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At last the Daytona 500 itself, finale to a draining SpeedWeeks

   Ford's Carl Edwards on the Daytona 500 pole, with a heck of a lot of flashing gauges on the dashboard. Ryan Newman complains the new rules have forced teams to add so many 'idiot lights' that some drivers are spending more time watching the gauges than watching where they're going. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   In these final hours before the Daytona 500, let's sum up what we've seen and learned and are pondering about SpeedWeeks 2012, and what to expect in Sunday's season opener.

   First, NASCAR's marketing machine, one of the best in the country if not the best in all sports, has blown past the red line at every opportunity. Sometimes in this sport over-the-top just isn't good enough….

   Second, Danica Patrick, despite fairly mediocre racing credentials over her career, has been getting the royal treatment here, not only from NASCAR execs and TV moguls but even from those men on the track who are supposedly her rivals in combat, men who all hope that success here by Patrick will pay off for them in advertising and sponsorship dollars, sorely needed by many. Still all this fawning over someone who has overplayed her sex appeal and so far underplayed her racing is very unseemly.

   -- The sluggish U.S. economy is still a major drag on NASCAR racing. And increasingly outrageous hotel rooms ($1200 a night at one place here, and $500 not a bit unusual) and soaring air fares and high gas prices aren't helping the sport....and neither is the continuing collapse of the American newspaper industry, which once provided personal touches from the NASCAR world, only now to give it the cold shoulder...and leaving it up to Fox and ESPN to carry the freight. But, to be honest, TV's saturation coverage of SpeedWeeks has been invigorating. Newspapers? Who needs newspapers anymore?



Is this the man who will win the Daytona 500? Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't won much lately but he's got enough to get the job done this time....if he can just outwrestle those Fords (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- Ford clearly has an edge here, again, over its stock car rivals. Since the cars are all still common template in bodies, the big stuff must be under the hood. However that's the way it was last year in NASCAR too, and yet Ford didn't win the Sprint Cup championship and it didn't win as many races as it probably should have, given the edge. Jack Roush says Ford teams played it too conservatively last season, and he hints that will change. In this Daytona 500?

   -- Tony Stewart is still Chevy's top dog. And since winning the championship he has added so much to his war chest that he probably should add Wells Fargo as a sponsor. Elsewhere in the Chevy camp, however, things look ragged these first few days of the year. Second-best Chevy so far: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
   And if this SpeedWeeks needs anything more over-the-top, how about Earnhardt winning the 500?

   -- The best driver in NASCAR? Still looks like Kyle Busch, whose moves in the Shootout, and those saves, were amazing. However something strange seems to be going on within the Toyota camp…

   -- Dodge? Only two solid teams. Robby Gordon has earned the most headlines this week for Dodge, but Dodge executives seem to be all but snubbing him, oddly unable to wrangle a Roger Penske engine for the 500. And Penske himself has lost at least four cars already this season.



The Shootout: Will the Daytona 500 be filled with such carnage, or will drivers just play follow-the-leader? Maybe that two-car drafting stuff wasn't all that bad, after all. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- The new no-radio rule should preclude 'team orders,' the ugly side of racing politics that was seen so vividly at Talladega last fall. But that will only make the spotters' stand even more chaotic.

   The 500?
   The two-car draft that worked so effectively last season at the tour's two biggest tracks only works for short stints this week, after NASCAR's new rules to deliberately force cars to overheat. Many drivers have complained about engines running way too hot and worrying about blown engines as a result.
   But too many drivers have played it way too aggressively here, triggering numerous crashes. The big pack racing, that many drivers don't like nearly as much as the two-car drafting, lends itself to multi-car crashes of course. And the prediction is for more 'big ones' in the 500.
   Hence there may be a lot of just riding around, lots of single-file lines, like in Thursday's second 150.
   But then considering the Greg Biffle-Matt Kenseth finish to their 150, when they certainly didn't work like teammates. And consider the aggressive racing so far by Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson….Not sure what to make of that, unless they're simply trying to intimidate rivals.
   Some fans may love the crashing. But maybe they should replay Danica Patrick's crash and reconsider.
   And it might help things if drivers would stop hitting each other in the left-rear quarter panel…and if they'd show a little more give-and-take in traffic, and leave some room. Remember, too many of these drivers now are simply running blind, and at the mercy of whoever is in front of them.
   Yes, pack racing is insane, and if drivers don't want to wreck, they can always back off. Right.
   At least drivers should consider playing things smarter. But that means no more '88 lead changes,' and all the charging that came with two-car drafting last season.

   Ford engine building legend Doug Yates (R), with Carl Edwards' crew chief, Bob Osborne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   On the tech side, the man in the spotlight looks like Doug Yates, whose work on Ford's FR9 engine over the past two or so years has turned it into the premier power plant on the stock car tour.
   The Yates name, remember, has long been strong at Daytona, with Robert Yates, Doug's father, priding himself on Daytona 500 cars and engines.
  And remember those sharp battles within the Ford camp between the Yates, favoring Daytona and aerodynamics and the special horsepower range needed here, and Jack Roush, who considered the tour's other, more downforce-oriented tracks more important in the big picture.
  And remember when Ford executives told Yates and Roush to make peace and team up?
  Now Ford is back on a Daytona roll and looking for its third straight Sprint Cup win at this track.
   "We had a good package down here last year, obviously, with Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 and David Ragan winning here in July," Doug Yates says. "And we have carried on from that, and added the fuel injection piece on top of that."
   The fuel injection story – EFI replacing venerable carburetors on the stock car tour this season for the very first time – has been either underplayed during SpeedWeeks or essentially a non-story.
   So far.
   Roush boasts about Yates and Ford having 'won' the EFI battles so far.
   And indeed Fords do appear to have an edge over rivals, not only in power but in cooling too.
   "The work we have done in preparation for fuel injection, and the team of people we have around that, is really strong," Yates says.
   "Everyone expects Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle to run good. But when you see Ricky Stenhouse and David Gilliland up there too, then we are doing some good things.
   "It seems like we are definitely doing a better job than our competitors in the cooling area. We saw last year with this engine that it does a really nice job.
    "We would prefer the weather Sunday to be hot like it was earlier in the week. And who knows what we will get tomorrow with the rain coming in.
    "Either way, there is kind of a delta there -- an offset between us and our competitors right now -- we seem to enjoy today."


    Three Amigos: Jimmie Johnson (L), Tony Stewart (C) and Matt Kenseth (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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