NASCAR found what it was looking for through big-pack drafting during Friday afternoon’s testing session at Daytona International Speedway — scintillating restrictor-plate racing.
By increasing the restrictor plates to 15/16ths of an inch and offering the cars 26 more horsepower to work with after Thursday’s first day of testing, drivers on Friday exceeded the 204.722-mph mark set by Martin Truex Jr. during tandem drafting in the morning session while in a 16- to 20-car pack at the start of the afternoon practice.
But the top speed of 206.058 mph was set 90 minutes into the afternoon session by Kurt Busch, working in tandem with his regular drafting partner, Regan Smith. Busch hit 210.9 mph down the backstretch.
Busch said the Phoenix Racing crew sent team owner James Finch a picture of the No. 51 on top of the scoring pylon and he was doing "backflips." The car itself was "good."
“It’s very stable rules-package-wise,” Busch said. “This is my first time driving Finch’s car, but it’s more stable than what I’ve had to drive in the past.”
Busch did not participate in the big drafting pack segments of the session because Phoenix Racing brought only one car to test at Daytona and did not have the time to make necessary modifications before the pack drafting began.
Still, Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, beamed as he viewed the “old school” packs on the monitor.
"It looks pretty (freakin’) cool to me . . . and you can keep the (freakin’) in there," the former crew chief said proudly.
Several drivers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., recommended that NASCAR speed up the cars.
On Thursday, Junior said, “I like going faster than we’ve been going. The cars are really, really slow by themselves the last couple of years at Daytona and Talladega. Qualifying in the mid-180 range is just way too slow.”
But when Earnhardt was running in the big pack earlier Friday afternoon, his tune changed a little bit. During a SPEED interview, Junior said, “We’re going to have to work on the cars a lot if we’re going to race like that,” but he added that tandem drafting would still win the race.
Kyle Busch, who ran fastest in the draft, agreed with Earnhardt that the winner of the Daytona 500 would be forced to race using tandem drafting. Still, Busch described the pack-drafting experience Friday as “exciting.”
“With the tandem draft vs. the pack draft — it’s definitely different,” Busch said. “Took advantage of the situation to put up a good time and get us on top of the board. It’s fun. It’s been nice to get down here and get back working with the guys, and having a fast Camry always makes it good, too. It didn’t feel much different until you get a bunch of cars around you and then it kind of squirrels you up a little bit. Other than that, it’s good."
Still, he predicts Daytona will be a nail-biter.
“I think it’s still going to come down to the end of the race," he said. "A tandem is going to win the thing. The pack was still a few tenths off, but if you get three tandems in front and then you have another tandem catching them, you’re still going to be going way faster doing that. It’s just a matter of how comfortable are the cars going to be to do that with going at these speeds now.”
The speeds have already led to changes.
Teams will receive a smaller restrictor plate with an opening of 29/32nd of an inch, down from 15/16ths, to decrease the amount of air intake to the engine. The radiator opening was shrunk from 3.5-by-18 inches to 2-by-20 inches, or from 63 square inches to 40. And the pressure relief valve is now 21 pounds per square inch, down from 25 psi on Friday night.
That new car smell
NASCAR has gotten prototypes for 2013 cars from all four manufacturers, but the sanctioning body is still a ways from having an all-inclusive manufacturer test.
Pemberton says the cars will be in the wind tunnel for the next 30 to 45 days for further evaluation.
“Everybody seems to be pretty far along and the changes that will come out of those will be based on parity due to the wind tunnel numbers,” Pemberton said. “We’re optimistic that there will be some real race cars on the racetracks probably in the second quarter this year doing some evaluation runs, if not before then.”
Jeff Burton cut a right front tire during the early stages of Friday’s draft session and sustained “moderate damage” to the right side of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet
In NASCAR’s safety meeting Friday morning, plans were unveiled for a widening project through Turns 1 and 2 at Watkins Glen where David Reutimann and David Ragan were involved in a vicious crash last season.
Ryan Newman was feeling better on Friday after experiencing flu-like symptoms on Thursday.
For the past five seasons, NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson never had to wonder where his transporter was parked at each racetrack. The defending champion from the previous season is always positioned in the first spot — and the first bay — in the garage.
Johnson was humble enough to acknowledge he already has strolled to the wrong end of the garage during the first week of testing.
“I’ve been programmed for so many years to walk to a certain stall that it’s been tough, and even driving into the pits the first three or four times, I didn’t know where to pull in,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to end. That’s a good thing, too, that reminder every week that I had it really good over there as the champion in that first spot.”