Drivers now face delicate balancing act

Just what does Thursday promise for NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers?

The wild, crash-laden, unpredictable Budweiser Shootout last Saturday at Daytona International Speedway proved to be more than many expected. With slightly altered cars, the return to drafting in big packs and the added element of a winner-take-all event, frenzied racing marked the action. Twelve of the 25 cars were knocked out of the action in accidents, and only four escaped unscathed.

So how does that bode for the 150-mile qualifying races Thursday at Daytona? And, more important, how much will this impact the style of racing seen in those events.

Thirty-nine of the drivers are already locked into the field for the Daytona 500. Translation: They don’t have to race hard Thursday and risk their cars. But this is a competitive field, a group of drivers hungering to win — and a race that sets the lineup for Sunday’s prestigious Daytona 500.

Don’t expect everyone to back down. Plus, throw in the fact 10 drivers will be battling for those remaining four spots and things could get wild once more.

On Wednesday, drivers were preaching caution and highlighting the importance of paying attention to what was going on around them.

Will they keep that in mind in the heat of battle Thursday? It’s difficult to make that kind of decision now.

“We’ve got a really good car for Sunday, so you want to get the best finishing position you can in the Shootout without beating up the race car,” said Tony Stewart, who finished second Saturday night and has 16 overall wins at Daytona — tied for second-most at the track. “So, we’re going to try to do everything we can to not put ourselves in bad situations. But when it comes to the end of the race tomorrow, we’ll push really hard to see how far up we can get and try to get a good spot, but I guess the biggest variable in the equation is just don’t hurt the car that we’ve got.

“We’re locked into the race, and I think even if we don’t get the starting spot we want, I still think you can come from the back much easier and get to the front. The biggest thing is to just take care of the race car. But the racer in you at the end of the day still wants to go get the best finish you can.”

In some ways, it depends on how similar this race ends up being to the one that drivers just ran.

Some drivers expect this race to be a much calmer endeavor. They point out that this is simply a different kind of race, and should yield a different result — perhaps one created by drivers bringing a calmer approach to the showdown.

Still, there’s a lot at stake — and a win is a win, no matter what kind of race it comes in.

Plus, a lot of drivers are still trying to figure out how to take best advantage of this drafting style and how to win at Daytona.

“So far, my approach hasn’t worked,” said AJ Allmendinger, who has wrecked in both a practice and the Shootout so far in Daytona. “I think with the Shootout, it’s tough to call. It’s going to be interesting to see how everyone is going to race. In the Shootout, it’s like we dropped the green and everybody had all this anxiety and hadn’t raced all winter and it was time to go. I think that if everybody just plays it a little bit more cool for the Duels, maybe I’ll try to get up there in the mix and maybe go for the lead. If not, maybe just hang back again.

“Of course, you’d like to win the Duel, but the thing coming out of the Duel is not having a wrecked race car. I look at it with 10, five to go, kind of that opening, try and take the lead and go for the win. If not, maybe make one run at it, and if that doesn’t work, bail out and at that point it doesn’t matter.

"To me it’s still open, still tough to figure out how it’s going to play out. It depends on how everyone wants to race and how aggressive they want to be.”

It’s such a difficult balancing act. Trying to run well enough to get a strong starting position in the Daytona 500 while also trying to protect one’s primary car that has been used in practice all week.

Several teams have already had one car get destroyed — either in the Shootout or in a crash during practice. They certainly don’t want that to happen again.

Others have enjoyed practicing and tweaking on their cars all week — they don’t want to have to start all over again in Friday and Saturday practice sessions.

“I feel like things are going to calm down versus what we saw in the Shootout as we get into the week,” Jimmie Johnson said. “The Shootout, without any points on the line and everybody so charged up, everybody was willing to take chances; and a lot of them.  . . . I want to use this race car in the Daytona 500. I don’t want to lose it in practice or in the Duel.”

So what do they do?

Work to find that perfect balance.

"Our strategy is to get the best starting spot possible,” Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin said. “With heating issues that we had, we seem like we’ve got that sorted out a little bit.  . . . Our strategy is to go out there and try to win the Duel.”

After all, that could pay off big come Sunday.

So now drivers try to battle for the win in one race — while keeping in mind how much more important the next one is.

“When we get into the qualifying race, we will race pretty hard, but race smart,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Hopefully, we will not have to pull out a backup (car). You would love to win that race and make a statement going into the 500. It would give the team some confidence, get your sponsors a little extra coverage.

“Winning would get everybody in good spirits for this Sunday.”