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The Daytona 500 End Game? Probably 3 GWCs...but first, how to get there?

 Bobby Hutchens, the old Bowman Gray Stadium Modified star, and long-time bud with the late Dale Earnhardt, now boss for the Tony Stewart-Ryan Newman team (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   The two-car draft is dead?
   One week ago the conventional stock car racing wisdom was that the two-car draft, which has been a surprising tactical feature at Talladega the past two years, simply wouldn't work at Daytona, even with its sleek new asphalt, because the track was just too tight and narrow.

   Well, the big story out of three days of Daytona 500 testing is that the two-car should be a major factor in the NASCAR season opener.
   And Bobby Hutchens, head of competition development for the Tony Stewart-Ryan Newman team, says every NASCAR team is now frantically trying to figure out how to play that game.
   "We saw the two-car draft was two seconds to 2-1/2 seconds quicker.
    "What surprised me was how fast a two-car draft could break way....or could pull back up on a bigger group.
   "It's an efficiency thing, and I think a two-car draft can break away from the big pack."
   One issue: even though a two-car draft is inherently faster than a multi-car draft because the bigger draft is less efficient aerodynamically, the trailing car in the two-car pack doesn't get enough air to the engine to keep it as cool as the lead car.
   "So we've been playing around with the idea of trying two different cars, one designed to be the leader, and the other designed to be the pusher," Hutchens said.  "And that way we can keep the two cars in line, without them having to switch back and forth.
   "One of our checkpoints is how do we set up our cars to run the two together. And where do you need to be to create the most speed."
    So is the old 'Dale Jarrett' strategy in the cards – laying back till the end, knowing how easy it can be to catch back up.
   "That's what our guys did last time...but they still got caught up in the big crash," Hutchens said ruefully.
   Another issue: can a two-car draft actually break away from the big pack? Darien Grubb, Stewart's crew chief, says yes.
   But how long can a two-car draft stay ahead of the pack, without having to swap spots to keep from overheating? Brian Pattie, crew chief for last year's Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, says at least 10 laps, from what he's seen and the numbers he's working with. At Talladega, in contrast, a trailing car could only stick out about two or three laps before needing some cooling air. Teams are clearly working on how to keep engines cool enough to be able to stick in line.

   Hutchens says the various permutations of 500 strategies is almost mind-boggling. For one, Goodyear's new tires seem tough enough to run at least two full pit stops without changing. "Heck, you might even be able to run the whole race on one set of tires," Hutchens says.
   So when the Daytona 500 gets maybe 30 laps in, how will crews play pit road? Will one team – with its own two-car teammate draft working – decide to pit a few laps earlier than fuel would demand, in order to dictate rivals' pit road tactics?
   Will fuel mileage itself become a factor?
   Grubb's point that he feels a two-car draft could actually break away from the field is intriguing.
   Considering the Daytona 500 will likely come down to a green-white-checkered shootout – or two, or three as last year – then could a two-car team, if in the right position on the track, be able to break away from the big pack and pull away?
   It all makes the three days of Daytona testing well worthwhile, obviously.
    So, consider how to play a green-white-checkered: could anyone pull a Kevin Harvick (2007) and come from back in the pack to win this 500? Or will two of the guys up front simply pull away?
   "I don't know....but I do know the two-car draft is dominant, by far," Grubb says.
   "Yet a second two-car draft coming up behind them can be a show-stopper, because it can slow the first two guys down.
   "But if that first two-car draft breaks away, they'll be the ones fighting each other off turn four for the win."
   And what about a Kevin Harvick type 'Hail Mary,' like he used to win the 500 in 2007, from deep in the pack, with a daring run?
   "I think you can win from 15th in the last two laps," Grubb says.
   "The two guys on the outside (for that final green-white-checkered sprint) could break away....but then maybe the guys on the inside try to pull up in front of them.
   "The two-car draft may be super-fast, but it's also super-slow when it comes to movement and blocking maneuvers."
   As narrow as Daytona is, a driver will likely only be able to make one move to block, not two like at Talladega.

   Grubb says he and teammate Tony Gibson will have nine Daytona cars ready to go, for Stewart and Newman. Two for each for the Shootout, two for the 500 itself, and a ninth as test car and full backup.

    Another issue: Which groove to pick at Daytona? On the old asphalt drivers tried to stay low. But now that the track is smoother drivers can run different lines, and even move around the track.
    And another issue: pit stop scenarios. Teams will be using a new closed-circuit refueling system, which will change some of the pit stop footwork.

   Engines? Richard Childress' stuff looked quite strong at the plate tracks last season: Jamie McMurray winning the Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick winning the July Daytona 400 and the April Talladega 500, and Clint Bowyer edging Harvick to win the fall Talladega 500.
   And Bowyer had one of the fastest single-run cars at Daytona last week, with Childress' ECR – Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines, headed by Richie Gilmore and Danny Lawrence.
   "I think they've pushed everyone to step up the engine programs," Hutchens said. "But the Hendrick guys have worked real hard in the off-season to get us back up where we're even with them, and from what I saw last week at Daytona, we're in real good shape with Hendrick power."

    Hutchens, who worked with the late Dale Earnhardt for years at Richard Childress', says Earnhardt's tough-guy reputation covered "a big heart on the inside.
   "He was personified like Tony, in a way – they're a lot alike: big heart on the inside, would do anything for anybody....but it's all about bringing that trophy home on Sunday and whatever it takes. And a lot of people misconstrued that as Dale was not a good person, when in reality he was one of the best people I've ever met in my life.
   "And I remind people of that every day. There are a lot of fans, and a lot of people involved in this sport, even in the media, who don't have a clue what he did or how he did it; they've just read a book or something.
   "It's sad.
   "And when we were down at Daytona last week, I was telling our guys 'it doesn't seem like 10 years....'"
   Certainly a lot has changed in this sport over the decade since Earnhardt's death. One thing to consider, on this 10th anniversary – the safety initiatives taken following....and how many drivers are alive today because of those changes.
   "A lot," Hutchens says. "There's not a lot of Saturdays or Sundays that I don't see something and say 'Oh, my gosh.' I call 'em Decel hits. And the guy gets out and walks away."
   Like Elliott Sadler last summer at Pocono.
   While many of those things, like the HANS device and soft walls and better seats and head braces, might have come along eventually anyway, Hutchens said Earnhardt's death clearly speed up the process.
   "Dale would have been the first person to fight you over having to wear that HANS. And our guy, Tony, was fighting it too; that's why I helped him with the transition with the Hutchens Device.
   "But there were people looking at putting up foam walls at Modified tracks in the Northeast 15 years ago, and everybody thought they were crazy."



       It may be time for NASCAR to scrap the fall championship chase and try something else.
       A number of fans have been complaining about the 10-race playoff for several years now, and Jimmie Johnson has dominated the format, winning five straight titles.
        And NASCAR executives are set to announce a new championship points system, but they don't seem at all interested in dropping the championship playoff format that they initiated in 2004, first as something to help in contract renegotiations with NBC.
       However Bruton Smith, probably the second-most-powerful figure in this sport, as head of Speedway Motorsports and its high-profile, big-city tracks, is now adding his voice to the chorus that killing the chase is an idea whose time may have come. Last fall the playoffs showed another major dip in TV ratings, despite the playoff format.
      Smith: "It started off as as good idea, but maybe it's time to look for something else.
      "It started off being very important...but I don't think it's as important as maybe we thought it would be.
      "In one or two more years we'll find out."
   Fox' David Hill says NASCAR should considered shorter races, to help boost TV ratings. And Hill suggests ESPN move some of its fall chase races to Saturday night instead of going head to head with the NFL on Sundays.

   Bobby Hutchens, who heads the technical side of the Tony Stewart-Ryan Newman operation, says he's not in favor of NASCAR's proposed new championship points system, which is expected to be announced here Wednesday.
   "I'm old-school – I'd rather have it left like it was. They haven't changed the six points for a touchdown in football," Hutchens said.
   Hutchens says NASCAR changing the championship rules again would only diminish the impact of the new champion, because his work couldn't be compared against this sport's championship legends like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt.
   "And that would be sad."

    Michael Waltrip, who has cut back his Sprint Cup racing, will be running the Daytona 500 again.
   Waltrip won his first Daytona 500 in 2001.

    Kurt Busch will be taking advantage of the NASCAR off-weekend in early March to make his NHRA Pro Stock debut, in Gainesville, Fla. He will be racing with Allen Johnson and J & J Racing.

    Among the rules changes NASCAR is expected to make for the 2011 season is the elimination of the venerable qualifying 'draw,' where drivers draw numbers from a box to set the order of qualifying. NASCAR plans to set the order for pole runs based on practice speeds, with the fastest drivers last out, to even the setting, hopefully.

    NASCAR's new gas cans, a closed system, to prevent spillage, may be slower to drain, and that could turn the current 12-second pit stops into 14-second stops, or longer. That has crew chiefs pondering how to layout pit stop game plans.




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