Rule Change Alters Strategy
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on February 17, 2014 | 2:41 P.M. EST
Carl Edwards (99) practices the art of side drafting on Brad Keselowski during this past weekend's Sprint Unlimited. (Photo: Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - In a season of change for NASCAR, the biggest alteration for the Daytona 500 can be measured by a ruler. A very small ruler.
NASCAR increased the rear spoiler height from 4 to 4.5 inches for Budweiser Speedweeks and it’s made a difference on the track. Some drivers say the side draft seems more potent and that a car can close on one ahead quicker.
That could have been a contributing factor in the multi-car crash in last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited, when Matt Kenseth came down on Joey Logano. Kenseth said he did not realize that Logano had filled the gap below him before making his move.
That’s something drivers will seek to better understand when Sprint Cup practice resumes Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway in preparation for Thursday night’s qualifying races and Sunday’s Daytona 500.
"The closing rate and the side drafting was a good bit quicker," said Ryan Newman, who finished eighth in the Sprint Unlimited. "Everything was magnified. If you got out of the draft, you lost it quicker. If you got back behind two- or three-wide, you could gain quicker."
When drivers talk about the side draft, they are referring to cars running side-by-side. The car slightly behind will move closer to the rear wheel of the car it’s beside and transfer the air off its car to the back of the car it’s trying to pass. With the larger rear spoiler, it can make side drafting more effective.
"With (the spoiler) being taller, it’s more sensitive," Jimmie Johnson said. "You don’t need to be as close. As soon as you start breaking the bumper plane (of the other car), it starts to slow that car down more. It’s just more dramatic."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. says that side drafting, once an offensive weapon for drivers, has become more of a defensive move on the track.
"These cars get stuck beside each other where our old cars, even the COT, you would side draft a guy and that would create enough momentum to clear and that’s how you used the side draft to pass," he said. "Now, we’re just using the side draft to keep guys from passing. We can stall each other out so hard."
That’s what happened on the final lap of the Sprint Unlimited, allowing Denny Hamlin to win. He pulled out to a large lead at the start of the final lap. Normally, that is not good in restrictor-plate racing because that can help cars behind gain momentum and use that to pass when they reach the leading car.
That didn’t happen this time because of the side draft.
Brad Keselowski was alone in second but needed help to reach Hamlin. Keselowski couldn’t get it because Logano and Kyle Busch ran side-by-side behind him, side drafting each other. That slowed both, allowing Keselowski to pull further away from any car that could help him catch Hamlin.
"This car is just way more sensitive to the side draft than the old car was," Busch said. "I don’t know why. It just seems to be that way. There was nobody behind Brad to push him back up to Denny. (Logano) and myself were just racing each other and you can’t really get away too easily in those situations."