Captain Jack: time to lock and load (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Okay, can we cut through the PR and BS and get to some real understanding of what's going on with these 2013s at SpeedWeeks?
Lotsa luck. Stuff is so deep and thick here you'd better be wearing a good pair of Texas boots.
First, Kevin Harvick is one of the best at handling the intricacies of the Daytona draft. He's made some great moves, not just in winning twice but in avoiding problems.
Second, Chevrolet may have a bit of an edge over Ford and Toyota here. Whether that holds up at downforce tracks like Phoenix and Las Vegas remains to be seen. (Rear-axle 'camber' tricks may be a bigger issue there.)
Third, GM officials are on Cloud Nine with the way things have turned out so far. Harvick winning Saturday's shootout, Danica Patrick winning Sunday's Daytona 500 pole, Harvick winning his 150 Thursday...and Jeff Gordon dominating his 150 until a NASCAR speeding penalty. Little wonder rivals are fuming.
Fourth, crashing. Carl Edwards has already wiped out four cars. "And there will be more wrecks, certainly on Sunday," team owner Jack Roush predicts.
Fifth, there is an obvious heavy-hand over all these men here -- drivers, crews, owners -- is to be politically correct and not bite the hand. That sense is heavier in the NASCAR garage than in many years, and it is clearly tempering what people are willing to say.
With all that in mind.....
Advantage Chevy? Or advantage Harvick? Unfair advantage? And wondering if crew chief Gil Martin might be following Harvick over to Tony Stewart's for 2014? Maybe Richard Childress should lock Martin up with a new contract....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Let's ask Ford's number one team owner Jack Roush, Toyota's top competition director Scott Miller, and legendary crew chief Tim Brewer for their takes on what's happened so far....and what to expect in Sunday's 500.
Roush says Chevy and Toyota both appear to have a bit of an edge over Ford here.
"We've got (aerodynamic) data off the first submissions (to NASCAR, earlier last year); we have not seen data off the resubmissions," Roush says.
"The data we've seen showed the downforce and drag was very competitive among the Chevrolet, the Ford and the Toyota. But Ford did not change it's car...while Chevrolet and Toyota got another bite of the apple (in a resubmission, not just sure when).
"We have not seen what their (new) numbers are. But it sure looks like we (Fords) have a tick more drag, relative to the field.
"But Ford won the battle for 'brand identity.' The Ford looks more like a Fusion (street car) than those other two look like street cars.
"Still, despite NASCAR's efforts to make it more even, it looks like we've got a tick more drag now, than we did before. Otherwise we would have qualified better and we would look better than we've looked in drafting practice.
"It's a work in progress. NASCAR has made a Herculean effort at making things equal...and they don't have it far off. It's close."
Carl Edwards and Daytona 500 car number five....after four crashes. It's been an expensive SpeedWeeks (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But then Roush's crew spent Friday in yet more repair work on Carl Edwards' car, after his fourth crash here.
The line 'downforce is good' is well-known in racing. The more downforce a driver has in his car, the more comfortable he feels, and the more comfortable he feels, the more aggressive he becomes.
NASCAR, though, has cut considerable downforce out of this year's Daytona 500 cars, and drivers are still adjusting to that. Some not so well. Edwards isn't alone in crashing; so have Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, and Denny Hamlin, all veterans.
"NASCAR has tried to make the racing more exciting for the fans, and I hope it works out that way, but it's been to my detriment so far," Roush says ruefully.
Would another inch or two of rear spoiler help?
"I stop short of saying what they should do," Roush says warily, knowing the 500 is still two days away and things could change abruptly (but probably won't). "Right now we're all nailed down to the front splitter (bumper) position, the rear spoiler and the rear springs. If you changed the rear spoiler, you'd probably have to replace the rear springs and shocks, and that would be a risqué move without doing some testing."
What about eliminating that rear-end under-car valence? Would that improve rear handling? "That was just NASCAR's final effort to make sure the cars couldn't push two-on-two (bump-draft or two-car-draft)," Roush says.
"But it looks like the Nationwide cars (Saturday's 300 is set for 1:15 p.m. ET) are still going to be able to push two-on-two.
"And I like the two-on-two pushing myself; you have a better chance of having your drivers not get caught up in a wreck. If one car gets screwed up, there is enough separation that you have a better chance of avoiding the wreck. But now, in that gaggle of cars, whether single-file or two or three lanes wide, if somebody screws up, and you're behind it, you just wreck."
Remember Brad Keselowski (R) and crew chief Paul Wolfe? They've almost been lost in the SpeedWeeks shuffle so far (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Brewer, who worked with champions Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott over the years, has been TV's top NASCAR technical analyst the past six years.
So, first question: There was very little passing for the lead under green on the track in Thursday's 150s. Single-file racing. And several drivers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., predicted more of the same in the 500. Was it that drivers couldn't pass or simply wouldn't try to pass, for fear of tearing up their cars?
"A lot of 'em wouldn't. A lot of 'em couldn't," Brewer says.
"What did Kevin Harvick do? He drove to the front, on the inside."
Harvick qualified only 25th fastest in last Sunday's fastest-of-two laps. But he moved smoothly to the front in the first 150, tucking in behind Trevor Bayne, and getting the point after the round of pit stops. Ford's Greg Biffle, only 27th in quals, likewise moved to the front to challenge Harvick for the win....in a replay of Saturday night's shootout.
"Harvick did that with a good handling car that he didn't have to get out of the gas with," Brewer went on. "He had more downforce on the rear, so he qualified poorly. But I'll bet right now Danny Lawrence is putting in their best Daytona motor right now for the 500.
"Two for two. And I told Harv that was a great block he put on those guys. (a solid block on Biffle last lap
Saturday, and solid blocks on several rivals down the stretch Thursday).....
"But against Biffle, in the Daytona 500....if you do that block again, you'd better be holding on real tight, because you're getting ready to go for a ride.
"Aerodynamics? The blessing so far has been that the weather's been warm, it's going to be hot Friday and Saturday, but only 74 degrees Sunday. Cooling off like that will bring a lot of grip back to drivers.
"Danica? Tony Gibson tightened up that car for her for the 150, anticipating her getting loose.
"But this race track tightened up; when you burn the fuel (a full tank is 100 pounds) off the rear of the car, the front of the car gets heavier, meaning the car gets tight (difficult to turn). When that happens, you have to put a lot of wheel into it, and that means you're scrubbing speed, and abusing the tires, and the tires go away and the car won't turn.
"I got on Tony....
"But this is all a learning lesson for everybody, and the 500 is no sprint."
Ex-crew chief Tim Brewer, ESPN's techy guy for six years. What clueless TV exec decided this was the season to drop this high-tech operation? Considering the many technical issues surrounding the new 2013 stockers, Fox and ABC/ESPN would logically be expanding this part of their broadcast operations. (Photo: ESPN)
Reviewing the Denny Hamlin-Carl Edwards crash Thursday, off turn two: the track has an abrupt transition at the exit, with the track literally dropping out from under a driver when he hits the flat backstretch. (It was curious that in the recent repave that that anomaly wasn't fixed.) Was it that transition that caught those two?
Why is it so difficult for drivers to race side-by-side? Why such reluctance to attempt to pass? And why does the high-line work so much better than the low line?
How about this: If NASCAR wanted to add rear downforce for the 500, is it too late? The rear spoiler here is only half as big as the rear spoiler used last year. Would another inch or two of rear spoiler be good, be easily done?
Brewer says he's not going to second-guess NASCAR's Robin Pemberton (an ex-crew chief too, remember). "Robin and his guys have done a good job," Brewer says. "Now it's up to the drivers and the crews.
"And I haven't seen a lot of car issues this week. But I have seen a lot of driver issues...making poor decisions.
"Drivers will learn a lot over 500 miles, as the fuel burns off and as the track rubbers up...
"Hasn't been a drop of rain. That means the track keeps getting slicker and slicker, and the drivers have to adapt to that.
"NASCAR has done a great job with the car; now it's up to the drivers to learn how to re-drive 'em."
Ol' Smoke. Looking good for the Daytona 500, with three of the fastest five cars, including his own. And the word in the NASCAR garage is that Tony Stewart will win Sunday's race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)