Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: P-P-Push It Real Good – Restrictor-Plate Realities Exposed at Daytona

Well here we are, the day before the Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying races to help set the field for the Daytona 500 – and yet there is a palatable sense of pessimism in the air.

I very well may just be mistaking that for being here in Michigan, having endured three straight months of winter which have conspired to dump a foot-and-a-half of snow in less than 24 hours, followed by consistent single-digit temperatures – but most of it centers around what was on display Saturday night (Feb. 12) during the Bud Shootout and what it means for tomorrow’s races and Sunday’s Daytona 500.

The Bud Shootout aftermath was sold as great racing, something different, yet invoking the term “slingshot” when describing the – ahem – passing was a bit of a tough sell. There is something quite wrong with the situation when in slicked-up superspeedway trim, a lead car is not capable of eclipsing 185 mph by its lonesome, yet if another car is pushing him, he can achieve 206 mph. In qualifying trim, the cars were barely breaking 179 mph through the corners – wide open – on brand-new pavement.

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Yet NASCAR and teams have said they are concerned about the speeds they saw; namely, the over-200 mph barrier that was reached several times Saturday night in race conditions, a historical no no which may result in decreasing the size of the carburetor resctrictor plate slightly.

So far, the only response to slow down the cars has been a technical bulletin issued Monday, relating to the dimensions of the cooling openings in the grilles and lowering the limits of the cooling system, which will trigger the overheating point to approximately 245 degrees. This change will limit speeds a bit by increasing drag while decreasing the amount of time that cars can stay in tandem formation, with the second car pushing the lead driver around the track.

Drivers, teams (and the fans) say they enjoy the speed but will understand if NASCAR takes additional measures to slow them down. Nobody wants to see a car get airborne; however, ever since the rear wing got whacked, the blowovers experienced by Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards at Talladega and Brad Keselowski in Atlanta of all places seems to be a thing of the past. Roof flaps and that big blade have acted effectively in keeping the rear ends planted.

The real issue, and the one I believe NASCAR is trying to address, is the advent of the break away two-car duos all over the track. With the new pavement removing handling on old tires, as well as over 30 years of bumps, lumps and character (and admittedly, potholes), a replay of the 2008 Talladega race following its repaving may be the end result.

If you remember the fall event in 2008 a year after Talladega’s new blacktop was applied, you will recall the same type of inadvertent dump-drafting move between Edwards and Greg Biffle that resulted in the Big One towards the end of the event. Perhaps the length of time and complacency spent in tow is also being addressed to help prevent a big wreck; however, with as much switching off as there will be between tag-team tandems, how long until somebody misjudges and hooks a guy in the rear?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going all gloom and doom/dogs and cats living together/mass hysteria or anything like that. I think it is awesome that cars are once again going 200 mph on a track engineered and renowned for wide-open, 200 mph racing. Yeah, they still go faster at MIS, but seeing those big numbers on the telemetry helps give credence once again to the Daytona 500 as the most important race in motorsports, the man vs. machine aspect of stock car racing.

After all, Buddy Baker didn’t get all of that press in 1970 for going 199.79 mph.

Daytona is still Daytona, and is not a carbon copy of Talladega now just because it has a new surface. The transition onto pit road is different, the banking less and turns tighter, and as much as they advertise two-wide racing, with the SAFER barriers eating up a precious three feet of track, it is still going to be essentially a two-groove racetrack despite the pronouncement of three-wide racing run amok.

What I don’t cater to is any implication that this is speedway racing like the heydays of the 1970s and ’80s, just because we’ve broken the mythical 200-mph barrier. Yes, the three-wide finish was a close one on Saturday night, the kind of last-lap restrictor plate tussle we’ve grown accustomed to.

There is a big difference, though, between a slingshot and pulling out to pass somebody that effectively just stalls them out because the car behind is no longer pushing. Blocking is going to be a big no-no, with oncoming cars catching single cars or a pair of drivers in machines that just aren’t working well together at a much higher rate of speed and closure as we’ve seen in the past.

This, I think, will compound another issue with the current rules package – the yellow line.

In the Bud Shootout Saturday night, Denny Hamlin was disqualified after he admittedly went below the yellow line coming to the checkered flag after a slight feign by Newman caused Hamlin to dip below the yellow, advancing his position in the process.

Yes, that is a violation of the rule, but it is a silly one at that and the time has come for it to be revoked, much like the rear wing and front splitter. You might recall the reason why the yellow line was developed in the first place, after drivers would attempt to pass on the backstretch, which had grass and dirt right next to the racing surface. It was more of an issue at Talladega than Daytona (and Pocono, for that matter), however both big tracks now feature paved backstretches as a safety measure.

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I’m not saying you should be able to cut through the infield to shorten the path around the track, but there needs to be areas where going low to make a pass – or avoiding contact – is permissible. When things get heated and there are 43 cars out there on Sunday, how long is it going to be before one pair of cars going 25 mph faster than the leader is forced to make a decision to go below the line, try to get back in line, give a position back, get run over or plow into the side of the car he is over taking?

Answer: Before halfway.

So with all of the agony and flagellation out of the way, how will this Sunday’s race stack up against Daytona 500s of the past? I don’t believe you are going to see one of the 1976 or 2007 caliber, but more likely along the lines of those of 1996 or 2000.

A lot of drafting, not a whole lot of passing, but a slew of strategy.

Tires will be an issue, with some teams claiming it is possible to go the whole race on a single set. The new fuel ports and lack of a catch can man have dictated longer refueling times during pit stops, so a two-tire change will be of little benefit – unless just enough fuel is added to get to the end for the final stop.

Unlike recent restrictor-plate races that have come down to the end due to multiple overtime (like football!) restarts, I believe the Daytona 500 is going to be won between Thursday and Saturday. The team that can best prepare their car to run in whatever speed and RPM range that will be dictated by Monday’s technical bulletin or an 11th-hour restrictor plate change, and is configured to endure the rigors of pushing another car for the longest duration until the final lap, will be the one that is hoisting the Harley J. Earl Trophy in victory lane on Sunday.

But which one, you ask? An ECR-powered entry is always a safe bet on a plate track, but I am going to put my money on a blue oval, in particular, the Ford of Edwards. The new FR9 power plant was touted mainly for its increased capacity for cooling, and in one of its first outings last summer at MIS, it ran at 290 degrees at over 9,000 rpm for the last half an hour of the race, never stumbling.

All of the Ford engines come from the same shop, so expect parity and pairing between the two and ignore the results from Saturday night. The Daytona 500 is the hardest race in our sport to win and the car that is fastest the entire two weeks rarely wins.

Regardless of the outcome, it will still be a welcome and inspiring sight to see all 43 cars on the track take the green flag under the afternoon north Florida sunlight at Daytona to kick off 2011.

See Vito’s other column in The Examiner today!

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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