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Changing of the guard at Daytona? Ford, not Chevy, is suddenly dominant: Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle leading the parade

  The Daytona SpeedWeeks story so far: too many bad crashes, like this one involving Jeff Gordon. That's the remains of his car in the middle of this emergency scene (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   After Saturday night's carnage in the SpeedWeeks kickoff Shootout, Sunday afternoon at Daytona was much calmer, for which drivers were much relieved.
   To be perfectly blunt about it, 'pack racing' is much more dangerous than last season's two-car packs, and these cars are much more unstable. That is the overwhelming story here right now, that and how drivers deal with that….not so well so far, to judge the Shootout.

   At least 22 cars so far have been seriously damaged or completely destroyed in crashes in the first two days of action. Team owner Rick Hendrick watched all four of his men wipe out Saturday night, and fellow team owner Roger Penske, who has only two drivers, has already watch them destroy four cars.
   And that was the setting for Sunday's Daytona 500 pole runs.
   Regardless of how important or unimportant qualifying is here now – and nearly three hours of single-car runs isn't very thrilling – Carl Edwards says it's still cool to have the fastest car in town, and to show it off.
   Sunday Edwards showed he isn't letting the heartbreaking finish to last season keep him down.
   And teammate Greg Biffle isn't letting last year's winless run keep him down either.
   Edwards and Biffle made it an all-Ford front row for next weekend's NASCAR season opening Daytona 500, a race Edwards hopes can be a springboard to another great year on the stock car tour, and perhaps his first Sprint Cup title.

    Carl Edwards, on the Daytona 500 pole, and picking right up where he left off 2011 -- kicking butt. Fords are HOT (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  The power shown here by Jack Roush's Ford teams lately – Trevor Bayne won a year ago for Ford, and David Ragan won here last July – could portend a change in dominance at this track, from long-dominant Chevrolet to suddenly powerful Ford.
  Chevy's Dale Earnhardt Jr., on the Ford resurgence: "They definitely have found some speed over the off-season in their Daytona package for sure."
  Teammate Jeff Gordon agreed: "The Fords obviously brought something pretty special."
   "It is a bit surprising," third teammate Jimmie Johnson added. "Those (Ford) guys have not had the fastest plate stuff in qualifying. They all race very well, but you don't think of the Roush cars as contenders for the pole. But they've got a lot of speed."
  Just what the change in fortunes may be attributed to isn't clear. But Ford's new FR9 engine, with its excellent cooling characteristics, is certainly a player, particularly now that NASCAR has even more rules in place to force engines to overheat – a ploy the sanctioning body figures may keep drivers from teaming up in two-man drafts.
   Checking how the four brands fared:
   Ford has four of five fastest Daytona 500 cars, and six of the top nine.
   Chevrolet's Earnhardt was that marque's fastest, third overall. Richard Childress' four men were not very stout, though.
   Toyota had just two of the top-20 (Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin). Denny Hamlin was noticeably off the pace (37th), after a not so impressive run in the Shootout.
   Dodge showed little punch, only two in the top-20 (AJ Allmendinger and Brad Keselowski).



The Daytona 500 front row: Carl Edwards (99) and teammate Greg Biffle (16), as team owner Jack Roush (center, with the hat) orchestrates victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   On the Danica Patrick front, the highly touted Cup rookie was 29th fastest in qualifying for her Sprint Cup debut. That will put her in the ninth row for Thursday's first 150-mile qualifying heat.
   Only the two front row spots were set Sunday. The rest of the 500 grid will be set after Thursday's twin 150s. Last year's top-35 team owners are locked into 500 start spots; that top-35 rule, and some dealings, have guaranteed Patrick a spot in the 500 regardless of how well she does Thursday.
   And Patrick may have her hands full in her 150, which features Edwards, Earnhardt, Marcos Ambrose, Stewart, Paul Menard, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton.
   Saturday night's crash-fest Shootout was the first race under the new rules, which include a ban on most radio communication and an aerodynamic package that makes cars much looser entering the corners. Drivers in the Shootout appeared to be seriously abusing the 'loose' problems rivals had, triggering big crashes. In fact some here are wondering if NASCAR should try – again – to ban drivers from pushing each other, a rule that ARCA enforces here.
   Gordon took Saturday's hardest ride: "I'm pretty amazed how I feel today considering."


   On Danica Patrick overload yet? Just stay tuned. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   It's always nice to be fast, really nice to be the fastest….but considering the Shootout,  it really didn’t seem to matter how fast or how slow a car was: everybody was crashing.
   So, other than marketing, why does this pole matter? "Good question," Edwards says. "But it's a sign of the strength of your team. It says a lot."
   Another question: what's the incentive to running hard in Thursday's 150-mile qualifiers?
   In fact Edwards wasn't alone in his race strategy at the plate tracks last year – to lag far in the back for most of the race and wait till the end to make a charge. That is likely to be a significant factor here for many drivers again.
   Rival team owner Richard Childress last fall at Talladega took aim at drivers thus 'pacing' themselves and insisted his teams don't come to Daytona and Talladega to play rope-a-dope but to go to the front…even though a crash while up front might well have cost Kevin Harvick a shot at the championship.
   And Roush indicated he wanted his men to go to the front here. Biffle said that was the game plan.
   Gordon says "You've still got to survive and play it smart but yet you've got to be aggressive. I feel if you're up front, you have a little better shot of staying up there."
  And Edwards? "I just do what I'm told," he said with a smile.
   "I don't know if there's any safe place on the track, with this type of racing.
   "But my teammate will be right up there with me, so we won't have to find each other."
   Of course how well anyone will be able to communicate, with NASCAR's no no-radio rule, is up for review.
   And Tony Stewart says two cars are still faster than many: "You can almost guarantee that it's going to be a tandem that's going to win the thing.
   "But to know about the rest of it, it's hard to anticipate."


   Dale Earnhardt Jr. - ready to win again? Wonder if there is anything growing in that beard (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   For Edwards, this race may mean more than it does for others…because he was by far the best overall racer over the tour's 36-race run in 2011, but still lost the championship (in an historic tie-breaker) to Tony Stewart.
   And Edwards, remember, started that run right here, with a stirring performance in the Daytona 500, losing by a nose to fellow Ford driver Trevor Bayne.
   This time here Edwards appears to have clearly the fastest car in the field….though with pack-drafting back in vogue, and with multi-car crashes already headlining SpeedWeeks, speed alone probably won't win this one.
   And getting the season off to a good start could be important for renewed self-confidence
   Edwards' 194.738 mph run was barely a car-length better around this 2.5-mile track than Biffle. And it was the fastest pole run here since 1999's 195.067.
   However visions of a 200-mph pole at Daytona International Speedway faded early on. The switch to electronic fuel injection was expected to be accompanied by a surge in speed – somewhat choreographed that way, to be honest.
   That magic mark of 200 hasn't been topped since Bill Elliott's still amazing 210.364 in 1987, just before the Bobby Allison crash at Talladega that triggered the current restrictor plate era.
    Still Edwards was some eight miles an hour quicker than Earnhardt's pole-winning 186 here a year ago.
    On the penalty front, Clint Bowyer will have to start his Thursday 150 from last place, after his left-front fender was too low in post-qualifying runs. "I don't know if we got something stuck in the bleed hole in the shock or what, but it just didn't come back up," Scott Miller, competition director, said.
    NASCAR indicated there would be no further penalties.

    Teams and drivers are having to deal with several new issues – the lower downforce on the rear of the car, higher engine temperatures (by NASCAR design), and a change in a car's aerodynamic balance – and Saturday's Shootout showed they have quite a ways to go.
   The cars are now considerably more unstable, particularly at the end of the straights. Trailing drivers are still racing blind, and when the car just ahead has to make a quick evasive move – as, say, Kurt Busch had to do in his incident Friday evening with Stewart – the new winds around these cars can lead to disaster.
   On top of that, there are new issues perhaps with the 'side-draft,' which is typically an important racing tactic here.
   Those are key issues for Edwards and engineer Chip Bolin, who is filling in for Edwards' regular crew chief  Bob Osborne, who is dealing with the death of his father.
   Drivers were remarkably aggressive in the Shootout, and Earnhardt issued what sounds like a warning: "I feel we will be competitive and should be able to be on the offense more than on the defense. That is what you want as a driver out there -- making passes."

    Engine temperatures are being closely watched, and some drivers are worried.
   Roush says "We decided 250 degrees water is all we recommend. It's down substantially from what we had before NASCAR got involved with the number of things that they required as limitations in the system. 
    "The bar has been lowered with what the tolerance is for temperature for the engine, and I think everybody understands what the impact of that is."
   However, drivers in the heat of battle might not back off quite enough when the temperature warning light turns red, and blown head gaskets or worse are then likely.


   The remains of Jeff Gordon's Chevy. Too many bad crashes so far here at Daytona (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Notice what brands of cars

Notice what brands of cars have been overheating. Now Nascar is rethinking how to stop this problem for that manufactor and it is NOT Ford. Very few Fords were venting fluids during qualifying. This tells me that Chevy just needs to do their homework like Ford has. Nascar wants it fair across the board as long as Chevy wins. especially the restrictor plate tracks. just check the record over the last 15 to 20 years. Last year was a fluke for Ford. Woods Brothers caught everyone by surprise. It will not happen this year, that is for sure. My pick of course is the #88. Take past history to the bank. It just adds up.

I'm liking your pick for the

I'm liking your pick for the 500. i've talked with steve letarte and with Junior, and RickH, and I've looked at the competition, and checked out as much as i can. and Junior looks solid. how about junior versus kyle busch coming off turn four the last lap? how might that go?
and engine overheating....good observation. caught me napping. i need to get up and check it out. thanks.

Sorry, not buying Junior

Sorry, not buying Junior here. He ran okay in the Shootout but then wrecked again.

My pick for the 500 is a tossup between Kyle Busch and another darkhorse - impressed by Ambrose in the Shootout, but hoping Almirola's #43 is the one that goes for the win.

Great observations about who's overheating and who isn't.

your so right as history

your so right as history shows if chevy wins its all good but if ford wins its rulechange time. chevy won what 15 daytona races straight with no changes then dale jarett wins in 2000 and imediate rulechange then chevy wins 13 more straight with no change then trevor wins in 2011 and here we are brand new rules for daytona. trevor might have gotten a fluke win but remember who pushed him to that win in a ford.

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