A Tale Of Two Daytonas
February 18, 2004 | 8:56 A.M. EST
The Cup cars were racing with a new package that featured a slightly bigger restrictor plate, and a slightly taller rear spoiler. The Cup cars also ran with the smaller fuel cell.
The Busch series ran a different package that hearkens back to what the Cup teams used on the plate tracks in 2001, with the “Taxicab” strip across the roof, and a wickerbill on the rear spoiler. They ran the standard 22 gallon fuel cells.
Unless you’re stone deaf you’ve certainly heard that Goodyear bought a new tire to Daytona this year at NASCAR’s behest. But that tire was common to both series.
The two rules packages made for some very different sorts of racing. While Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 victory was very popular, a lot of people don’t think it was particularly good race. Passes for the lead were few and far between, and as the race played out the cars separated into small groups scattered around the track, including the front three running cars with one lapped car along for the ride. Those who’d been expecting the normal three wide group of cars twelve deep running in formation for 200 laps were disappointed.
A lack of passing wasn’t an issue in the Busch race, though once Dale Earnhardt Jr. asserted himself at the front of the pack he was never headed. But for much of the race there were huge packs of cars running side by side with drivers making daring (and occasionally stupid) moves to get into the line of traffic that was moving fastest. There were two big wrecks, and the broadcast crew that was calling the race all seemed to be on the verge of cardiac arrest throughout the event, particularly on Monday as the race neared it’s conclusion. There were more close calls in those final fifty laps than would be experienced by a hundred drunken teenage virgins at a biker’s picnic.
And on various message boards, posters have blasted both races, the Daytona 500 for being “boring” and the Busch race for being “dangerous.” Call it the Goldilock’s Principal, the racing was either “too hot” or “too cold”.
Truthfully, looked at with an analytical eye the Daytona 500 was the better race. The best handling and balanced cars using the best pit strategy asserted themselves at the front and raced for the lead. That’s what racing is supposed to be about despite the fact that sort of Daytona 500 didn’t meet the standards of newer fans who are used to the three wide 36 car traffic jams where it’s not unusual to see a car running third land on the roof of the car that was running 35th in “the Big One.” You might note in what most people hold as the two best 500s ever run, 1976 and 1979, when the leaders crashed on the last lap they didn’t take out an entire pack of cars, just themselves.
So if the Busch race was “too hot” and the Cup race was “too cold” where do we find “just right”? There was one key element missing in this year’s Daytona 500 that kept the race from being a classic. In days of yore, when men were men and stock cars were stock the last place a driver wanted to be on the final lap of a superspeedway race was in the lead. In that era, the boxy cars opened huge holes in the air, and the “slingshot” pass on the final lap or even out of the final corner was a dramatic tool in the bag of tricks of drivers like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson. In fact during some of those classic races the leader would purposely let off the gas or even slam on the brakes on the back stretch during the final lap to let the second place driver by him, setting him up for that final slingshot pass out of turn four.
Like the Busch race some newer fans are probably thinking. Not quite. There was a key difference in the era before restrictor plates and aerodynamic excess. The second place driver didn’t need a drafting partner to pass the leader. He could do it by himself if he had a stout car. With the pile up plates on the cars, when a driver pulls out to make a slingshot pass, he runs out of horsepower and needs a second car (or preferably a whole line of other cars) to push him past the leader. Also in the days before the plates, a driver could cut a competitor a break during most of the event and get off the gas to allow the other driver to catch his car if it got out of shape. With the plates today’s driver can’t afford to do that, because if they burp the throttle just for an instant they’ll likely lose fourteen or fifteen positions, if they’re lucky enough not to get run into from behind.
There’s another key element that kept both races from being all they could be. If the Daytona 500 is this sport’s Super Bowl, then the playing field is an embarrassment. The track is worn out, bumpy and unsafe. But if they were to repave Daytona, for the first few years the speeds would be totally out of control so the ISC is caught in a Catch 22 dilemma.
Ultimately to have exciting but safe races at Daytona and Talladega, the restrictor plates have to go, which may require the banking of the tracks to be reduced to a more manageable level. Equally importantly, the aerodynamics of the cars have to “dirtied” up to allow them to punch huge holes in the air without stick-on nonsense like Taxicab strips and huge rear spoilers. Conveniently enough both Ford and Chrysler are on the verge of introducing new mid-size cars that are far boxier than the models they replace. There’s an opportunity there for NASCAR to finally get things “Just Right.”