Commentary

Two-car tango not for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Updated: July 1, 2011, 3:23 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. hates it. Mark Martin loves it.

Other drivers say it doesn't really matter how they feel about this quirky tandem racing.

"It's just the way it is," Jeff Gordon said. "If you want to be good and have a shot at winning, then you have to learn how to do it well."

This new form of restrictor-plate racing, a bizarre two-by-two show where lining up in pairs is the fastest way to get around the track, will continue Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Bayne
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne (21) and Bobby Labonte were temporary dancing partners at Daytona in February.

"I think this will be the way we race on restrictor-plate tracks for the foreseeable future," said Brad Keselowski. "It's an evolutionary period in our sport."

Fans seem to be divided about their feelings on it along with the drivers, who run the gamut from thinking it's cool to believing it stinks.

The fewer laps of pairing up the better for Earnhardt. When the rain-delayed practice session started Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt opted just to watch at first, standing atop the No. 88 Chevy hauler.

Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson eventually came on the track together and worked on their tandem, with Johnson pushing Earnhardt most of the practice session.

"That'd be fine if he pushed me all the way to the end of the race," Earnhardt said afterward.

It was Earnhardt who pushed Johnson to victory at Talladega in April, taking one for the team, so to speak. That didn't help Earnhardt have fond feelings about this style of plate racing.

He was asked at Sonoma last week what his favorite track was coming up on the schedule: "Whatever one comes after Daytona," he said.

Earnhardt elaborated on his feeling about the tandem racing before practice Thursday.

"I'd rather have control of my own destiny," he said. "Just be able to go out there and race and do my own work and worry about my own self."

Nice idea, but that's never been completely true in the restrictor-plate era. Winning always has required lining up with other cars in the draft; you just didn't do it in pairs.

Martin is one old pro who prefers pairing up to racing in a 30-car pack.

"I can honestly say that I like this style of racing way better," Martin said. "There is just so much more that goes into this. It's finding the right partner, finding which one is better at pushing or being pushed. There's got to be so much trust there.

"And then your spotters have to be working together. It's mentally tough. That's one of the reasons I like it so much. There is a huge challenge that goes into this style of racing that we don't typically see every weekend. I know it's a lot to get used to, but I love it."

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr and Jimmie Johnson
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. (88), an outspoken opponent of pairs racing, pushes Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson during practice Thursday.

So what is good and what is not so good about this form of plate racing? Here's the short list, starting with three good things:

Less chance of the big wreck -- The cars are spread out, running two-by-two. Wrecks still happen, but it's not likely to cause a huge chain reaction involving 15 to 20 cars, as often was the case in pack racing.

More passing up front -- The Daytona 500 in February set track records with 74 lead changes among 22 different drivers. However, some fans see those numbers as artificial since the tandems swap positions to keep the engines cool.

More strategy -- This pairs racing takes a lot of precise communication and coordination between drivers, spotters and crew chiefs, a rare and interesting situation where drivers are talking on the radio to drivers and spotters from other teams.

This includes making the position flip-flop with your partner at the right moment to try to lose as little time as possible. The cars slow down when they get side-by-side to swap spots.

Now for three bad things:

More difficult for the pusher to win at the end -- When cars are running in pairs, the guy in the back at the end of the race is at a disadvantage. That wasn't true in the old style of plate racing.

The No. 2 guy could get out of line and hope a few cars in the pack would follow him to push him to the front. There's less chance of that happening when the cars are two-by-two. Plus, there's a feeling of obligation if a driver is pushing a teammate.

More chance of engines overheating -- The engine of the push car heats up quickly because it isn't getting much air into the front grill. The pusher will slide his car slightly out to the right to try to get more air.

This comes with risks. Teams put a lubricant on the front and rear bumpers of the cars to help them slide, but it's easy to hook the front car if the pusher isn't careful.

And the pusher can't see a darn thing in front of him, so he's totally reliant on the lead driver to guide him to a safe spot on the track.

It just looks weird -- Seeing the cars run all race in pairs makes it look like some crazy form of doubles competition. Then again, racing 30 cars together in three lines all at the same speed doesn't really look normal, either.

Tandem racing versus pack racing. Both are unusual, both have inherent dangers, and both can produce some of the best finishes you could ever hope to see.

But pack racing is gone for now. It's a pair-up world in plate racing. What you see is what you get.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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