Thursday offered no consensus in terms of insight for fans waiting to see the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Generation 6 car in action. Not for drivers, either, for that matter.
Will the racing be like the first Budweiser Duel, which Kevin Harvick won as drivers went three wide in drafting packs before Denny Hamlin clipped Carl Edwards sparking a four-car wreck? Will it be like the second Duel, which Kyle Busch won as a handful of drivers tried to form a second line from time to time but with no takers to help them draft, each fell back and had to fight his way back into line?
Will there be hard racing with three-wide packs storming around Daytona or a more cautious approach until things really erupt in the final laps?
For his part, Harvick sees running in the new car as a throwback to how Daytona running used to be. Sunday’s 500 (Noon ET on FOX) will tell whether the racing looks the same.
“It’s just like it was 10 years ago,’ he said. “It really is It’s the same way we used to race with the old style cars, no roof fins, nothing on top of them. It’s the same style race. Handling even is coming into effect as we’ve seen in practice and the race today.’
It’s hard to judge the 500 based on these qualifying races. First, the 500 carries points, impact and prestige. The Duel races offer a starting spot. The 500 is long and wearing, a race where a driver can make a name for himself and start the season on a high note. Only 23 drivers competed in the largest Duel. A full field of 43 will attack Daytona for Sunday’s showdown.
Much changes when the green-flag drops on Sunday. But Thursday offered the first daytime look at drivers trying to race the Gen-6 at Daytona.
For his part, Busch was somewhat mystified by the struggles some were having with the car.
“I thought that this car was not that big of a handful, not that hard to drive,” he said. “We see people out here having a hard time with it, spinning out, crashing in practice left and right. You sometimes scratch your head and wonder what they’re doing, why they’re having issues.
“…Yeah, we see a little bit of pre-COT era with this car, but we’ll have to continue on working and making this stuff better, making it faster. All that stuff comes from the shop, though. There’s not much we’re going to get to do down here.”
Harvick won his Duel handily, following up his Saturday win in the Sprint Unlimited. Busch took the lead in his when Jeff Gordon was assessed a pit-road penalty.
Wood Brothers Racing’s Trevor Bayne pulled past polesitter Danica Patrick on the first lap of the first Duel and led 37 laps. Drivers raced mostly single file for much of the outing, preserving their locked-in status or starting spot. But from time to time, and in the end, two lines formed – and then a third. The tight swarm showcased the drafting prowess of both the drivers and the car.
Then on Lap 53, Carl Edwards was running in the low line when Denny Hamlin came down and into Edwards’ car. Bayne was behind Hamlin and had nowhere to go. He slowed dramatically and missed Hamlin and kept trying to avoid Edwards, but Edwards just kept spinning in front of him and Bayne had no way to keep from hitting him. Regan Smith, driving for Phoenix Racing, was also damaged in the incident.
The second race was more sedate.
Busch led a line of cars throughout the closing laps before Matt Kenseth finally pulled out of line with two to go in an effort to mount a challenge. For his effort, Kenseth fell back several spots. Gordon continued to flex muscle at Daytona, turning his stellar run to the outside pole position into a strong run before being assessed a pit-road penalty that cost him significant position. And Ryan Newman became the poster child for what can happen when one loses the draft at Daytona. He jumped to the lead on the first lap, got a little loose and plummeted into the field.
Throughout the race, drivers tried to pull out, found themselves without a drafting partner and jumped back into line when an opening came.
“I was able to get right to Jeff in the first four or five laps there,” said Kahne, who finished second to Busch. “From that point, just trailed him and tried messing with the lanes of choice and things like that.
“But once we had the pit stop, we were a little ways behind and kind of got in with Paul Menard, back up into the leaders. There were only six, seven cars in the line, so it made it tough to make a move.”
Still some are struggling to find people to help them. Kenseth, who crashed in testing and in practice in this car, tried repeatedly to step out of line but found no help once he did.
How different does he think racing is with the Gen-6?
"There’s some differences with them and there’s some things you want to do and some things you don’t want to do with them so they are different,” he said. “There’s times where it’s easy to pass a car and there’s other times where it seems like it’s tough to get enough people to make anything happen. Overall, today was a success. We’ve got something we can work on — it’s in one piece and we just need to make it a little better for Sunday."
Still, drivers are willing to draft more closely and more often in the races at Daytona. On Thursday they found that when they broke to the bottom in these particular races, they just didn’t have any takers to draft with them when they had the chance.
“The problem is there’s never enough cars on the bottom,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished third in the first Duel. “You know, you start on the bottom, somebody bails out, somebody bails out, somebody jumps in front. It never gets enough momentum.”
Michael Waltrip, who raced his Swan Racing Toyota into the race and is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, agreed.
“I like the bottom,” he said. “If there’s enough people go down there, the bottom will beat the top, is my opinion. It just matters who is down there.
“A great example is on the last couple laps,” he said. “I thought we were going to have a chance to win. We were lined up with Jimmie (Johnson). We got (Greg) Biffle stuck at the bottom. He just stopped us. His car is so strong, he was able to just run right with us. It bogged us down and here come the whole world. Wherever the fastest cars go, it will work.”
As to the 500, time will tell how drivers opt to race in the premier event.
In many ways, it depends on just how many drivers are willing to gamble and make a run at drafting in a large pack – and with so much on the line, that will certainly offer more temptation than it did on a day when driver’s were trying to preserve their cars and their starting spots for the 500.
“What you saw, though, was some good cars kind of single filed out, separated themselves from another pack, from another pack,” Busch said of the Duel and Unlimited races. “You saw some separation going on.
“So with more cars, you know, you’ll see, like I said earlier, a bigger good pack, bigger middle pack,” he said. “Once handling comes into play, you see separation, I don’t know how big that pack is going to be. If it’s going to be six or eight cars, that’s still going to be a problem to race side-by-side and race each other. If it’s a pack of 16, 18, then it might work.”