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Tony vs Carl, Round 1 of NASCAR's 3-Round Title fight...& for everyone else it's Daytona 500 on the mind -- and the rules?

 Jeff Burton: on new rules for the Daytona 500...after nearly winning the Talladega 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   FORT WORTH, Texas
   If Martinsville's 500 was the best race of the season, certainly one of the best – with championship twists, brilliant rallies, and a plethora of crashes, right from the start – what might this weekend's Texas 500 hold in store?
   Looks like it'll be Round One of Tony Stewart versus Carl Edwards for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

   Not to push aside any possible comebacks by the few remaining title contenders, but a contender this season needs to come out of Phoenix within five or six points, maybe eight or 10 points, of the leader to have any good shot at the title. That means challengers have only two races left to get back into real contention.
   Already it looks like Matt Kenseth has blown his chances.
   But then if both Stewart and Edwards run into trouble here, that could reopen the door.
   Kenseth does run very well here. But his troubles at Martinsville probably cost him any shot at the title…on a day when he was on the verge of taking command of the championship chase.
   Did Kenseth, on that angry Sunday on the tour's smaller track, take himself out of the chase? That's what Brian Vickers says. Vickers was involved in maybe five different incidents at Martinsville, some of his own making, some not.
   Did drivers get all that craziness out of their system last Sunday? Or will many of them race just as desperately here? Several still are looking for ride and sponsors for next season, which can make for a volatile mix.
   However for many of the guys not in the title hunt, it's already 2012, and Daytona 500 testing isn't far off.
   The question for them: What will the Daytona rules be, in light of the controversy over those two-car drafts at Talladega?
   NASCAR officials have been talking with a number of drivers, trying to figure out what to do to change the dynamic for Daytona.



Matt Kenseth (R) and car owner Jack Roush: did Kenseth's temper at Martinsville cost him a shot at the championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   But Jeff Burton, who came within a few inches of winning Talladega, says the best thing NASCAR can do is nothing.
   "Everybody wants to fix this supposed problem," Burton says, almost exasperated. "But when you go to Daytona and Talladega, you have to look at it as 'what's the worst of the evils?'
   "Two-car racing does some things that are really good. It separates the packs, without a loss of competition."
   After all at Talladega last week there were 72 official lead changes in the 188 laps, and in the spring there were a record 77 lead changes.
   "You look at the finishes we've had (four-wide, eight cars at the line in April, two cars side by side at the in October), and they've been good," Burton goes on.
    "So what's wrong with what we're doing, versus what we were doing?
   "I think everyone is forgetting history.
   "In an attempt to solve a supposed problem is forgetting history. And history is when you put 35 cars in a big pack and go around Daytona and Talladega, there are going to be big wrecks. And many of those wrecks will, in many cases, have nothing to do with what you were doing.
   "Pack racing is not an improvement.
   "The two-car tandem thing is not without its faults. I'm not saying it's perfect by any means.
   "But you're not going to do anything at Daytona or Talladega that's perfect.
   "It's a problem because of the size of the race tracks and the amount of grip the cars have….and we have shown the racing public what restrictor plate racing can be.
   "There is a balance between having 500 miles of three-wide, 10 cars deep, big wrecks….versus separating the field a little, and still having some packs, but more two-car packs, racing for the lead.
   "And remember, we've been talking about all this ever since they gave out restrictor plates. And the conversation has been based around 'There are too many wrecks, and that's unacceptable. And there are too many big wrecks. There are too many people whose destiny is out of their control.'
   "The two-car tandem has helped that some. It hasn't taken it away. But it has helped.
   "People need to recognize that the two-car tandem has created some separation, but it hasn't done it in a way that makes it uncompetitive."
   Indeed, the closing rate of challengers is close to 10 mph now, and that allows for good passing.
   That dramatic closing rate, of course, is not without risks. At Talladega three of the most significant crashes were triggered by teammates pushing their own teammate too hard in a two-car draft. Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger. Michael Waltrip and Bobby Labonte.
   One issue about the Talladega race, Burton concedes, is fans having to watch stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. ride around in the back, because of race strategy.
   "So people are upset about some people (Jimmie Johnson for example) are riding around in the back. I don't blame them," Burton says. "I'm a Carolina Panther fan, and the first thing I do when I get home Sunday night is turn on my DVR and watch the game from start to finish. If the Carolina Panthers only played the last quarter, I wouldn't watch.
    "If you turn the TV on to watch Talladega, and the guy you're pulling for is riding around in the back, that's not good.
    "I'm not being critical of those guys; Jimmie won in April by riding around in the back.
    "If we go back to big-pack racing, there will be even more incentive to ride around in the back. Because you are even less in control of your destiny in those big packs.
    "So pack racing will entice more people to ride around in the back, more than this two-car racing does.
    "This type of racing calm, compared to what it used to be. This is calm compared to full-on pack racing. You feel safer and more in control of your destiny.
    "Everybody has these ideas about lower the backs of the cars (lower rear spoiler, to take away grip) and putting bigger plates on them.
   "Stop that. And think about what you're saying.
    "What is the goal? To get us back in a big pack? That's easy to do – we can make that rule…but there is a consequence to that.
    "If the goal is to make the racing better and more fun to watch, what is better, what is more fun to watch? I contend that if people hadn't been riding around in the back this last time at Talladega, that race would have been great to watch for the first three-quarters. It turned out to be great to watch last quarter….
   "But if you put us all back in a big pack, I'm going to go ride around in the back.
   "At least now I feel I have some control, I have a say in what's going to happen to me. In pack racing I don't.
   "There are all these theories about what to do. But why do you want to do something….what is the goal…what are you trying to improve?
   "There hasn't been the conversation about that; the only conversation has been 'let's do something different.'
   "Why do something different until you define what needs to be done?
   "I don't blame people for being disappointed about those guys riding around in the back. I don't blame people for being disappointed that some people (like Tony Stewart and Trevor Bayne) couldn't go with who they wanted to. I don't blame them one bit.
   "But putting us back in a pack doesn't really make those things go away."

    However there is another issue at stake here -- Hanging over the sport is the political angle of Team Orders at Talladega.
   Though Ford officials deny it, Tony Stewart insists Ford drivers were told they could only draft with other Ford drivers at Talladega. Then in the final moments of the race Ford's Trevor Bayne, after first telling Chevy's Jeff Gordon he would push him to the finish, dumped Gordon to go with Ford teammate Matt Kenseth….and then went to Gordon afterwards to apologize and say he was only following 'orders.' Also in the final moments at Talladega Stewart, hooked up with a push from Paul Menard  much of the second half of the race, had a shot to win….only to fade to the back when Menard too suddenly faded. Stewart indicated Menard backed off from helping him, in order to give Menard's own teammates Burton and Clint Bowyer a better shot at the win.


Back in the day: Dale Earnhardt offering Jeff Burton some advice (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Too much politics, fans might rightly complain.
    Burton explains how that situation got out of hand: "When there is a report out there that a car owner has told his guys 'You can only go with my guys,' what that did was put every other team in the position of 'Okay, then, screw 'em. If they won't go with me, why would I go with them?'
   "Then what was done at the end of the Talladega race only confirmed it.
   "But people have been lying to each other at Talladega for as long as I've been racing there. I can't tell you the number of times somebody has said 'Yeah, I'm going with you,' only to hang me out.
   "I saw Dale Earnhardt at the airport one time, after the race, and I was ready to kill him. He'd told me (in the race) he was going to do something and then he didn't do it. At the airport he told me 'What do you expect me to do – what's best for you or what's best for me?'
    "Right then I learned you don't trust anybody; they'll all lie to you."


   Jeff Burton: Change the rules for Daytona? Think about it all, first, he says (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



    Add David Reutimann's name to the list of drivers looking for rides for 2012.
     Michael Waltrip Racing announced Thursday that Reutimann, who won the only two Cup races that Waltrip's team has to its credit, will not return to the team.
   "David has been a significant part of Michael Waltrip Racing since the very beginning and will forever be a part of our heritage," Waltrip said. "We want to thank David for his contribution to our growth and success over the past five years and wish him well in the future."

  The debate over changing NASCAR rules for next year's season-opening Daytona 500 is on nearly everyone's mind, in the wake of last week's Talladega 500 controversies, which showed some  big flaws, perhaps, in the current Daytona-Talladega rules, on the two super-smooth, super-fast tracks.
   How to break up these two-car drafting packs?
   Philippe Lopez, the veteran NASCAR crew chief who helped Dave Blaney finish third at Talladega last week, says the key is to make the bumpers so soft and fragile that drivers won't be able to push each other.  
   One thing NASCAR would like to do, according to men who have talked with the sanctioning body, is to boost qualifying speeds.
   Though drivers still draft right around 200 mph, Mark Martin won the Talladega pole at just 181 mph. NASCAR it appears would like to get that up to 190….but still wants to keep drafting speeds just under 200.
   One idea, according to Denny Hamlin, is to lower the rear spoiler, to cut rear grip and make the cars more squirrelly. That, it is figured, would make drivers less comfortable, and thus less willing, to tuck in tight behind each other in these two-car drafts. Hamlin also says NASCAR would like to open the restrictor plates a bit, to boost qualifying speeds.
    However some engine builders, who are in the middle of a series of tests for the new electronic fuel injection systems, say they are worried NASCAR may try to play political games with the fuel injection thing, to gin it up as the next best thing for the sport.
   Fuel injection of course is something passenger cars have been using for decades. It's been maybe 25 years since carburetors were used out on the street. So NASCAR wants to 'update' its technological image with fuel injection, even though there is nothing at all wrong with the current use of carburetors in stock car racing. In fact many feel that NASCAR's switch, which will be extremely costly for team owners, is coming at the wrong moment economically, with owners cutting teams, big sponsorships vanishing, and crewmen being laid off at an alarming rate.



Crew chief Greg Erwin, also an engineer, has some ideas about Daytona and Talladega....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    How to 'fix' Daytona and Talladega?
    Greg Erwin, a veteran Sprint Cup engineer, now working with AJ Allmendinger, says it's all about rear grip at Talladega and Daytona – all about handling.
    "As long as the racing is not 'tire limited,' as far as grip, you're going to have to guys teaming up in the middle of the corners pushing, because they're not on the verge of spinning out," Erwin says.
   Before Daytona's recent repave, it was bumpy enough in the corners that drivers couldn't stay hooked together. But the new pavement was a game changer.
   Maybe the most simple, cheapest and easiest way to eliminate two-car drafts at Daytona would be to put a 'speed bump' in the middle of each corner…
   Allmendinger and teammate Marcos Ambrose showed a limit to this two-car thing, when Allmendinger found himself closing too fast on the group ahead of him and had to back off, before he could let Ambrose know just what was up.
   "These cars are nowhere near the max capability of the tires (at Talladega and Daytona)," Erwin went on. "So you'll have issues.
   "Honestly what NASCAR would have to do is make the cars drive not as good as they drive right now. So you wouldn't even be thinking about pushing each other.
   "No matter what the plate rule is, no matter what the (engine) cooling rule is…
   "Maybe you could still push down the straights, but not in the corners.
   "Cutting the rear spoiler an inch or so probably wouldn't be enough.
   "What they got into at Daytona, by having to repave, is they just created another Talladega. The Daytona race wouldn't be like it is, if not for that repave.
   "If you took all last week's Talladega cars to the old Daytona, you wouldn't see that type of racing that we just saw."

   Two-car drafting is not just an issue at Daytona and Talladega but everywhere aerodynamics is an issue, and that's any track with speeds over 160 mph. Because teams have learned that two cars tight together are much faster than any single car, and also much faster than a big ungainly pack.
    Harder tires?
   "I don't think Goodyear can fix it," Erwin says. "The pavement on these tracks now is so good and smooth….
  "The tires don't wear, and the cars handle amazingly well. None of the drivers have any problems pushing each other.
   "NASCAR could make the bumpers where they don't match up."
   However the Trucks at Talladega two weeks ago were still pushing each other, even though their bumpers don't align.
   "NASCAR tried to limit things by limiting cooling with the pressure relief valve," Erwin said. "But the problem at Talladega was the temperature for the race was 25 degrees cooler than in July, so guys were able to stay hooked up just as long as before."
   Another option for NASCAR would be to close off the front grill and limit air to the engine. In fact the current grill opening is so large that the lead car in Talladega drafts was running only 170 degrees engine temperature, even less than engine builders would prefer; the trailing car, on the other hand, would run 250 degrees.
    Andy Petree, the two-time champion crew chief with Dale Earnhardt, and now a TV analyst, says 'softer' bumpers might not work well, and neither did that 'mandate' once against bump-drafting.
   "That didn't make for good racing," Petree says.
   "Dale Jarrett brought the point that maybe you could just take the rear bumper off the cars so you couldn't push….but I'm not sure that's very realistic.
   "The problem is guys are going to keep trying to push. And if you just make bumpers fall off the cars….
   "This two-car racing is just a different kind of racing. When you say 'They don't like it,' who is 'they?'
   "There were plenty of lead changes at Talladega.
   "It's just a different kind of racing. And you can't unlearn what you've learned.
   "So you can't stop them from doing it. About all you can do is take away some things that make it work. They tinkered with the cooling system, but  they might need to go a little farther with that.
   "Other than that, I don't know where to look.
   "It's difficult to solve the perceived problems.
   "But I don't see it as a problem. I liked the old style big packs, but this two-car racing is intriguing to me. I'm not on one side or the other.
   "I do NASCAR is trying to do something, and they will do something, to try to enhance bigger pack style of racing.
   "I'm just glad I'm not the one who has to make the decision, because I don't know how you would do it. It's not that simple."

    Luke Lambert, Jeff Burton's crew chief, points out that racing at Talladega and Daytona "has always been about politics.
   "Whether it's a big pack or not, you have to have buddies to work with.
   "Plus, this two-car drafting has made it safer. You don't have the big pack wrecks.
   "You're seeing two-car incidents, not the huge ones we used to see, with cars flying and landing on other cars.
   "The other thing is you're seeing more lead changes now.
   "As we go on with this, there will be more of a clean-cut etiquette.
   "People will better anticipate things and do a better job of negotiating."
   Is the show at Daytona and Talladega a good show, though?
   "Watching the race from at the track, I thought it was a great show, with the cars having great closing speed," Lambert says. "Drivers could get really big runs going. And it is a real tricky situation, negotiating through traffic.
   "Drivers have to do a lot more thinking about how to weave through traffic.
  "Every race is different; every time you go to a track, you're dealing with different problem. And sometimes people get too nostalgic, and think that 'this race wasn't like the last race….'"

   Jimmy Makar, the long-time crew chief now competition director for Joe Gibbs, says wrangling over the rules for Daytona and Talladega "is nothing new.
   "We've arguing about those for 20 years.
   "It hasn't changed. And the solution is still the same."
   But, no, the France family isn't going to call on the big Cats to cut down the banking….
   "It's just too easy to drive those cars," Makar says. "Maybe we need to make 'em harder to drive."







Even though fuel injection

Even though fuel injection wasn't the main point of your article, I can't resist commenting. Our family has five older vehicles; 3 with fuel injection and 2 with carburetors. The carbureted vehicles are a pain. Once the NASCAR engine builders are rid of them, no one will look back nostalgically.
A question I have is why aren't they going to direct fuel injection when they are making an expensive change. Some production cars have already switched to injection directly into the cylinder heads. The type of fuel injection NASCAR adopted (into the manifold) will disappear from production automobiles and then NASCAR will seem like antiquated technology again.

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