Following Saturday night’s (Feb. 12) top speeds of 206 mph in the Budweiser Shootout, NASCAR made a series of changes to help reduce the horsepower and restrict the amount of air reaching the cooling system in an effort to break up the two-car breakaway.
Initially, the size of the grill opening on all of the cars was made smaller, thus allowing for less air to cool the engine and force the two-car tandems to swap spots to keep from overheating. In addition, NASCAR also announced they would issue a pop-off valve that would open at a predetermined temperature to release pressure and push water out of the overflow. Then, on Monday, teams were told the restrictor plate would be reduced by one sixty-fourth of an inch, costing roughly 12 horsepower.
Talking with one engine builder in the garage, it became clear the changes were not necessarily welcomed. The key to these changes, he said, would be the pop-off valve and keeping water in the engine.
An engine can only run so hot before it begins to push water through the valve and out of the overflow. Once that occurs that seal is broken and is hard to keep shut; limiting your options if you continue to run hot and spew water. You could bring the car to pit road and pump new water in, but according to this source, at that point you are risking the integrity of the engine by pumping cold water into a hot engine block.
While engine builders and crew chiefs were scratching their heads trying to come up with creative ways around the new rules, the teams headed out for practice Wednesday evening.
Sunday’s qualifying session may have done little to demonstrate how the changes affected the racing, but Wednesday’s practice was a better judge. Overall, the top speeds were down as compared to Saturday night’s, but according to some, that is nothing more than an illusion.
“I don’t think the reduction of the plate is really going to impact anything,” said Todd Berrier, crew chief on the No. 31 Chevrolet. “It all looks the same, maybe not running 206 [mph] in practice, but it wouldn’t surprise me if you replicated everything that happened the other night when we ran 206 [mph], you’d hit 206 [mph] again. I think it’s been more the impact of the grill opening and the pressure release valve, maybe not the pressure relief valve, but the grill opening being small.”
Two-car tandems still posted fast times, but not as drastic as the speeds seen last weekend in the Budweiser Shootout. In fact, the Nationwide Series cars ran faster than the Cup cars in each of their Wednesday practices.
During the Shootout, Jeff Burton pushed teammate Kevin Harvick for nearly 20 laps without ducking out or swapping spots. Wednesday’s practice was much different, however. Berrier said they expected to run three or four laps before having to swap positions.
“If you saw practice today, there was never a pack of more than two cars,” he said. “Those guys are out there trying to figure out how fast they can swap position front to rear, and you give them their lap times. When we first got here, our best swap was probably eight-tenths of a second. Now, with a little bit of practice it’s down to six-tenths of a second.
“By the time Sunday gets here, we’ll probably have it down to four-tenths of a second, so it won’t really matter again. Aside from misaligning bumpers on the car or something like that, it’s just the way it’s changed. They repaved this place, it’s smooth and it enables you to do things you’ve never done before.”
“There really isn’t much difference,” Carl Edwards said walking towards the Nationwide garage. “Except that we just can’t push as long until the car in the back gets hot – which will keep the speeds down just a little bit, but I don’t think it will change much.”
One thing the changes did affect was the speed of the cars running without drafting help or in larger packs. While speeds were already drastically slower from the two-car tandems to single-car runs, one engine builder claimed a 1,000 rpm difference between qualifying and race trim, reducing the size of the restrictor plate made the closure rate worse. This was perhaps no more evident than in Wednesday’s incident with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.
As Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. approached slower cars on the track, the slower cars closed the hole and stacked up the two-car tandem. Truex could not get slowed, as he was being pushed by Brian Vickers in their two-car draft. The end result was torn up race cars for the Daytona 500 polesitter and Truex Jr.
“They keep slowing the cars down and it makes a car drafting normally much slower, and now the closing rate on the two-car pack is even faster; and I mean it’s just hard. It’s just real hard,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the incident. “Hopefully there’s no more accidents this rest of the week. We’re all kind of getting the hang of it, but the guys that aren’t, in a two-car pack, need to be aware that those guys are going to come flying up on them faster than they think. And you’ve just got to keep that in mind and hold your line.”
Earlier in the day, Jeff Gordon had indicated he would have liked to try a different combination of plate sizes and spoiler heights in testing. However, others in the garage don’t feel testing would solve the problems being faced this speedweeks.
“If we go and test somewhere, we’re not going to race the same,” said Denny Hamlin. “We’re not going to drive the same as we will in race conditions – no one ever does.”
Perhaps Todd Berrier had the best idea of them all, “I think at the end of the day we should take the bottom seats out, take the plates off and let them go in one of these things, let them go fast and invite all the people here to watch them go 210 [mph].”
The best indication of how these changes will affect the racing come Sunday will be Thursday’s Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying races. With larger groups of cars on the track and teams swapping positions in the two-car draft under race conditions, we should get a better indication of how things will play out once 43 cars are on the track on Sunday afternoon.
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