The Way It Is/ The shows the thingby Gordon Kirby
Last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout produced darn near exactly what NASCAR hoped for--a fierce 'pack race' with plenty of passing, no two-car tandems, plenty of spectacular moments and a trio of multi-car accidents from which everyone, Jeff Gordon in particular, emerged undamaged. Mike Helton, John Darby and Robin Pemberton were in a good mood after the 'Shootout', hoping for more of the same in the 500 with maybe a little less crashing, and so too, were most of the drivers.
For its restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR has fiddled with the plate size as well as the size of the water radiator inlet and operation of its pressure system. They've also reduced the size of the rear spoiler and a 'sharkfin' has been added along the leftside of the roof and rear window.
"Sometimes," Shootout winner Kyle Busch remarked, "we were pushing three rows deep and I was in the middle and I thought I could spin out on the straightaway. There's going to be moments like that in the 500 and there's going to be more cars. It's going to be 50 times more pressure-packed and more intense at the end of the race because it's the Daytona 500."
Busch said it's down to the drivers, not the rules package, to keep from crashing. He added that the biggest problem is stopping other drivers from pounding too heavily on the left rear fender of the car in front like Jeff Gordon did to him in the Shootout.
"(Later in the race) in three and four Jeff Gordon got to pushing on me through one and two, making me really loose. I'm glad the straightaway came when it did because otherwise I was going to spin out. He got back on me a few more times on the straightaway, moving me around, trying to move me out of the way. Going into turn three he hit me again on the left rear corner and spun me out. It caused a heck of a melee behind us and also for himself. It's a product of what us drivers need to be better at. We've got to fix that."
Busch believes next Sunday's 500 will be a little more buttoned up but has no doubt that the race's final laps will be full of pushing, shoving and wrecking.
"(The 500) will be a little bit calmer," Kyle commented. "It's all in the drives' hands, how boring or exciting we want to make the race. I think tonight's race (the Shootout) was pretty exciting, the reason being because it's a non-points race.
"When you get to the Daytona 500 there's going to be some moments where you're pushing, trying to see what your car is going to do. You have to keep your water temperatures in check, the front and rear bumpers on your car, and you've got to keep the sides on your car and be there at the end. But when it comes down to the last 50 or 20 miles it's going to get hectic. We're probably going to be spinning each other out and hopefully being able to miss all the wrecks."
Busch said the latest form of 'plate racing' means the drivers have to be more on their toes than ever because the draft seems to be more effective.
"The closing rate is higher," he pointed out. "With the old-style 'pack drafting' the closing rate was really slow. Sometimes you never even got to the car in front of you. You couldn't blow through that space of air.
"Now, you can't stay off the car in front of you. You've got somebody pushing up your butt and you're running into the car in front of you. There was a moment (in the Shootout) through (turns) three and four when Montoya was in front of me and somebody was in front of him. Somebody was pushing me and I was trying to hold onto the brakes so I didn't run into the guy in front of me and cause them to get loose. It's a product of what the drivers are all faced with and how we can all work through it better."
Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers had nothing but praise for NASCAR although he worries about the warmer temperatures next Sunday afternoon.
Shootout runner up and defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart agreed with Busch and Rogers' assessments.
"It was definitely a lot more fun," Stewart commented. "You felt a lot more eager to be engaged in the race this way than in the two-car deal. I actually had fun racing at Daytona again, which I haven't had for a while. So I'm really appreciative of the work that NASCAR has done in the off-season and the test session and the changes they made after the test to try to make it better for us out there. I don't know what the consensus is from everybody else, but I had more fun as a driver tonight than what we've had in the past.
"This is a lot more fun than the two-car stuff was," Stewart added. "I still like the open motor (non-restrictor plate) races better where we can literally control our own destiny, but this is by far a lot better than what we had with the two-car stuff."
Marcos Ambrose finished third in the Shootout and he echoed Busch and Stewart's comments.
"I agree with Tony about what an incredible job NASCAR has done to get back to this style of racing," Ambrose said. "I think all the drivers appreciate it. It's definitely a lot more fun, more entertaining for the fans and more in control for the drivers. Even though we crashed more tonight, you just feel like you were in control of your own destiny a little more out there.
"Like Tony said, it's way better this way. It's much better racing. We're more in control even though it doesn't look like it. We're controlling our own destiny. We're going to push the car to the end and we have to manage the temperatures. I think NASCAR has done a great job of allowing the drivers to get back to racing."
Stewart further analysed the latest 'plate racing rules package and the differences between the Shootout and the 500.
"Historically, you've always seen this race be a scenario where everybody sees what they can get away with," Stewart related. "They use it as a practice session. You try to see what you can get away with. Everybody, no matter what their outcome was tonight, learned something they're going to take into the qualifying races and we'll take into Sunday.
"You can always push harder in this race than in the 500 because we always run this race at night and it's a lot cooler. We'll have most likely a lot warmer conditions on raceday. That will eliminate some of the stuff that guys were really trying to push the envelope on.
"Look at the history of this race. They always crash here, and when we go to Talladega they crash there. It's a yard sale every time we go to a restrictor plate track.
"It's the Bud Shootout and everybody pushes the envelope. Everybody tries to see what the limit is, what the boundary is. When it comes to Sunday you have to race 500 miles. You have to make it last to the end."
Stewart emphasized the point that the drivers have more control of the situation with the new rules package.
"I think it's in the drivers' hands," he repeated. "I think to a certain degree what NASCAR had in mind when they came up with this package was to put the decision in our hands. We're all thinking twice of do we want to put ourselves in that position so it makes the guy that has the opportunity to push to think twice about is it the right time and do I want to take that risk at this point of the race?
"I don't think it's a bad thing. I kind of like us having the decision of whether we want to put ourselves in that position or not. I think everybody will look at that and determine at what stage of the race that's going to be an important decision for them to make.
"I think it's very similar to what we had three or four years ago. You sit there and try to figure out--like being on the freeway at rush hour--which lane is moving and which lane is stopped and whether you want to switch over. It's back to figuring out like a chess match who can hang on and not get blocked when they're pushing a two-car deal through there. It's definitely a lot better."
Stewart also ruminated about what will be the best position to be in on the 500's final lap in order to win the race.
"I think history shows that you want to be the second guy in all reality," he observed. "Especially here. It seems like for some reason you can make that move here (at Daytona). For some reason at Talladega, with the start/finish line being further around the tri-oval, it seems like you can make the move. At Talladega it almost seems like the second spot is the one you want to be in. I'm not ruling out that you can't win from being the lead car. You've got to plan ahead for it.
"As soon as we came off turn two I was already thinking about it. I knew how much of a gap we had to third and fourth. I had the flexibility to do that without us getting freight-trained. I knew it was coming. It was just a matter of what to do to guard against it. Guys are figuring out what to do to get by. Now, you have to figure out what to do to not let them get by you."
So whatever you may think about NASCAR it remains the most visible and powerful form of American motor racing and at Daytona next Sunday we will witness an aggressive, fast-thinking chess game on wheels featuring twenty or thirty of the country's most famous drivers. Over the years the cars have been steadily developed to be as safe as humanly possible in the crowded, frenetic environment of restrictor plate or pack racing. It's a show. That's what it's all about.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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