Happy Friday, folks! Welcome to another year of column reading at the Frontstretch. This will be my fourth year with the website, and it’s now safe to say I switch columns at the rate Paul Menard switches teams. This will be my fifth column (I think) with the site and after years of dabbling around with different ideas, it may be time to settle down … or maybe not.
Anyways, let me introduce you to “Burning Questions,” a weekly look at what you can expect from the upcoming slate of races. This week, that brings us to the Budweiser Shootout in my hometown of Daytona Beach, FL. Now, I’ve heard everything there is to hear from the drivers and Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III about the new smooth surface and what it will do to the racing, but I think I speak for everyone when I say let’s wait and see it for ourselves. And that brings me to the first question of the year…
*How different will the racing be with the new surface?*
Unrecognizably different. Think Talladega, only narrower. The comparison has been thrown around so much by now that it’s not even worth bringing up, but the handling component at Daytona is essentially thrown out the window with the new surface, so much so that you’ll see racing in large packs similar to that of Talladega. Now, is that good racing? That’s for you to decide. Personally, I liked the character of the aged asphalt, I liked the handling characteristics when the tires went away, I liked that (at least marginally) racing was back in the driver’s hands on a superspeedway. But I also understand the need for the repave. I may not be a big fan of the new surface, but I can tell you one thing… it sure will be exciting!
*Will we see the advent of the two-car draft over the next two weeks?*
I don’t think so; not any more than we’ve already seen at Talladega since the birth of the CoT. A lot of fans see the billiard table smooth surface as an opportunity for drivers to use the two-car breakaway more, but it’s too risky to use too often. Still, I guarantee you will see it A LOT in the closing laps and following pit stops. Drivers weren’t working on the breakaway in Preseason Thunder testing for nothing. If you see teammates pitting under green, expect to see them try and make up time on the track by using the two-car train. And when the flagman holds up five fingers, expect partners to start pairing up. Simply put, you’re going to need to do it if you’re going to win Saturday, and next Sunday’s Daytona 500.
*How will Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fare in Speedweeks?*
That’s the big question now, isn’t it? For the most part, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s time at Hendrick Motorsports has been rather disappointing. It was supposed to be the final step towards winning a Cup Series championship, and instead he’s taken two steps back. But, despite what people in the organization have said, and Rick Hendrick and Earnhardt Jr. personally, this is a make-or-break year for the No. 88 car.
The pairing of the No. 88, with five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 now in the same shop, plus a team-wide crew chief swap that saw Steve Letarte take over as the man calling the shots for Junior all make the No. 88 stronger this year. Couple that with a driver determined to prove the naysayers wrong, Rick Hendrick right, and to do both on the 10th anniversary of his father’s last lap crash in the Daytona 500 means you have the recipe for something special this Speedweeks. Junior’s got as much potential to sweep as anybody, but the new surface will make that difficult. So expect a win in either the Shootout, Duel 150s or Daytona 500, and the pole on Sunday as well.
*So you’ve got Earnhardt on the pole; who wins the Shootout?*
I think it’s going to be a memorable Speedweeks for old Dale Earnhardt, Sr. fans. Kevin Harvick has been the driver to beat on superspeedways of late and this week he’s got a black Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with a little No. 3 accompanying his No. 29. Not to mention he’s also going to have Budweiser on the hood; that’s a lot of good mojo right there. I don’t mean to be a nag and keep bringing it up, but Earnhardt’s untimely death will be part of the major stories over the next two weeks, and if there is any driver who may feel the need to win more so than usual during that time (aside from Earnhardt Jr.) it’s Harvick. The No. 29 team expects this to be a championship year, and there would be no greater way to get the momentum going than by winning the Shootout.
_Photography provided by “RaceTake’s”:http://racetake.com/ Dwight Drum_