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The 2011 season is set to begin with the Daytona 500 ready to roll off Sunday at 1:19 p.m. ET.Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole but will have to start at the back because he’s swtching to a backup car after a practice crash. Kurt Busch, who won last weekend’s Budwesier Shootout and Thursday’s Duel 1, will move up to the pole, with Jeff Gordon starting on the outside of the front row.
Don’t have access to a TV to watch it live (1:19 p.m. ET on Fox)? Even if you do, join us right here Sunday beginning at 1 p.m. ET as ESPN.com’s writers and editors and the fans of the sport dissect every aspect of the Daytona 500!
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.