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NASCAR men nearing the halfway point of the season, crisscrossing the country: Sonoma to Daytona to New Hampshire...

   Trevor Bayne! Now what can he and the Woods do for an encore? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Want a job in NASCAR?
   Get your CDL: Hauling out of Sonoma, Calif., Sunday evening, on back to North Carolina to swap cars and then down here to Daytona….then hauling out of Daytona Sunday morning, back up to North Carolina, swap out cars, and head on over to Kentucky, to be there Wednesday evening….and then hauling out of Kentucky Sunday morning back to North Carolina and then on up to Loudon, N.H.
   Just take a glance at the tour schedule.
   Or maybe your pilot's license.
   All these guys spend so much time on the road….
   And hanging over these drivers' heads, not just this new two-car drafting stuff here in Saturday night's 400, but also looming tire questions surrounding next Saturday night's race at Kentucky Speedway, the newest stop in the sport.
   And throw in the possibility, or probability, of rain, like Wednesday afternoon's flooding downpour.
   But none of that can take the edge off life for Trevor Bayne. The newest guy on the stock car tour is returning to the site of his greatest triumph. While all about him were losing their heads with this two-car stuff, Bayne kept cool, let the other guys make the mistakes, and then outfoxed Carl Edwards to win the Daytona 500, on that new grippy asphalt.
    This week, to beat the July heat, if not the rain, the action will be mainly at night.
    And it could be more interesting than the usual Saturday night race at Daytona. Martin Truex says with this two-car draft, if you're the trailing guy "You are pretty much blindfolded…and going 200 mph."
    "I thought it was a lottery five years ago…Good Lord, it's ridiculous now," Dale Earnhardt Jr. says.
    Jimmie Johnson led a Hendrick romp at Talladega in April.
    He says the changes in drafting at Daytona and Talladega over the years has been stunning: "We thought there was some change from year to year…and then this whole push-drafting thing came around with the new asphalt.
   "I would say that's the biggest change to plate racing ever.
    "People picked up the draft early on and understood how that worked. But to take the drafting experience to the next level like we have, that started at Talladega a year and a half ago. Now it's the norm -- and a totally different environment."
    A couple years ago drafting here, Johnson says, "was picking the right lane, and always having someone to work with.
    "But that led to slam-drafting. All the cars were so equal, and everyone was so good at drafting, we would sit side by side, and there wouldn't be any lead changes…or your lane wouldn't advance. So we just start slamming each other.
    "We had to stiffen up all the bumpers to allow the cars to do that. But that was the only way we could create movement in a lane -- just drill the guy in the front of you…let him drill the guy in front of him, and then send that upstream. And hopefully you would advance your lane."
   That technique, however, wasn't very pretty, or safe.
   Now it's something quite new and novel.
   And drivers are still getting accustomed to this two-car thing, where two cars hooked up are faster, because they're more efficient, than the big pack.
   "I know some fans really enjoyed seeing us in a big pack," Johnson said. "But now I feel we can race a little, and set people up."
   Of course there's another story in the Johnson camp this season. Remember last fall when crew chief Chad Knaus fired his entire pit crew and brought in a new bunch?
   Then over the winter Knaus revamped the entire pit crew concept, basically making it a weekly in-season tryout.
   Is it working?
   Actually it sounds like a bad idea to begin with. Camaraderie?
   So keep an eye on Johnson's pit stops this week and at Kentucky and Loudon. And compare those to Johnson's teammates.
   The key to a good pit crew is familiarity with each other, and continuity.
   Knaus' game this season seems 'make a mistake, and you're gone.'

   Jeff Gordon, who rallied to finish second at Sonoma, says he's just to get out of there without making enemies. A lot of rivals did leave ticked off. And Gordon last summer was in hot water for hard driving there.
     "I'm sure there's already been calls being made (driver to driver),  because you have your drafting partner set up from maybe Talladega or Daytona, and if you made that guy angry Sunday at Sonoma, it's going to make that phone call a little tougher," Gordon says.
    Uh, cue Kasey Kahne, who ripped Juan Pablo Montoya for taking him out of a top-five finish at Sonoma. Kahne was running fourth, Montoya wanted the spot and punted him at the top of the hill, and Kahne finished 20th.
    Kahne, in a footnote, has passed more cars over the past six years at Daytona than anyone on the tour.   
    Kahne's teammate didn't fare very well at Sonoma either. Tony Stewart wrecked him early….and Vickers retaliated later.
    Word to the wise here – Vickers and the Red Bull team are struggling to stay afloat, and they won't be taking any prisoners.
   Another guy that rivals may want to give leeway to is Joey Logano. Robby Gordon got the sharp end of that stick at Sonoma.
    "Obviously the season isn’t going the way we wanted it to, but Sonoma was big," Logano says.

 The lineup here is probably for Johnson and Earnhardt to work together and for Gordon and Mark Martin to work together.
    However Martin this season seems off his game to too many tracks, for some reason. And it looks like he's making uncharacteristic mistakes, like with Earnhardt at Michigan.
    On top of that, Martin's 2012 plans need to get firmed up. And he doesn't seem to like questions on that issue.
   "I don't enjoy the two-car draft," Earnhardt says, "because when I push somebody I can't see around him. I would like to be in control of my own destiny all the time, be in control."
   Nevertheless Earnhardt took the game to heart at Talladega, pushing Johnson to victory.
    Ryan Newman concedes "the racing itself I wouldn't say is my favorite kind of racing. But I do prefer it over the old style of drafting. It's nice to have an impact as a driver."
    The trailing car in a tight two-car draft doesn't get much air to the grill, obviously, and that overheats the engine. So the two drivers have to swap places.
   "It's challenge for the crew chiefs," Tony Stewart says, "trying to figure out how to keep the cars cool, and try to keep from the swapping down to a minimum – so you can stay in line longer without having to do that exchange."
   Here, the two-car draft can make for strange teammates. Hence drivers have the radio frequencies of rivals dialed in on their dash.
   "My radio box is a little more advanced…easier to navigate," Clint Bowyer says of improvements since February. "It even has a really cool light on it that lights up whose numbers they are."
    "I'm not a big fan of being on somebody else's channel," Gordon says. "But with this type of racing I think that it's the best way to go about it. There's no other way that you really can go about it. You need one spotter telling you what's going on."
   And pit stops, Gordon says, can get real tricky, because 'teammates' usually want to pit together.
    Then it's on to Kentucky, a new track for these guys, and apparently rather bumpy.
    "The bottom groove," Gordon says, "is unique. There are some very significant bumps… especially the way we are getting the splitters down on the ground these days.
    "I know they are repaving after the race.
    "I think those bumps really come into play when you start driving the car in a lot deeper -- like you will on a qualifying run."


    Down the stretch in the Daytona 500, with Carl Edwards trailing Trevor Bayne, and jammed up by Bobby Labonte and David Gilliland (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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