January is one of my favorite months of the year. With it, you have the start of a fresh new year, which inevitably represents a fresh start. It’s also my birthday month. That’s kind of nice.
But I’m certainly not the only one who embraces the clean slate that January brings each and every time around. The drivers and teams of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series use the month of January to test for the Daytona 500 in a series of festivities known as “Preseason Thunder.” And this year, more so than any other in recent memory, Preseason Thunder was immeasurably important.
The question of who has the early lead in car development is something that usually comes up directly after testing. Well, the word around the garage area throughout the offseason was that Toyota had a slight aero advantage over the other two manufacturers. Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keselowski hinted at this one after the December test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, stating, “I think the Toyotas have shown that they’re gonna be really, really tough to beat with this new car.” Whatever edge they had became apparent early, during Thursday’s round of testing at Daytona. New Toyota driver and Joe Gibbs Racing addition Matt Kenseth claimed the top spot in the morning session, while four Toyotas (the Nos. 20, 18, 11, and 55) placed inside the top 4 spots in the second session. It should be noted that the top 4 Toyotas in session 2 were drafting in order to get those fast laps, but they were quick in single-car runs as well. Richard Childress Racing also looked quick in single-car runs over the course of the three-day test, as did Stewart-Haas Racing, with drivers Jeff Burton (of RCR) and Danica Patrick (of SHR) being notably fast.
But as strong as those Camrys were in single-car runs, it was the Fords who stole the show in Friday’s abbreviated drafting practice. Fusions driven by Trevor Bayne and Joey Logano topped the charts in the Friday afternoon drafting session, with Bayne clocking in a lap of 199.650 miles per hour. Overall, Ford placed five drivers in the top 10 of the drafting session, suggesting that whatever they lack in single-car speed (they were pitifully slow most of the weekend in this arena) is compensated for once they drop into pack formation.
So what about the actual racing? Is it possible to really get a read on what the Daytona 500 will look like? Again, it’s still early, but there were some shocking revelations in Thursday’s test that suggested the racing could change in a number of meaningful ways. One thing is for sure: the two-car tandem is dead. That was made apparent halfway through the Friday drafting session when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. attempted to push Marcos Ambrose. Ambrose’s car did not react well to the push and jerked sideways in front of a snarling pack of cars, thus triggering the Big One. In total, 12 cars were collected in the melee, and many teams were forced to leave Daytona Beach early as a result. With the tandem racing effectively impossible to do with this new package, drivers realized quickly that more old-school drafting methods would be making a triumphant comeback.
The competition that took place before the crash heavily resembled that of the 2001 drafting package, where both the inside and outside lines worked and drivers needed to lay back in order to build slingshot runs on the cars ahead of them. Drivers who experienced success in the pre-CoT form of drafting (think Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, etc.) ought to fare well in this “reformed Daytona” as it will likely require more patience, more savvy, and, for lack of a better word, skill then the 2008-12 packages did. Keselowski eloquently laid out the task ahead of the drivers in adapting to this “old-school” form of “pushing,” stating, “Now the rules package is back to where we were in the early 2000s, when the fans enjoyed the racing better. We as drivers have to rewind to how we used to drive those cars.”
There were two other important things mentioned by the drivers that will play a large part in shaping how the on-track racing at Daytona will unfold. First, and perhaps most importantly, many drivers noted that the current restrictor plate aero package NASCAR is running, in concert with the new G6 cars has made the cars tougher to drive. Both Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton remarked about how much looser the new cars are due to the small spoiler being used in testing, with Burton stating that the cars would “be hairy to drive” in the draft. This means that handling could come into play in restrictor plate competition for the first time since 2010. In addition, some drivers were complaining that the cars struggled to “suck up” in the draft, thus further limiting the ability for them to run in two-car tandems.
What do all of the changes mean? Well, assuming Friday’s test was an indication of the racing that is to come, expect the early 2000s form of drafting to maintain itself, a non-tandem, pack racing formation which was a big hit with both fans and drivers. With handling a factor, cars struggling to suck up, and traditional pack drafts showing more speed than two-car hookups, one would think the racing will resemble something similar to that pre-CoT era fans loved so much.
It will certainly be interesting to see if those who were fast in testing can maintain whatever advantage they seem to be carrying going into the season. All I know is, for me, January marks the spiritual start of NASCAR, 2013 and it felt damn good to hear the cars roaring around Daytona’s high banks once again.