Haven't heard much out of Chevy's Jimmie Johnson this SpeedWeeks. Wonder what's up there? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Does Chevy have an advantage here?
Or maybe it's simply Kevin Harvick's deft touch at the wheel in the draft.
Harvick has been the smoothest at the wheel so far.
And talk about mellow, what's it with this guy -- fatherhood has made this big a change in this once so volatile stock car racer?
There is the sense that Sunday's Daytona 500 is shaping up as Harvick versus Tony Stewart versus Kasey Kahne, in what would be an all-Chevy finish.
No wonder there is a bit of grumbling in the Ford camp, over front grills and other things, and in the Toyota camp, over the sheer number of Chevrolet drivers and teams the GM division has thrown into this war.
Chevy has 17 drivers in the 500, Ford has 15, Toyota has 11.
It's not just numbers, it's depth too.
Of Sunday's 43 starters, Chevy has 11 potential winners (not counting Danica Patrick). Ford has five potential winners, Toyota has six potential winners. Right there, Chevy has a 50-50 shot to win any given week, much better odds than either Ford or Toyota, just on number of bodies to throw at the field.
That's Chevrolet's big edge: numbers.
If Ford and Toyota want to match up better, its CEOs will have to open up the billfolds and sign up more teams, or strength some of their current second-tier teams.
Danica Patrick: the color of money.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Daytona 500 teams had another two hours of practice Friday. But few drivers took advantage of that, most logging just enough laps to make sure nothing would fall off and all the fluid lines were tight.
As much crashing as has been going on, it would seem the smart thing to do as much practicing as possible.
But teams didn't see it that way.
Crashing has been another big story during SpeedWeeks. Carl Edwards, for example, has wiped out four cars already.
NASCAR has taken a lot of downforce off these cars since last year's Daytona 500.
Is that good or bad.
Downforce is good? And more downforce is really good?
When drivers feel comfortable, they tend to be bolder, more willing to make gutsy moves.
On the other side, when drivers feel their cars are skittish, they are less to willing make gutsy moves. Replay Thursday's two 150s to see that.
Still, Ford's Jack Roush says having more downforce in a car makes everyone braver, and having less downforce tends to spread things out and make for the unpredictable.
"If they want to have more surprising finishes, if they want more storybook finishes, with tragedy and triumph, having less downforce has more likelihood of doing that than more downforce," Roush insists.
Not everyone buys that.
Kevin Harvick (L) and Tony Stewart: two Daytona 500 favorites, and soon-to-be teammates (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Scott Miller, competition direction for Michael Waltrip's Toyota team, says drivers overall can do less with their race cars here than in the past.
Indeed racing so far has been generally single-file, with drivers parading around in the high groove, and anyone trying the low line getting shuffled to the back.
"The bottom line hasn't been too successful, as far as getting up front and taking the lead," Miller says. "It almost looks like you're stuck on the top...and you just have to position yourself for when all hell breaks loose, so you have a place to go.
"They definitely struggled to make any headway with the low line."
These cars here have much less downforce than last year's Daytona 500 cars. And there have been a lot of crashes, mostly unexplained.
"But it's not necessarily a driving thing; it's how these cars are behaving in the draft," Miller says.
"Nobody seems to be struggling too much with the handling of the cars. That all seems to be very good.
"It's just the way the air is out there, and the drafting, and there seems less opportunity for passing than we saw last year.
"If any of us had an answer, I'm sure we'd be over there lobbying for it. I don't think there will be any tried-and-true fix. I don't think just putting on a bigger plate or bigger spoiler....
"It's something you need to work through over. And it's too late now to make any changes. But there are some Goodyear tire tests coming, and I'm sure they'll be reevaluating things.
"Harvick has always been very, very adept at this type of racing. And whenever the rules package changes, he seems to be in the forefront of what you need to do with the new package. And I would attribute his success so far to that.
"Now Kevin's car is good, but traditionally he's been very good at this type of racing."
Scott Miller (L) and Michael Waltrip (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Brad Keselowski says it looks like Chevys have an edge. Does Miller agree?
"I think it's a little too early to tell," Miller says. "Chevys were strong in qualifying, and obviously Tony Stewart looked really, really strong in the unlimited race the other night. Maybe Tony didn't run quite as strong in the 150s, but then I don't really think he gave it his all there, truthfully.
"I don't know if I'd say Chevys have a big advantage. But they're certainly not hurting."
What about the high line versus the low line? The high line has dominated so far, and no one really has been able to make the low line work yet.
"The low line actually will make good lap times," Miller says. "You saw that with 'second packs' catching up to the lead pack; they made a lot of ground taking the shorter way around.
"Again, it's not about driving or the way the cars drive; it's just the way the air and the draft work with this car, when they get side by side, it just stalls out.
"The top line cars tend to be able to drag the bottom line cars back easier than the bottom line guys can affect what's going on with the top groove guys."
Paul Menard was one of the few drivers trying hard to make the low line work Thursday.
Slugger Labbe, Menard's crew chief, assessed the results like this: "The biggest thing, I think, is people were bailing out of the bottom because they felt the top is better. And when you only have 18 cars in there....
"I think you'll see a different race Sunday, with more cars.
"The bottom lane never really had enough cars in it to give it a true test. You'd be three or four cars down there, and then they'd start bailing out and going to the top.
"Kevin made the bottom work late in his 150 because so many guys stayed down there with him. With more cars in the field you'll see more cars running the bottom.
"....otherwise you'll just see follow-the-leader, and we don't want that."
What to make of the new Ford NASCAR grill: 3D: is it good or bad? Why not just a decal grill, like Toyota and Chevrolet? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And is there anything to the garage debate over the grills on these 2013s? Ford has a real 3-D grill on its stockers, while Toyota and Chevrolet are both using flat decal grill simulations? Is there any aerodynamic disadvantage for Ford, in turbulence perhaps? Chevy and Toyota both have 3-D grills they could use on the race cars.
Andy Graves, Toyota's NASCAR technical manager, dismisses the grill issue as much ado about nothing.
Chevy men, like Doug Duchardt, likewise brush off the debate.
Ford wanted the 3-D grill, Graves said.
"Part of our aero-matching process is that we all had to make targets, and one of the things Ford decided to do (to make its target) was to put the grill in there."
Ford, Graves said, could be using a decal grill too if it had wanted. "It was their choice, and I think it looks great," Graves said.
Is the 3-D grill an aero negative on the nose? Graves says no: "As soon as the air packs in there, the boundary layer goes over the top of the grill anyway. It's a non-issue.
"I've seen the aero numbers; there's nothing there. I guess I don't even understand what the problem is. Ford makes just as good numbers as Chevrolet and us, and Dodge. You could throw a blanket over those numbers. And the Ford looks awesome."
Chevy's advantage: sheer numbers of NASCAR teams. Maybe rivals need to get up off their billfolds (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
When Ford says Chevrolet and Toyota "had a second bite of the apple" during the submission process, what is that all about?
This is how Graves says the NASCAR 2013 submission process went:
"We had a 'dry run' at the submission test (for NASCAR) last January. The first official submission test all four car makers had was at the beginning of May last year. We didn't hit the targets we wanted exactly. So we all sat down with NASCAR and said 'We're not happy with some of the things we saw.'"
So a second submission test was run in early June. "Everything went smoothly, and NASCAR was happy, and all the surfaces were approved."
So why does Chevy seem so dominating here?
Numbers, Graves says.
"Chevy has a lot of good teams. And Chevy plate engines are really good," Graves says.
"Our stuff is good, and Toyota has some good drafters, and some good teams too. But there are just so many more of the Chevrolet guys."
Word in the NASCAR garage is that these three -- Tony Stewart (14), Kasey Kahne (5) and Kevin Harvick (29) have an edge in Sunday's Daytona 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)