Ten storylines to watch from Daytona
What will be the buzz at this week’s Sprint Cup Series test at Daytona International Speedway?
Change — and not just with the personnel moves that have made headlines in the offseason. NASCAR has made wholesale changes to the cars with electronic fuel injection and modifications to discourage teams from 500 miles of tandem drafting at Daytona.
The teams that adapt the fastest will have an advantage during Speedweeks 2012 and beyond.
Here are 10 storylines to watch from Daytona:
1. Get your motor running
No wonder all four manufacturers are in favor of NASCAR adopting electronic fuel injection in the Sprint Cup Series. It’s a discernible step closer to bridging the gap between the vehicles on the racetrack and those available in the showroom.
However, EFI is a radical departure from the carbureted engines that have been a part of NASCAR racing since its inception in the late 1940s. Teams will have to build new relationships with McLaren, which makes the electronic control units, and Freescale, which provides the software that runs the system. For some engine builders, the supply of necessary parts and pieces has not kept up with demand. This could prove problematic for customers and NASCAR to implement full-field use of EFI in time for the Daytona 500, as targeted.
EFI will also change the job description of the engine tuner, requiring more computer literacy and less of a seat-of-the-pants approach.
Considering that EFI is software-based, NASCAR and its race teams will have access to data heretofore unavailable. Though real-time data acquisition still won’t be allowed under competition rules, teams can tap into telemetry after the fact simply by plugging in a laptop that can read the information. What's unclear is how many data channels NASCAR will allow teams to access.
2. The two-car tango
Will NASCAR’s latest modifications finally break up tandem drafting, which became all the rage at Daytona and Talladega in 2011? Once a novelty, the love-bug racing has fallen out of favor with those who watch the sport and those who govern it. NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France has publicly stated his desire to break up the two-car drafts, and so has the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. While previous attempts by the sanctioning body to change the speedway competition package have failed, cars for Daytona will feature larger restrictor plates (29/32nds), shorter spoilers, softer springs, and smaller radiators and overflow tanks with the radiator inlet positioned closer to the front center bumper in an effort to make the cars less stable in the draft and more susceptible to overheating under sustained pushing.
Teams, however, will always find the fastest practicable way around the racetrack, and testing this week will begin to show whether the NASCAR rules changes have gone far enough to be effective. Or will the drawing board come out again.
3. Musical chairs
How will the new partnerships fare? Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and Aric Almirola will enjoy coming-out parties with their new teams. A quick review of the drivers and new teams would appear promising for most and necessary for others.
4. I'm shrinking
Sure, everyone who is anyone will show up to run in the Daytona 500 — which boasts the highest purse and most applicants of the season. But how many teams will remain on tour and take that first trip out west to Phoenix when the paydays return to normal? When assessing the regular Sprint Cup suspects, the field has already shrunk by four teams. While Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler will pilot fourth cars in the Daytona 500 for Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing, respectively, it’s unlikely either team will run anything but a limited schedule. Kevin Buckler recently announced that TRG can no longer afford to run its Cup effort, and Red Bull Racing has elected to concentrate on its uber-successful Formula One operation.
5. Your name here
Speaking of Red Bull Racing, has there ever been a more screwed-up sale in NASCAR? Certainly, there were plenty of potential buyers kicking the tires. After all, in addition to the equipment and owner points, the Mooresville, NC, location would seem perfect. But somewhere along the line, the deal was lost — perhaps in translation — with the home office in Austria. My prediction is that the assets will be divided among a variety of interests, with Michael Waltrip Racing securing at least one set of points for its third team.
6. Calling the shots
Darian Grubb, Drew Blickensderfer, Brian Pattie, Chris Heroy and Steve Addington have new opportunities — and new challenges — in 2012 as they move to high-profile organizations. Under their own roof, Shane Wilson, Jason Ratcliff and Todd Gordon were all reassigned and upgraded along the way. At the management level, keep an eye on Greg Zipadelli at Stewart-Haas Racing and Scott Miller at Michael Waltrip Racing.
7. New girl in town
If there wasn’t enough drama at the beach in February, Danica Patrick makes her Sprint Cup debut at Daytona. With her IndyCar career in the rearview mirror, Patrick can concentrate fully on stock cars. And don’t worry about her making the show. Sources say Patrick's points will come from Tommy Baldwin Racing, as she will share driving duties with David Reutimann in the No. 10, which is locked into a spot in the race.
When the music stops, will David Ragan have a ride? Ragan, who won at Daytona last summer but was cut from Roush Fenway Racing because of sponsorship issues, has yet to land a job for 2012. Yes, he has been close. The affable 26-year-old has been mentioned for several gigs, but nothing has come to fruition. Ragan’s best bet? Front Row Motorsports. A source with the organization says, “David’s definitely on our radar screen.”
9. Hearing voices
Who’s behind that new voice on your favorite driver’s radio channel? For Jeff Gordon fans, that would be Eddie D’Hondt. Tony Hirschman, formerly AJ Allmendinger’s spotter, replaces D’Hondt for the No. 18 team and driver Kyle Busch. Alllmendinger will inherit Kurt Busch’s spotter Chris Osborne, while Steve Barkdoll will hear Busch’s dulcet tones at Phoenix Racing.
Last, but certainly not least, this will be the year that Dale Earnhardt Jr. revisits Victory Lane. Yes, it has been 129 races and counting, but if NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver can bring home the Harley J. Earl trophy, the sport can maintain the high achieved at Homestead-Miami Speedway in last season's scintillating finale with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards battling to the finish.