NASCAR makes changes to reduce speeds at Daytona

NASCAR waved a yellow caution flag Sunday, taking steps to slow

cars down a day after speeds topped 206 mph at Daytona

International Speedway.

Officials might not be done, either.

The sport’s governing body made two technical changes in hopes

of limiting two-car hookups and high speeds before the

season-opening Daytona 500.

NASCAR told teams to add pressure-release valves to cooling

systems and reduce the size of grill openings. The changes should

limit the time two cars can run bumper to bumper around the 2

1/2-mile superspeedway. Drivers likely will need to break those

formations to avoid overheating engines.

The moves are expected to reduce speeds from those reached

during Saturday night’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout.

”The world’s not broken. We just want to tweak it a little

bit,” Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said.

The 75-lap Shootout featured a dramatically different style of

racing as drivers hooked up in pairs because it was the fastest way

around NASCAR’s most famous track. It was fast – Michael Waltrip

topped 206 mph – and a stark contrast from the previous tight pack

racing that fans have embraced at Daytona.

”It’s not necessarily an intention to break those up,” Darby

said. ”That’s a new tool that the competitors have in their pocket

that’s pretty doggone exciting. They can pass at will. They have

the ability to have some control over what’s going on around them.

So those aren’t bad things. This puts a duration limit on

those.”

And should slow everyone down.

NASCAR has made huge strides in safety since Dale Earnhardt’s

death at Daytona a decade ago. Still, the sport has seen

breathtaking crashes in recent years at Daytona and Talladega, the

fastest tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, and has worked to

eliminate cars taking flight.

”What we know is we can have good races at 100 mph and 200 mph

and everything in between,” Darby said. ”I think we can all

agree, from both the competitors and NASCAR, that 206 is probably a

little bit to the extreme side. So we’ll see what we can do to

cushion that some.”

Teams headed home Sunday night and planned to spend Monday and

Tuesday working on ways to best handle the changes.

”The speed’s the problem for everybody,” said Jimmy Makar,

vice president of Joe Gibbs Racing. ”We’re all a little nervous

about the speed. We don’t need to be running that fast for sure.

Some of that speed comes from the fact that you can sit there

behind guys and draft two by two and get that big run. The guys

that ran out front weren’t running those lap times. They were

reasonable lap times. The ones two or three sets back were able to

come hard.”

Teams developed the strategy during testing at Daytona in

December and January, realizing that the new pavement created an

ideal situation for bumper-to-bumper, two-car drafts that could

hook up and outrun any other formation.

Several drivers worked it to perfection in the Shootout, which

Kurt Busch won in a close finish.

”Maybe I’m in a little bit of denial, but I keep thinking

there’s no way we could do that for the whole race,” four-time

series champion Jeff Gordon said. ”I didn’t think we could do it

for the whole race (Saturday) night. We proved we could. I’m like,

‘How can we do it for 500 miles?”’

Teams proved they could do it for lengthy runs. But it remains

to be seen how the changes will affect the draft.

”You’re going to have to figure out how to get some air to cool

the car down, poke our nose out, back off a little bit,” Gordon

said. ”So as long as those bumpers line up and the airflow over

the cars is the way it is, I don’t think you’re going to stop

it.

”The game has changed. That’s all I can say. You can’t take

knowledge and throw it away. Once you have it, you have it, you

maintain it, you apply it. No matter what changes from now, if

anything, to Sunday we’re still going to have that knowledge. We’ll

try to use it to our advantage.”

Cars will return to the track Wednesday, and if practice speeds

top 200 mph again, NASCAR could reduce the size of restrictor

plates. That would allow less air into the engine, reduce

horsepower and speed.

NASCAR officials could have change restrictor plates Sunday, but

since that’s the easiest way to slow cars down, they wanted to keep

that as a potential later tweak before Thursday’s qualifying races

for the Daytona 500.

”That’s always there,” Darby said. ”If drivers never pushed

each other, we’d be putting bigger plates on the cars. We may not

have to change the plate. That’s what we’ve got to watch on

Wednesday. That’s the simplest change we could make.”