Whole new ballgame at Daytona

For drivers who appreciated the difference between Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, it’s time to learn a whole new game.

Drivers must master the two-car draft — a practice in which drivers hook up and run nose to tail around the entire track for several laps at a time. And then switch positions before the oil and water gauges peg.

A.J. Allmendinger enjoyed the nuances of Daytona, long known as a handling track. He led the 2010 Daytona 500 on three occasions for a total of 11 laps until the No. 43 Ford sustained damage from a hole in the concrete.

His memories of Talladega, however, are not nearly as fond, particularly since he went airborne on the final lap in October and landed on his lid.

“It’s different,” Allmendinger says of Daytona‘s surface since the repave. “You couldn’t push last year around here. Last year you might be able to hook up with somebody on the straightaway and give them a shove. That’s how Newman won here in ’08. You get a good shove down the back straightaway and get clear, but the corners were so slick you didn’t dare touch somebody in the corner.

“But now it’s just a shorter version of Talladega; you can hook up with somebody and get lined up and it’s unbelievable. I can’t believe how much time you pick up doing that. It’s three and a half seconds you pick up a lap, so you don’t do it right or you get somebody that can do it.”

Allmendinger had to relearn the drafting process. On Saturday the goal was finding a drafting partner to practice swapping positions. Allmendinger says to perfect the drafting practice, it will be all about “the exchange.”

“If you can hook up, push a guy for three and a half, four laps and immediately get right back to his bumper … It’s all about the guy in front using the brakes right so he can get to the bumper. If you can get that exchange right, that’s huge.”

On Saturday, Allmendinger was fortunate to rehearse the exchange with former Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon. By the end of final practice, Allmedinger was the eighth-fastest car on the speed chart with a lap of 197.589 mph, and the fastest Ford.

“I’m learning,” Allmendinger said. “I had this place down, but I’m not very good at Talladega. And now this is what it is; it’s just a small version of Talladega. So I’ve got to relearn, and my confidence of flipping and stuff didn’t help that for this year.

“You kind of feel like you’re new out there again. You really want to get with guys that that have a lot of time in there because you want to learn from them.”

In addition to keeping the engine cool in order to draft for extended periods of time, the key to success at Daytona will be picking the right dancing partner for the two car breakaway in the final 10 laps.

“It’s just two cars out there to time the speed out right so you can lock bumpers quicker because you are going from 180 mph to 200 instead of maybe 190 to 200 when there’s a big pack,” Allmendinger said. “That’s how it was at Talladega last year. You saw three groups of cars hooked up together, trying to pull away, two cars each. That’s the way this race is going to be won.”

CHART TOPPERS

The Penske Racing pair of Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch were fastest in the two-car draft over three days of testing. Keselowski’s lap of 198.605 mph was a hair quicker than Busch’s 198.579 mph.

With drivers referring to Daytona (2.5 miles) as a smaller version of Talladega’s 2.66-mile high-bank super speedway, it’s understandable that Keselowski is so fast. The 26-year-old won his first Sprint Cup race at Talladega in just his fifth start driving for James Finch.

Busch has three second-place finishes in the Daytona 500, including 2008 when he pushed then-teammate Ryan Newman to Penske Racing’s only 500 win. Busch says the two-car draft is a very different experience.

“How guys can manage the two-car draft, it’s going to be the way to win,” Busch said. “It’s a unique and odd feeling. It’s fast. Drivers like fast, but the closure rate that you find guys on the race track when they’re not connected as a two-car pack, it’s pretty wild.

“When you’re connected as a two-car draft, you never slow down. So whatever that raw speed is, it’s the top speed. It’s stable. It’s just a very unique way to race at a restrictor-plate race. It’s full pucker. The winner’s going to jump out of the car and be relieved he survived.”

I’M BAD, I’M NATIONWIDE

NASCAR clarified the parameters for championship eligibility on Friday, reinforcing the earlier notion that drivers cannot compete for multiple titles.

While 2007 series champ Carl Edwards will not be able to run for the Nationwide Series driver’s title, he still can put his helmet in the ring for the series owners championship.

“That’s going to be pretty neat,” Edwards said. “That might be its own battle. That might be just as exciting to watch depending on how everybody runs their programs. That would still mean a lot to me.

“The (No.) 60 car, since I’ve been running it we’ve never won an owners championship. So we’re going to start the season, go forward and see what happens. It is what it is, we’ll just go race and hopefully we can win all the races.”

Since 2005, Edwards never has finished worse than third in the Nationwide points standings.

SAY WHAT?

As Jamie McMurray described the emotion of leaving his two-month-old son Carter for testing, he was heckled by Jeff Gordon.

“When I got ready to leave, I was like, ‘Man, this is really hard,’ ” McMurray said. “And you go in there and you kind of give him a little hug and you get a good smell before you leave because babies smell wonderful.”

Gordon snickered as he sat next to McMurray.

“Why are you laughing at me? I’m being serious,” McMurray said. “I’m being really honest, the scent is wonderful.”

Gordon, the father of two toddlers, said, “You’re bringing a tear to my eye, man.”

McMurray called Gordon out immediately and retaliated with, “You’re no one to talk about emotion over there, OK? That’s definitely the pot calling the kettle black.”