Saturday, January 14, 2012

NASCAR gets close to Daytona package during test, but won’t do away with two-car draft

NASCAR and the Sprint Cup Series teams got down to business for three days this week to hammer out what style of restrictor-plate racing we will see this year.

Teams hit the high banks Thursday at Daytona International Speedway and went straight to the now-common two-car draft. Speeds reached 202 mph, and it looked a lot like what we have seen the past couple of years.

NASCAR came back Friday with a larger restrictor plate and more rules designed to make it tougher to do the two-car draft. Speeds reached 206 mph during two-car drafting runs with the larger plate, but we also finally saw a session of three-wide pack racing.

As Saturday rolled around, NASCAR brought back the smaller restrictor plate and a few more rules related to air flow into the engine. The top speeds in the two-car draft reached 201 mph, but it looked like drivers had a difficult time staying hooked together for multiple laps.

Before the test started, everybody talked about how NASCAR wanted to eliminate the two-car drafts and bring back the huge packs. Well, it turns out the leaders at NASCAR don’t want to completely eliminate the two-car draft, but rather make it difficult enough so drivers only use it sparingly.

The sport got closer to a workable rules package for Speedweeks, but it could have gotten closer to taking away the two-car draft.

Almost every team will bring back a car for Speedweeks in February that is faster, has more-efficient cooling and all of the tricks teams add to the cars they are actually going to race. The teams certainly gained a lot of data this week, but a lot of that goes into making the Speedweeks cars better, not necessarily making the test car better.

All of that means the sport could still face issues about the style of racing during Speedweeks. The sport went about as far as it could on the cooling-system restrictions, but if teams come back with better cars for Speedweeks, they might still be able to do the two-car draft for at least five laps without switching.

Fans have voiced their displeasure with the two-car draft and while it does make for boring practice sessions, it isn’t going to go away completely.

One of the ideas some drivers took to NASCAR was to move the grill opening more to the left on the front of the car. That would make it nearly impossible to push another car without blowing the engine because the pushing car currently has to hang out to the right to get air to the engine.

With the grill on the left side of the car, the pushing driver wouldn’t be able to get air to the opening and would instead have to lay off the bumper.

That was probably an impractical change to make in the middle of a test, but it is something the sanctioning body could look at if it truly wanted to do away with the two-car draft.

But it doesn’t.

NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said on the SPEED broadcast that NASCAR wants a combination of pack racing and two-car pushing. That’s all well and good, but if teams come back to Daytona with better cars they might be able to run the two-car draft enough to not create a pack.

Hopefully NASCAR has enough of the same information the teams have to create a rules package that will accommodate any changes based on any improvements teams might make between now and Speedweeks.

As always, the Budweiser Shootout will be the race that tells us what kind of racing we will have during Speedweeks. If it’s more of the two-car draft, expect some radical last-minute rule changes.

That part, at least, wouldn’t be much different than most Februarys at Daytona.

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