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The Way It Is/ Drafting, bumping & crashing at Daytona

by Gordon Kirby
The first taste of next Sunday's 52nd Daytona 500 took place last Saturday night with the 75-lap Bud Shoot-out. A bigger restrictor plate and changes to wing end plates have made the cars much more raceable, plus of course bump-drafting and going below the yellow line have been moved into the approved column this year. So the Shoot-out was more lively and interesting than in recent years, and more crash-filled too, ultimately ending under a yellow with a bunch of the contenders eliminated in a multi-car freightrain collision.

Kevin Harvick has not won a Cup race since the 2007 Daytona 500 and was openly critical of Richard Childress's effort last year but he's been able to win the last two Bud Shoot-outs for RCR. Harvick raced an untested Chevrolet in this year's Shoot-out having concentrated on practicing and qualifying his 500 car which like most others he dare not risk in the Shoot-out.

"It's a lot of fun to win," Harvick grinned. "I know we started last year the same way but tonight we led a bunch of laps and we ran upfront all night. To go out and have that car start cold, without a lap on the racetrack, and to run like it ran says a lot about the preparation of the team. Speedway racing is a lot about the details and they had good pitstops all night."

Polesitter Carl Edwards looked like the man to beat through the Shoot-out's opening 25-lap segment, but Harvick didn't take long to get to the front following a couple of quick yellows and restarts. Over the race's second half Harvick was able to withstand attacks from Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, among others, before the race's final restart after Ryan Newman and Michael Waltrip collided. Everyone, save Biffle and Kahne, made for the pits and fresh tires.

"I said, 'Screw it. We're going to come in.'," Harvick declared. "(Crew chief) Gil (Martin) said, 'Well, you can't have anymore than two tires.' And that wound up being the right call for sure. The #1 was the only car that got out in front of us and that's what really won us the race because Biffle wound up choosing the high line and we were able to get going.

"It's Daytona, you've got to have some sort of tires after you've run that long and I think I needed them. I knew the #14 was going to come in and the #24 was going to have tires. When you run that long these guys know these racetracks well enough that you have to have new tires no matter whether it's two laps or ten laps."

Fourth in the restart line, Harvick immediately attacked, diving to the bottom of the track inside Kahne and McMurray and forcing himself into position inside Biffle. On worn tires, Biffle was a sitting duck and wouldn't make the checkered flag.

"When Biffle chose the top lane I knew it was going to be up to me to get a good restart," Harvick explained. "We were off just a touch on the ratios and I needed to roll the start just enough to get to his bumper and it worked out perfect. I was able to get Greg out there and I knew if I got him out there and was able to get up underneath him with the momentum that we carried into turn one I could pass him.

"At that point I started dragging the brake to make sure that we stayed side-by-side so that I didn't drag a faster line by him or anybody else. I dragged us back to the #9 car and I was hoping that my line would be there before his line. I knew that when we got to turn three I was going to be in better shape because I had tires and he didn't. I wanted to maintain side-by-side with Biffle because I thought that I had an advantage over him once we got to the next corner."

Scrabbling for control Biffle was hit in the tail by Jeff Gordon, triggering a train wreck that eliminated Roush teammates Biffle, Edwards and Matt Kenseth as well as Bobby Labonte and Scott Speed.

With the yellow waving and no green-white-checker Harvick took his second Shoot-out win in a row from Kahne, McMurray, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin ad Jeff Gordon. Kahne admitted to some unease when he realized that Biffle and he were the only drivers not toe change tires for the sprint to the finish.

"I was a little bit nervous," Kahne said. "I thought more would stay out but the whole field came in, so I was definitely nervous. But my car handled good on the bottom. I just needed to stay in front of cars and when we got one lap to go who knows what was going to happen? It would have been pretty wild. But we made it and it worked out well for us. I think it was pretty exciting and I liked the way the cars handled tonight."

Last year Kahne was very unhappy with Richard Petty Motorsports' Dodge motors and he's delighted with the team's switch to Ford with engines built by the Roush/Yates combine.

"My car handled good the entire race and I thought the racing was good," Kahne remarked. "We were side-by-side all the way and there was a lot going on. We were right there. On the restart there Harvick got on front of me and I was pushing him. I was down on the white line. That's when I said the tires aren't too bad. I was happy with the Roush/Yates Ford. It's definitely an improvement. It's nice to have.

"I thought it was a great race. I really enjoyed it. We started nineteenth and just marched our way right up to the top three or four cars and raced there the majority of the race. It was a lot of fun to have a car that fast. The way the Roush/Yates engine comes up through the gears, the way it races and you can get pushed and push other cars was something that was new to me and I enjoyed it. I thought it was great.

"The way the car drove was very similar to what we've had in the past. We're still doing a lot of the same things which is really nice. I understand the way our cars feel and the way they're setup. The biggest difference is the engine. From the time it went green, going up through the gears through second, third and fourth it just pulls hard. I can bump a little bit and get bumped a lot and that to me is really good.

"I'm really happy. You come down here and you always see how well the Roush/Yates engine run in the past here. They've won a lot of races at this track over the years. I felt like it was something to look forward to and I was real happy with it. I look forward to next week. I think it's going to be a great week."

After four years with the Roush-Fenway operation Jamie McMurray has joined Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing this year. McMurray started his Cup career with Ganassi and was as delighted as Kahne with his apparent change in fortune.

"This is a wonderful way to start our relationship again with Chip Ganassi and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing," McMurray said. "You never know when you start out if you're going to like the setups and cars that they give you. We unloaded pretty much with the setup they had built at the shop and continued on. It's the same as when we unloaded the car.

"Unfortunately on Thursday we got caught up in that wreck and it kinda worked out to benefit us because the back-up car drove a lot better than the primary car. (Crew chief) Kevin (Manion) explained to me after practice that they chose the third best car for the Shoot-out and our back-up car was the second-best car. Anyway, it feels great to be back and it's a really good way to begin our relationship.

"To finish good at Daytona or Talladega you've got to stay out of trouble and honestly, we had a little bit of a debate before this race started about riding around in the back to start because the team had wrecked twice in practice within ten laps. We thought this was going to be wild tonight because everybody was heads-up and ready to go but we elected to race all night like we did because nobody likes to drive around in the back."

McMurray believes his 500 car will be even better.

"I know our other car had a little more speed in it," he said. "I think the aero numbers are a little better on downforce. So they tell me that car is going to drive as good if not better and obviously we have a good setup for this track. So I feel as good about this year as ever."

Polesitter Carl Edwards looked unbeatable through the Shoot-out's first segment but ended his day in the fence with teammates Biffle and Matt Kenseth.

"I thought the #99 had one of the best cars," McMurray observed. "He led the first twenty-five laps and nobody could really clear him. He could work both lanes and it looked to me like whether it was Stewart, Harvick, or me, we could only hold it for a lap but Carl was able to hold onto it for quite a while. I thought that Carl and Matt had really good cars but our cars are really good as well.

"The EGR engines run really well. They did a really good job of making the car drive great and that's what Daytona's all about. When you can drive in the corner and the car doesn't wash up and you can run wide-open on the bottom with guys on your outside, it's really hard to do that. I could run pretty much flat-out the whole time. The car was really loose but I was able to hold it wide-open and that's what you work for in practice here."

Each of Harvick, Kahne and McMurray liked the changes NASCAR has made for Daytona this year. The cars are running a second a lap quicker this year and Harvick said the cars feel quicker and handle better.

"It sure felt like we were going pretty fast compared to normal," Harvick observed. "The cars just felt fast but they were very forgiving as well so you could get the cars really sideways. I could be very aggressive with my race car and even when it would get that sideways you could just stay in the gas and steer it and drive the car. That's not the way you want to drive every lap but tonight it didn't really matter.

"The car felt very forgiving to me and it felt like the speed was there when you fell behind and had to lift off the gas if you got tight or loose or whatever the situation was you could make that ground up pretty fast. The 500 is still going to be a handling race 'though...."

Kahne agreed with Harvick.

"My car slid around a lot but it always turned," Kahne said. "You can't get tight or push off these corners because it kills your straightaway speed. The way our car was it slid around a lot, but it was fast. I thought it was a pretty exciting race. I was on edge from the time it went green. Some of the guys were saying, 'Should we take it easy? Should we do this or that?' I felt like it was on from the time the green flag came out.

"I was getting hit and I was hitting cars. I thought it was pretty similar the way the pack caught up. I think the biggest thing is you can just get a huge burst of speed and get some big pushes. Was there more bump drafting? I don't know. I think it was pretty similar to what it's been.

"I thought there was action throughout the whole race. I felt like I was in the mix and had runs going. I just felt like there was a lot going on and it was exciting. I thought it was a little more than usual and I was happy with it."

McMurray had similar observations.

"I never let off the gas," McMurray emphasized. "I ran flat-out. The only time I had to let off was when I got a huge run and I knew I was going to shove the guy in front of me through whoever he was behind. But for the most part I never lifted off the gas. But I will say that I think the huge runs that everybody's getting is because we have a bigger plate. I don't think a smaller plate would benefit anything and I think it's great that they keep opening it up.

"The thing is to give the cars more acceleration. With the old-style plates it took a long time to get everything wound up. If you got out of the gas the car would slow-down and it would take a lap to get it wound back up. But with this setup it takes one straightaway and you're back to where you were."

Added Kahne: "I agree, but there are guys out there like Harvick who I've always known to lift. He lifts a lot and he was lifting tonight and he was lifting three years ago. So I think it's just a driving style and however you learn to race these types of tracks. But Jamie is right that you can definitely get speed up quicker than in the past."

McMurray elaborated on what he believes is happening.

"I think like Kasey said, with the package that we have right now you get stalled-out when you get two cars side-by-side and you're just able to get a huge run behind the guy," McMurray said. "It's not necessarily that your car is handling better. It's that the cars in front get stalled-out and whoever's behind gets a huge run. You can get really big runs.

"The racing is not dramatically different but it is in that way. We've never been able to get those runs before and I like that. I think it will put on a great show on Sunday. Tony (Stewart) got a bunch of those runs tonight and I think it's just part of the environment that we have right now with the plate and the end plate and the wing."

Having switched happily from Dodge to Ford, Kahne is not sure how to assess the situation other than he prefers this year's Daytona specifications.

"My engine's so much different and my car runs so much different than it has in the past," Kahne remarked. "So it's hard to say what makes it feel the way it does. Is the plate or the endplate? There are a lot of changes for myself at this track and I like everything that's been changed. I think its more exciting. Definitely in the car I was excited the whole time and there were a lot of times when I was on edge. So I think the changes were good.

"We learned some things tonight," Kahne added. "We didn't get a whole lot of practice. We didn't run the second practice because we had a fender-bender in the first practice. So we didn't run a whole lot but, tonight in the race I felt like I learned a lot and (Crew chief) Kenny (Francis) says there are some things we can do to make our Daytona 500 car even better than the car we had tonight hopefully and have just as fast of a car throughout the whole week."

Heavy rain swept through Daytona last Friday evening washing the track surface clean and McMurray said that often-maligned Goodyear deserves praise for the tires it has brought to Daytona this year.

"One thing that nobody has brought up is that it rained really hard and we haven't had any tire problems since we've been here," McMurray pointed out. "The story at Daytona usually during the first few days of practice is that everybody has issues with tires and I think Goodyear should be commended. I think it's a really big deal for them to bring a tire where all the drivers like the way their cars drive and there weren't any tire issues at all. I haven't heard anybody even bring that up.

"And the cars are running faster. I know they were really worried because were running about a second a lap faster than we have and that's hard on the tires so Goodyear has done a great job."

Despite his win in the Shoot-out, Harvick says he's keeping his feet firmly rooted to the ground.

"I've been here enough times now that you know this can be a funny week," Harvick observed. "It can mess with you, time after time, hour by hour, it can bring something unexpected that you can't plan for. There are so many different variables that can get thrown at you this week, you've just got stay on an even keel.

"It's great that we won tonight. We're all really excited about what we want to do. But the big picture is next Sunday and we're just going to take it hour by hour, one day at a time. These guys have been here enough they know this place can knock you down as fast as it can pick you up. You've got to maintain an even keel and be able to keep that focus all the way through the race on Sunday because strange things can happen."

Indeed, defending champions Hendrick Motorsport were fast in qualifying with Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sweeping the front row for the 500. But none of the four Hendrick Chevrolets were very impressive in the Shoot-out and Earnhardt ran up front early in the race before fading all too typically as if it's become his trademark. Still, only a fool would discount the Hendrick's foursome's chances next Sunday.

Other contenders include the Roush Fenway Fords with each of Edwards, Kenseth and Biffle looking very strong in the Shoot-out. Then there's Tony Stewart who looked as good as anyone in the Shoot-out and of course, Kyle Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin who finished a quiet fourth and fifth in the Shoot-out.

And too, what happens in the 52nd Daytona 500 is likely to have little or no effect on the season to follow and on the Chase for the Cup at the end of the year. When the Chase kicks-off in September everyone will be facing a very different set of circumstances and challenges than they're confronting at Daytona this week. Meanwhile, on the face of it, you have to take your hat off to NASCAR for coming up with a different and seemingly more effective set of restrictor plate rules.

Finally, be sure to check out my blog about the Delta Wing Indy car later this week at Motor Sport's website (www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk). The Delta Wing will be unveiled on Wednesday at the Chicago Auto Show and my bog should be posted shortly thereafter.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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