytona had chewed-up 32-year-old asphalt. Handling was a major issue, tires were a key to victory and nobody dared to push draft.
The new Daytona is smooth as glass. Engine cooling is the major issue, tires don’t wear out and drivers either push draft or get lapped in a hurry.
“The old pavement was like driving down a gravel road,” said 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth. “Handling is such a non-issue (now) that you can run 210 or 215 at least before you have to start getting off the gas.
“It’s going to be more of a Talladega-style race,” he said.
Talladega is where drivers figured out that on new asphalt at a track where brakes don’t get much use, one car can get behind another, push it all the way around the track and blow past other cars like they were stuck in traffic.
“You look back at the last two or three races at Talladega, what we’re doing here was shaping up back then, building and building,” Stewart said. “It’s evolved to what we’re doing here now. … It’s just the evolution of the sport, how things are changing.”
But Daytona has refined the Talladega tandem. A couple laps of pushing was all anyone dared risk at Dega for fear of overheating the engine. At Daytona, drivers figured out a way around that, as they often do.
Instead of lining up directly behind the car being pushed, the car doing the pushing can shift to the right enough to get some air through the front grill and cool the engine enough to be able to push for several laps.
The ability to push for longer periods sent speeds zooming past the 200-mph mark and triggered a reaction from NASCAR to slow them down and keep the cars from flying up into the grandstands.
NASCAR ordered changes to the cooling systems and made the front grill openings smaller to force the cars to separate sooner to avoid overheating. NASCAR also reduced the size of the restrictor plates on the carburetors to reduce power to the engines.
But even on Saturday NASCAR was still massaging the rules allowed a bigger opening on the front grill since the weather today is expected to be hotter.
The strategy of pushing runs the risk of the pusher turning the pushee around and triggering a wreck, as happened to Kyle Busch in the Bud Shootout.
But that’s not going to stop drivers from trying it.
“I can almost 99.9% guarantee you that’s exactly what is going to happen tomorrow,” Stewart said. “They are going to start pairing up from the drop of the green flag and for 500 miles, that’s how we’re going to run this race. I’ll change it to 100%. I’m that confident of it. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s going to happen.”
Jeff Burton sees a different race unfolding.
“We’re going to have 400 miles of some stuff happening and we’re going to have 100 miles of more stuff happening than you can keep up with,” Burton said. “Whe somebody has a chance to take the Daytona 500 trophy home, you do things that you weren’t going to do 100 laps before that.”
The advantage in getting to those final laps may go to Ford drivers with the new Ford FR9 engine. The FR9′s cooling system is more efficient, thus Fords can push longer than Chevys and Toyotas.
As Toyota driver Kyle Busch explained it, “that was one of their biggest, biggest reasons for coming out with the FR9 engine was the cooling package … and making sure that it would run cooler.”
“Unfortunately,” Busch said, “Toyota came into the sport in 2004 and now we’re old technology. Our engines maybe need a revamp on the cooling system.”
Doug Yates, Ford engine builder with Roush-Yates Engines, isn’t buying that.
“We got a lot of criticism because we were the last guys out with our engine,” Yates said, “but it seems being the last guys out we combined all the best technology into one and I wouldn’t expect anything else from Toyota to hear something like that.”
Roush driver Carl Edwards certainly appreciates the FR9 under his hood.
“Guys will be running right at the upper limit of temperature and RPMs and I think engine failures will become a big part of the race,” he said. “The FR9 engine seems to be one that can stay cooler, which is great.”
Edwards will start in the middle of the field today in 22nd. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the polesitter but is one of at least three drivers who will have to drop to the rear to start the race because of post-qualifying changes. Earnhardt is in a backup car after he wrecked during practice.
That means Kurt Busch, winner of both the Bud Shootout and the first Gatorade Duel qualifying race, will be up front alongside Jeff Gordon when the green flag flies.