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Speed rules at Daytona, but just how fast may be too fast?

  Daytona: Can NASCAR kill the two-car drafts? And why try? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  What's up at Daytona?
  Good question.
  Three days of testing now, and rules tweaks each day.
  The countdown to the NASCAR Sprint Cup series opener stands at 43 days and counting, and the rules are still up in the air.

  Just why might not be intuitively clear, considering the high drama in stock car racing's four Daytona-Talladega Cup events last season.
  Daytona 500:   http://bit.ly/fEZm9j
  Talladega April 500: http://bit.ly/h3YmVi
  Daytona 400: http://bit.ly/z4u4Da
  Talladega October 500:  http://bit.ly/wLYKpP
  How to improve on action like that, which many drivers seem to like?
  And why try?
  Nevertheless, that's what's up.
  Kurt Busch and Regan Smith, who teamed so smoothly in two-car drafts at last year's restrictor plate races, were the fastest in Friday speed runs at 206 mph during round two of Daytona 500 testing, and Kyle Busch, at 205 mph, was scored fastest in a raucous big-pack session.
  Just what this year's Daytona 500 may shake out to be is still quite uncertain. At the moment the key word appears to be 'speed,' though NASCAR president Mike Helton says Daytona speeds are still under review, and officials tweaked the engine rules twice during the test -- first, going to larger restrictor plates, then back to a smaller plate, and also modifying engine cooling options.

Robby Gordon in Peru, winning Stage 12 of the Dakar Rally. At least someone is making real money racing this week (Photo: Robby Gordon)


  While off-roader Robby Gordon makes great waves -- imagine that -- deep in the South American Dakar, his Daytona 500 rivals have spent the past three days testing on the smooth Florida asphalt for the Feb. 18th Shootout and the Feb. 26th Great American Race.
   First caveat: If any of these guys at Daytona have found any tricks, well, just remember how testing went a year ago.
   Second caveat: With that ever-present threat of a secret NASCAR penalty for speaking your mind, a lot of what drivers say has to be taken with a grain of salt. Read between the lines. And don't expect to hear much clear-cut criticism. (NASCAR execs appear pretty much unfazed by criticism of these secret penalties.)
   Third caveat: the changeover to electronic fuel injection this season may prove to be a bigger issue than it might appear at the moment. Last year's many EFI tests were somewhat topsy-turvy. And remember all those fuel mileage finishes.
   January testing at Daytona has long been a great exercise in gamesmanship and misdirection...and showmanship: selling tickets is a big deal, remember, and this is some good headline material while the rest of the sports world is watching the NFL crescendo and the college basketball world just starting to hum.
   But in terms of figuring out just what to expect when SpeedWeeks gets underway in earnest is usually an exercise in frustration.
   And with the 500 pushed back this year to late February, well, that's more than a month away, and any marketing momentum from this round of testing will almost certainly fade.
   In fact, back in the days before this sport got so caught up in its own hype, that late January Cup opener at Les Richter's Riverside Raceway was always a great way for stock car teams to shake off the winter cobwebs. It was real racing, with winners and losers, not just drivers laying down so many boring laps.
   Plus, it got some early season headlines in the Southern California market. 
   If NASCAR execs and TV moguls weren't so hidebound in their ways, maybe opening the new season at California's Auto Club Speedway in the Los Angeles market in late January might be a solid marketing move for the sport. And it would give these teams a payday, racing for real money.

   NASCAR's John Darby: 204 mph isn't really all that fast these days. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   While these guys are testing, Robby Gordon is at least doing some real racing.
   What's Robby up to at the moment? http://www.planetrobby.com/video/they-can-kiss-my-ass
   Gordon has had a very good Dakar run, winning Friday's Stage 12 of the 14-day affair. However a rules controversy over an air inflation system has apparently taken him out of contention for the tour win, and he's not a bit happy about that.
   Gordon won Friday's stage through Peruvian sand dunes by a whopping 15 minutes; overall he is fourth, more than an hour behind Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel, so could still earn a top-three podium finish, depending of course on his appeal.
   "My main feeling is the inspectors can kiss my ass," Gordon said after Friday's win. "They approved this.
   "They have embarrassed me. The other competitors say I'm cheating. I beat them by 20 minutes with it plugged.
   "It pisses me off. We play fair and square.
   "We schooled these boys. I'm pissed. And today I kicked their asses.
   "I'm going to prove something every day for the rest of the rally."
   Gordon was accused of using an air inflation system to gain an advantage. For Friday's run he plugged that system, to make his point.  "Winning by 15 minutes with our system that was plugged just proves our point that it had no advantage," Gordon says. "I'm quite confident we'll win our appeal."
   However that judgment may not come for several weeks.



Robby Gordon points to the disputed part of his Dakar Hummer and insists he will be vindicated on appeal (Photo: Robby Gordon)


   So what do we know about this Daytona at the moment?
   The newest rules -- a smaller rear spoiler, softer rear springs, smaller front grill opening, bigger restrictor plate, and more limited radio channels -- have changed things a bit. NASCAR officials are going this way, right now, to try to break up or limit the two-car drafting packs.
   Whether or not that brings back big-pack racing, which fans may love but which drivers generally abhor, is not clear, of course.
   And there is the decided possibility that officials will change the rules again before the 500, maybe more than once, depending on what they see on the track.
   The two-car draft?
   Jeff Gordon: "Now that we know we can push as long as the bumpers are lined up...I think now that it's here, it's always going to be here.
   "Whether it's for a lap, half a lap, or three laps, when you can pick up 10 or 15 mph, you're going to do it."
   In part, NASCAR may be trying to alter the closing rate, so two-car packs aren't so much faster than a big pack.
   One way seems to be to make the cars harder to drive.
   "The cars have a lot of power, a lot of speed, and that has changed things a bit," Gordon says. "The cars aren't quite as stable."
   And that, Gordon says, may be the whole idea here: "The more power you have, the faster you go; and the less blade that you have, the harder it is to stay connected and to do the tandem drafting."
   After Thursday and Friday morning's single-car runs and two-car runs, NASCAR's Cup director John Darby told drivers to get out and race in a big pack Friday afternoon, so  everyone could get a better handle on the new rules package. Not everyone was enthusiastic about that.
   "The one snapshot we haven't been able to capture yet is what do 10 or 15 or 20 cars in an old school draft look like," Darby explained. "What kind of speeds do they generate? What type of rpm do the engines run? That's something that we need, a piece of the master equation as we close in on a package to come back to SpeedWeeks with."
   With speeds at 204-plus mph, Gordon said  "I went up to Darby and said 'We can't run these speeds, right?  Surely you're going to slow us down,' because it's embedded in our minds we can't go over 200 in race conditions. And when I saw their reaction of 'No, not so much; we feel we've learned some things, and we're okay with that.'
    "I think they're fine with us being out there doing it.
    "There were moments I wasn't very comfortable. But the grip is so good and the track so smooth. (Before the repave) tires would wear out and you'd slip and slide, and you had your hands full, and that was one of the fun things about Daytona. I think these speeds are getting back to some of that, where it's more in the drivers' hands. And I think that's a good thing."
     "At Daytona and Talladega both we've been at 202, 203 during the race probably for the last four plate races," Darby said, pointing out that 204 wasn't that big a jump.
    "At the same time, we constantly look to test and upgrade liftoff speeds. The new 'fin' down the back window is there to increase that liftoff speed.
     "So 204 is exciting...I don't think it's nervous yet. We're okay."
    Still, Helton points out that speed "is one of those things we have to monitor.  It is a test, so we may be a little bit more lenient than we would be on race weekend. 
    "But we'll see how everything settles out and what kind of rule package we come back with.  Like John said, 204 is okay for a test. But we'll have to take back everything we learn and then make a decision after that."


  Jeff Gordon: Racing in the big pack at 204-plus? Pretty exciting (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

January California race - I

January California race - I agree with you that they should try it. Maybe they should try something experimental other than just a traditional 400 mile race.
Your comments brought back some memories of my favorite years of NASCAR. In 1972, AJ Foyt and Mark Donahue joined the NASCAR greats for big winter races at Riverside, then Daytona, and then back to Southern California at Ontario. Foyt won 2 of the 3, but Donahue had mechanical troubles in 2 and got wrecked in one race.
NASCAR has gotten so far away from the conditions that existed in those years, that I don't see how they could ever recreate those almost magical conditions. But it is still worth trying a winter race in California.

I just hope they don't let it

I just hope they don't let it go until a car ends up in the stands.

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