Slowly but surely, drivers are getting a taste of racing at Daytona International Speedway.
They’ve been easing into it for days. First a select group practiced for the Sprint Unlimited, a race with a field of only 19 drivers. Then they practiced in single-car runs with the full field. Then they drafted. On Thursday, the field will split into two groups and compete for a starting position in the Daytona 500 (Sunday, Noon ET on FOX).
They annual Budweiser Duel will be closely watched this year as drivers put the Generation 6 cars into its largest drafting pack yet. With 23 cars in one field and 22 in the other, they’ll try to figure out how to put together a lengthy drafting run — something that has yet to happen in testing. Or practice. Or even in the Sprint Unlimited.
The races force drivers to balance the risk of tearing up their planned Daytona 500 car and reward of figuring out how to keep up with the competition in the draft. It will showcase how willing drivers might be to draft with rookie candidate Danica Patrick, who is making her second appearance in this race and first from the pole position. It offers more time to look at the aerodynamic impact of the new car. And it could dramatically alter just how that starting lineup will look come Sunday’s main event.
Most importantly, though, it could offer a preview of what racing on Sunday brings. So far, drafting has proven to be problematic for the field.
Time after time, when a large group swarmed together, crashes ensued. Drivers cut one another off too closely as they adjusted to the altered sight lines created by a car with rear bumpers that are more flared and mirrors adjusted to accommodate that offering a slightly different view. They found an aerodynamic anomaly that caused Ryan Newman’s car to slip and spin when drafting close to Carl Edwards on Wednesday morning.
Iinstead of pushing the limits with 40-plus cars trying to draft in practice, they discovered that most of the field found the risk much greater than the reward and opted to sit idle in the garage for much of the afternoon.
Newman was baffled by his crash and said he had not experienced a similar situation.
“I think some of it has to do with the huge shark fin that we have on that side,” he said. “When you pack air up on that side it’s not going to the spoiler, it’s getting blocked off from the spoiler. There are a lot of things to think about and talk about.”
The net result? Thursday’s Budweiser Duel truly offers drivers a unique opportunity to see the Gen-6 car in action — under circumstances where drivers might be less in research mode and more in the mindset of overcoming the competition.
Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson understands the temptation to take it easy in the race when one has qualified well. So far, only the front row of Patrick and Jeff Gordon are locked into their starting positions. The next four fastest qualifiers — Trevor Bayne, Newman, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne — are locked into the lineup but not yet a starting position. And there’s a provisional available for the most recent past champion that does not otherwise qualify.
Otherwise, drivers must claw their way into the field. Will those drivers who know they are in the race be more cautious in their approach?
“I think all the cars that are secured a spot are trying to balance that right now,” Johnson said. “It just isn’t worth it. We all know everybody is low on car count. If you are fortunate enough to be on that front row do you really want to push it? There is no need to. It’s going to be a fine balance and there is going to be a lot of internal struggles and arguments with drivers, teams, crew chiefs especially trying to give their driver the direction they want to go.”
Johnson said that the Gen-6 is playing into that decision-making as well. Teams simply don’t have an unlimited supply of cars available with this new model as they are accustomed to having. So they have to weigh their options.
Patrick turned to crew chief Tony Gibson to determine whether her starting spot will alter her approach to the Duel. She’ll start from the pole position there. So what should she do in the race?
“Don’t put yourself in any bad positions,” Gibson said. “For her, it is new. You don’t want to take the chance of wrecking the car. Nobody does. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. She’s going to have to put herself three wide, four wide, there’s no way around it. If we tear it up, we tear it up. We have another one on the truck.
“You can’t run scared all the time. She’s going to have to get out there and race. Definitely we’re not going to put ourselves in very bad positions. If it looks like it’s getting hairy, she can get out, go to the back and ride. We’re in a position to do that.”
The larger question is will other drivers work with her. Patrick is an unknown with little experience in NASCAR’s premier series at this track. Will drivers be willing to run with her?
"I would use her just like I would use any other driver, honestly,” Denny Hamlin said. “We’re not out there drafting with each other because we like each other. It’s because we’re using each other to get where want to go. I think any driver would — I don’t know. I’m going to say use her to get a position that he wanted to get to.
“The only reason people won’t draft with you is if you’re erratic behind the wheel. If you can’t hold a steady lane, if you’re very erratic with letting out of the throttle or using the brakes or something — that’s what sets the red flag off that, ‘OK, let’s go up to the next guy.’
“ And, really, most every driver when two cars are side-by-side and you see the third car choose one person or the other, it’s because they trust that person more than the other. So, you can prove yourself very easily by just holding a steady wheel."
Johnson agrees. He says it is what one does, not who they are, that matters.
“Once the race progresses and gets going, you really forget about paint jobs and who is in what car,” Johnson said. “It is who is making the right moves. Who is going to help me, because you can’t do it on your own out there. It gets real selfish and greedy and if somebody is making the right decision and the right move you are going to go with them. It doesn’t matter how much experience they have. That is really the key."
The bottom line is, drivers are ready and hungering to race — and Thursday offers many of them the first chance to do just that.
“To me, the Duels are the most important part of the week,” defending Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth said. “You go out there and I always like to go out there and race hard, try to make some moves, try to run with some people and maybe gain their trust you have a fast car — that kind of stuff. Kind of setup a lot of different things for Sunday. …
“If something happens, it happens.”
Gordon agrees. If he were to crash and have to go to a backup car, Gordon would drop to the rear of the field for the Daytona 500. The risk is high, the reward minimal. At least on paper.
But to a driver in the heat of a race, that thought process could easily and quickly go out the window. And that is what makes the Duel so exciting, year after year.
“But Thursday, you know, it’s a race,” Gordon said. “When you go into a race, you’re racing to win. I think on Thursday, and this is what we have to talk about, it is a very good opportunity to learn what we need to do to win the Daytona 500. But it’s also very risky to put yourself in some of those positions. You have to go in approaching it to learn all that you can, build momentum and confidence. You do that by winning that race. You’re not just sitting on the front row, but you go and win that race. That’s the best thing you can do.
“But you got to be smart about it, too. You get shuffled back, find yourself in a bad situation, you try to fight through it, stick your nose somewhere it probably doesn’t belong, tear the race car up, that just wasn’t very smart. It’s a fine line between those.
“Honestly, if we didn’t have to go out onto the racetrack other than practice, go out there and sit on the front row on Sunday, I’d be fine with that. Like any other race, I would be totally fine with that. But that’s not the way Daytona works.”