With the evolution of drafting changing with every lap since Speedweeks began, Sunday’s 53rd Daytona 500 promises to be a memorable event.
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Here are 10 things to watch once the green flag waves on NASCAR’s season opener.
1. Who is going to work with whom?
Tandem drafting makes for strange bedfellows. When hooking up with another driver, trust and car compatibility take precedence over teammates and manufacturers.
While Richard Childress Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer worked symbiotically from the first corner to the checkered flag of the second Gatorade Duel, Penske Dodge driver Kurt Busch was pushed to victory in the Bud Shootout by the Chevy of Earnhardt Ganassi’s Jamie McMurray, and Busch won the first Duel with Regan Smith pushing from behind in his Furniture Row Chevy.
Ford driver Matt Kenseth worked exceptionally well with Chevy’s Kevin Harvick, and four-time Cup champion/three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon adopted NASCAR’s latest wonder boy Trevor Bayne as a dancing partner.
No matter what happens throughout the race, in the end the winner should be determined by the driver with the best pusher.
2. How fast will they go?
NASCAR made multiple changes over the last week to the size of the restrictor plate, grille opening and pressure relief valve. But speeds still escalated to over 200 mph in Happy Hour on Saturday when the tandem of Burton and Bowyer posted a fast lap of 200.316 mph.
The high speed of 206.068 mph in Speedweeks came in the Bud Shootout — during a 50-degree night. Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-50s again on Sunday, but it’s unlikely we’ll see speeds reach the 200 mark again.
3. Are engine malfunctions inevitable?
NASCAR’s final rule change (we believe) on Saturday afternoon to open the grille from 50 to 60 square inches was done to increase airflow and keep the engines cool.
Roush Yates Engines owner/builder Doug Yates says the longevity of the engines will be “in the drivers’ hands."
“They’ve got to watch their gauges closer than ever,” Yates said. “It’s up to the driver to get some air to the nose.”
Yates said the Ford engines were pulling 9,100 to 9,200 rpm in the Bud Shootout, which was not “a sustainable pace” for engines over 500 miles and “a huge concern” for the company. Does he anticipate engine issues on Sunday?
“We’ve seen some and we probably will,” Yates said, “especially if the drivers let the temperatures get out of control or if the cooling systems exceed their capacity and then have to come back down and operate the rest of the day, which is really tricky and something we have to be on top of.”
4. Will the yellow-line rule come into play?
In the Bud Shootout, Denny Hamlin learned quickly that NASCAR is serious about enforcing the yellow-line rule. Hamlin was black-flagged for going below the yellow line in an attempt to improve his position on the track when he broke the draft from Ryan Newman and attempted to pass on the inside. He was scored 12th.
Hamlin subsequently lobbied NASCAR to lift the rule on the final lap — to no avail. Before the Gatorade Duels, NASCAR restated the rule, adding that one driver pushing another below the yellow line could be penalized as well.
5. How will pit strategy be affected?
Pit road has always been an area where teams can pick up a distinct advantage.
However, with the new fueling systems the trick has been to get as much gas into the tank — and not spill any excess on pit road. Fuel is at a premium, particularly with the new pavement allowing drivers to skip pit stops for tires altogether. One crew chief joked he could go the entire race without pitting for tires — the Goodyears are just that good. Most of the pit stops on Sunday will be ‘gas-n-go’ with teams likely picking up fresh rubber around lap 100, unless the driver experiences a cut tire.
6. Which manufacturer has an advantage?
The Ford engines provided by Roush Yates and the Richard Childress Racing engines built by Earnhardt Childress Racing excel in both power and cooling.
Fords proved to be excellent pushers throughout the previous events in Speedweeks. How they’ll perform in the lead position remains to be seen, although the tandem of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle has been stout.
While the Hendrick Motorsports teams worked diligently on their cooling systems on Friday, the RCR cars — particularly Burton and Bowyer — appear to be unstoppable.
7. Will Hendrick’s crew swap pay dividends?
When Rick Hendrick announced on the Tuesday after last season’s finale at Homestead that he was swapping three of his crews (the Nos. 5, 24 and 88) immediately, the move seemed dramatic but necessary.
After three months — and a taste of competition at Daytona — Hendrick acknowledged on Friday that he’s happy with the decision.
“I like it,” Hendrick said. “I like all of it. I think it’s good.” Hendrick cited “the chemistry of listening to them on the radio — Junior being here in the garage area when it opens and being with the team when they go through inspection.
“That’s sign enough for me that everybody is motivated to do the best they can. I’m convinced that we’re going to have a good year. I think it was the right move.”
While the No. 48 Lowe’s combination of driver Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec stayed intact, Knaus opted to upgrade his pit crew and add a second squad to be shared with the No. 88 team. Sunday will be their official points-race debut.
8. Who’s the favorite?
Certainly, the sentimental favorite for Sunday’s Daytona 500 will be polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. For those conspiracy theorists who expected the No. 88 to be leading the race on Lap 3, as fans stand in honor of the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s passing, that storyline dissolved after Junior destroyed his car during the first practice on Wednesday.
Still, only three other active drivers — Tony Stewart, Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon — have led more laps at Daytona than Junior’s 386 circuits. Stewart tops that list with 640 laps led in Cup competition at Daytona. With the momentum of winning four consecutive Nationwide races — and calling his time in Saturday’s Nationwide DRIVE4COPD 300 just another practice session — it might be difficult not to side with Smoke.
Yet after watching Kurt Busch’s victories in both the Bud Shootout and his Gatorade Duel, it would be difficult to count him out.
9. What ceremonies are planned to honor Dale Earnhardt?
For sports fans, it would have been difficult to get through the month of February without seeing a story on the late Dale Earnhardt. From Dale Jr. winning the pole position for both the Bud Shootout and Daytona 500 to Friday’s Truck race winner Michael Waltrip reminiscing about his friend, the Intimidator has been the theme of the 53rd Daytona 500.
Daytona International Speedway is expected to paint a giant No. 3 on the front stretch for Sunday and fans will stand on the third lap to commemorate the seven-time champ’s passing. Should Junior or one of the Richard Childress Racing teams win, expect the grandstands to go wild.
10. Where do you want to be on final lap?
Throughout Speedweeks the “pusher” or control car in the tandem draft has yet to figure out the slingshot move that would enable it to take the lead coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap of the Shootout or either Duel.
“As a race car driver, all of us know where we need to be and where we want to be, but you have to figure out how to get yourself there,” said Bowyer, who pushed Burton to a win on Thursday. And getting yourself into that situation so you can have a shot at winning, he said, is “a lot harder than it looks.
“If it was the 500 I would have made a little more attempt at winning than I did there. But you don’t know.”
Stewart admits he used Saturday’s Nationwide race as a test session. In his first two Cup outings, Stewart finished 11th in the Shootout and 12th in the first Duel. Where does Smoke want to line up for the final lap?
“That’s the part that is hard,” Stewart said. “You would think after all the time we’ve been here this week, you’d have a game plan on where to be. I don’t know that you’re going to have that luxury of saying, ‘This is where I want to be.’
“I just think you’re going to have to make that decision as it’s unfolding. We didn’t know when we took the white flag; we were fifth and sixth when we took the white flag. Who would have ever guessed we would have had a shot to get ’em by the time we got to Turn 3? I don’t know that anybody’s going to be able to dictate where they want to be. I think the scenarios are going to play out. You’re either going to be in the right spot or the wrong spot.”