Last weekend in the annual Budweiser Shootout exhibition that kicks off Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR's best Sprint Cup drivers got their first chance in an actual race environment to test out the new rules changes that are part of the 2012 competition package.
The Sprint Cup drivers and race teams will get another go at Daytona, though, this time for the real deal, as the season officially gets its send off on Sunday in NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500. NASCAR may be the only major sport that celebrates its biggest event of the year on the opening day of the season.
With only half of the field completing the wreck-marred 75-lap Shootout last Saturday night, fans, race teams and the drivers are hoping that lessons learned from the initial introduction to the 2012 rules changes will result in a cleaner race and less multicar wreckage than occurred all over the track at Daytona in this year's Bud Shootout.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the rules changes in Sprint Cup racing this season will be at the longer tracks or so-called super speedways like Daytona and Talledega (Ala.). Driver and fan safety, which has become the top priority in NASCAR over the past decade, is of greater concern at the super speedway venues than in any other racing venue because of the speeds that can be achieved. Because of this, NASCAR has required use of restrictor plate at Daytona and Talledega going back to the 1970s to limit engine horsepower and car speeds.
Because the speeds attained on the longer tracks, it's more common to see multicar accidents, sometimes involving a large number of vehicles. Last year, for example, David Reutimann started a multicar wreck in the Daytona 500 that involved 17 cars, or almost half of the 43-car field. In recent years, the drivers at Daytona and Talledega have resorted almost fulltime to the form of racing known as bump or tandem drafting because the quickest way around the big tracks is to lock together in two-car drafting formations,
This type of racing brought an almost universal negative response from stock-car racing fans. In a survey conducted last year by NASCAR, almost four out of every fan surveyed was against the wide use of tandem racing, preferring more pack-style racing and less of the pairs format.
NASCAR has not been reticent about pointing out that the rules changes being implemented this year are designed to curtail the tandem racing that has angered the fans. It's fairly obvious, though, that the drivers themelves are more comfortable and competent with the tandem style of racing than having to negotiate three-wide and five-deep packs of tightly fit race cars. That became apparent in the Bud Shootout, as did the drivers' difficult in adapting to the 2012 equipment changes dictated by the new rules.
The most prominent changes introduced this season in the Sprint Cup Series make it so the cars will overheat if two-car drafting is employed for an extended period. The rear bumper has been lowered to inches closer to the ground, the rear spoiler is lower and smaller, and the front grille is slightly larger. The larger opening in the front of the car will allow the cars to run cooler when they are in packs. In addition the car radiators are smaller. This is also the first year for the use of electronic fuel injection systems.
Even after three days of testing a couple of weekends ago plus the practice and qualifying sessions for the Bud Shootout and this week for the Daytona 500, the teams probably will still have some work to do to get their engine packages optimally adjusted to the new cooling regulations.
Pack racing may be more fun to watch for the fans, said Dale Earnhardt Jr., but at Daytona (and Talledega), it will be two-car drafting that will win the race. That's precisely what happened on the white-flag lap in this year's Bud Shootout. Kyle Busch was pushing Tony Stewart before jumping to the outside and outgunning Stewart to the finish line in the closest Shootout finish in the 34 years of the preseason exhibition.
You can probably expect more of the same in this year's Daytona 500 - but we hope without all the demolition derby-like race stoppages we witnessed last Saturday night.
For more information: