Speedweeks Without The Speed

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Drivers always want to go faster. Sure, they know they can’t go 300 mph like their NHRA brethren, but NASCAR Winston Cup drivers want to go as fast as possible, or at least faster than everyone else.

That’s why several drivers claimed they are going too slow at one of NASCAR’s biggest tracks, the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. Testing this month at Daytona showed the speeds were going to hover around the 183 mph range, though some drivers said that would pick up before Speedweeks in February.

Still, with the new aerodynamic rules designed to separate the cars from one another, some drivers are afraid of boring racing in a couple of weeks.

“If they let us run this speed, then it’s a mistake from a competitive side,” defending Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip said. “If they want to see a better race, they need to speed us up so handling becomes part of the equation.”

Last year at Daytona and Talladega, the only part of the equation was the draft. It seemed drivers could pass nearly at will, and positioning in the draft – and not how good your car handled – dictated how well you’d run.

“The last time we were here you could make any kind of crazy move you wanted to and never had to worry about losing the draft,” Matt Kenseth said. “With the other rules, you didn’t necessarily get rewarded for having a good pit stop, and you didn’t get penalized for having a bad one. It seemed like anybody could pass anybody.”

The races were exciting, with packs of cars battling three-and-four-wide the entire race. But they were also hair-raising for the drivers, who complained so loudly after the second race at Talladega that NASCAR officials announced that day they would try to solve the problem.

The solution NASCAR came up with was, basically, to revert to the rules used in early 2000. The rear spoiler is more angled, moved up to 55 degrees. But the restrictor plate has shrunk to a 7/8ths-of-an-inch hole.

The smaller plate has slowed the cars down to a crawl. Jimmie Johnson’s had the fastest non-drafting lap of testing at 183.816 mph, and that’s only a tick faster than last year’s pole speed – which was set using a roof air deflector and wickerbill on the rear spoiler.

Last year, handling didn’t matter much because the draft allowed slower cars to keep up. Now, with the draft expected to play a lesser role, handling will matter. But with speeds so slow, it’s easier to handle.

“Let handling separate the cars,” Ricky Rudd said. “Right now the cars aren’t running fast enough on the race track for handling to be an issue.”

Plus, searching for speed under the current rules is frustrating. Most crewmen in the Winston Cup garage have never worked on a non-restricted engine at Daytona or Talladega, and Rudd’s crew chief, Michael McSwain, is no different.

“He’s never worked on a car at Daytona that did not have a restrictor plate,” Rudd said. “It can be pretty frustrating working on cars when you’re looking for such small amounts of speed. It’s very, very tedious.”

There’s not much to do to the cars to make them go faster in their current configuration. Aerodynamics plays the major role, often leaving drivers and chassis men out of the loop.

Waltrip would like to see speeds increased by “seven or eight” mph. The top qualifying speed would be around 190 mph, with race speeds at 195.

“It needs to be that way bad,” Waltrip said. “It’ll make it a better race. You’ll have guys that can’t quite handle their cars the way they want to. If every car is running 180, everybody’s going to be handling and nobody’s going to pass each other.

”If you get them up over 190 – at this track especially – you can drastically screw a guy’s handling package up.”

Drivers run full throttle all the way around Daytona, but Waltrip wouldn’t mind seeing the drivers have to get out of the gas in the corners.

“I remember in the early 90s, I had a car capable of winning a few of those races,” Waltrip said. “We’d be running fifth or sixth, and the draft would be small. We’d be running down in the corner like we’re at Charlotte, letting off, rolling through the middle and trying to do everything we could to handle around the track.

“We saw some pretty exciting races back in the early 90s with rules that are not too much different than we have now. The difference is they’ve slowed the cars down so much that you can’t really do anything. Anybody can make them handle good.”

And that means passing will be difficult, and we could see a boring race.

“We’re a little fearful right now that it isn’t going to be as exciting as it needs to be, but I think some of that will take care of itself as more cars get on the race track,” Jeff Burton said. “It’s going to be OK. It’s not going to be racing like we saw here last year, but we shouldn’t have racing like was saw here last year.

“People need to understand that what we were doing here last year was wrong. The drivers were in a position where something bad was inevitable and that’s just not acceptable, so we made the changes, and that means it’s not going to be quite as exciting as it was but it was a change that we had to make.”

Still, even Burton wants to see higher speeds.

“That may happen,” Burton said. “I think before we come back they may end up looking at giving us a different sized plate or something – something to pick it up a little bit.”

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