Well, the Daytona 500 is here, and boy has it been an interesting week running up to tomorrow’s race (Sunday, 20 Feb 2011, 1pm EST on FOX). Lots of hype, lots of trash talking, and lots of changes. One big thing learned from testing, the Shootout, and the Duels, is that the two-car tandem can run considerably faster than a single, triple, or greater car run on the new asphault of Daytona’s 2.5mile Superspeedway. Many spectators thought this boring, but it can make for some interesting bed-fellows and “dance partners” as the race continues, rather than seeing the “normal” two and three-wide draft typical of Daytona and Talladega that inevitably causes “the BIG ONE” and takes out a good chunk of the field.
Here’s what happened this week, and what to look for:
First, and foremost, lots of emotion this weekend considering this is the 10th anniversary of the wreck which claimed the life of 7-time NASCAR champ, “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt. Expect a tribute prior to the race, and a “silent” third lap; you’ll likely see everyone in the stands, the pits, and the infield holding up a hand with three fingers. Trust me, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Speaking of Earnhardt…Dale Jr: Picks the Pole Position in the Bud Shootout, then had the fastest lap during qualifying last Sunday to pick up the Coors Light Pole for the 500. He then wrecks his car during practice. Lots of talking on the nets about whether or not NASCAR races are fixed (paging Tony Kornheiser!!), particularly considering the aforementioned emotional tie to Dale Sr. Although Dale Jr will be starting at the back of the pack and driving his backup #88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevy car, don’t expect him to stay there long. He’s one of the winningest drivers in Plate races (see Tech Talk below), and loves racing his way through the pack. With new Crew Chief Steve LeTarte, this could be a tough team to beat.
Kurt Busch: Wins the Bud Shootout and the first Gatorade Duel, and could possibly make history if he wins the 500 tomorrow. He ran fifth in the final practice, and might just be the favorite going into the race in the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge.
Jimmy Johnson: The five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion has been keeping quiet in the #48 Lowe’s Chevy most of the week, but don’t let that silence fool you. Crew Chief Chad Knaus always has a few tricks up his sleeve, and has been driving away all the reporters trying to see what his secrets are…just ask Dick Berggren.
Brian Keselowski: This NASCAR rookie, driving the family-owned K-Motorsports Dodge, got some brotherly love from his more experienced sibling, Brad, in the Blue Deuce of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge in the Duels that put Brian 12th on the starting grid. While trying to race from week to week at this point, this could be the feel-good story of this year’s Speedweeks, and with his performance could also mean the ever-important sponsorship that could let Brian race weekly, possibly preventing him from being a “start and park” racer.
Jeff Gordon: Jeff’s got the most wins at Daytona among active drivers, and has been hunting for that first win in a while. He’s on the outside of the front row, making it five years in a row that Hendrick Motorsports has either owned part, or dominated the front row in the 500. After suffering blows last season of losing his pit crew to the #48 team and his crew chief to the #88 team, his #24 Dupont Chevy crew (this week sponsored by “Drive to End Hunger”) has been moved out of the #48 stable and is now bunking with Mark Martin’s #5 GoDaddy.com Chevy team. He may have been down, but he’s certainly not out.
Michael Waltrip: Mikey won the 500 in 2001 as Dale Sr wrecked behind him on the last lap (Jr was #2). He got an emotional win last night in the Camping World Truck race, and raced his way into an eighth place start on Sunday in his#15 Napa Auto Parts Toyota. He’s won here before in a Plate race, and could be competitive for the win.
Kyle Busch: The #18 M&Ms Toyota is currently the lead horse in the Joe Gibbs’ Racing stable, and has been turning heads the last couple of years with the number of wins he’s had in all three NASCAR series. He’s run fast all weekend thus far, but since NASCAR changed the rules that a driver can only contend in one NASCAR racing series, he may run races in Camping World Trucks, and Nationwide Series, but he’ll only contend in the Sprint Cup. He starts 10th Sunday.
Notables to look out for: Tony Stewart (#14), who won the Nationwide race this weekend; Jeff Burton (#31); Joey Logano (#20); Ryan Newman (#39), and Kevin Harvick (#29).
This week’s Tech Talk I’ll cover the changes that NASCAR has made during the week, to help make the Daytona 500 more competitive and safer.
- Restrictor plates have been used for a number of years at Talladega and Daytona. These plates are metal plates with holes in them of a certain diameter that goes on top of the carburator to decrease the airflow into the engine and reduce horsepower. This primarily is to slow down the cars on the Superspeedways, which can run in excess of 210 miles per hour. Above 200mph, the possibility of a car getting airborne and really hurting someone grows exponentially. The Shootout and Duels had the cars running over 206 mph; NASCAR decreased the diameter of the holes a bit further. NASCAR also put in a tapered “spacer” above the carburator, to further reduce the intake airflow.
- To help combat the tandem car “couples-skate”, NASCAR also decreased the size of some cooling hoses, and set the pressure relief valve in the water cooling system to 33psi. Expectation is that the second car in the twosome will overheat before running too many laps pushing their racing “buddies”. This has given rise to the “lead swap,” where the two drivers will swap positions and let the rear car get into the cleaner air and cool itself down. Might be easy when you only have 20+ cars on the track, but might be a little problematic if you have a bunch of twosomes close together.
Cooling the cars usually isn’t difficult in the normally lower temps of February in Florida. Overheating is a real threat potential with the warmer temps this weekend; some may poo-poo NASCAR for putting in the smaller Plate. NASCAR is hedging their bets…if the “BIG ONE” hits, as it usually does, there’s always a threat of racing under the lights at lower temps.
Regardless of whom you’re rooting for, it’s going to be quite a Sunday. This Great American Race will be one for the books. So grab your gear, your beer, and a comfy chair for your rear. Time for the band to warm up for the dance: NASCAR Sprint Cup is back for 2011!