Commentary

Last-minute changes part of the game

Originally Published: February 7, 2011
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- So everybody's in a tither because the Daytona 500 is only a week away and the situation seems out of control and the action is helter-skelter and the rules are up in the air and NASCAR won't decide them until days before the race, if then.

So?

Where do you think you are? The NFL?

Someplace where the rules are stable all through the week of the Super Bowl?

This is NASCAR, people. The only constant is change, even through the buildup to the showcase race of the year. This wouldn't be Speedweeks if everything weren't in flux, and forecasts of disaster weren't rampant.

Oh, I do recall one February when NASCAR stood pat with its rules package. That was the now-notorious "wicker bill package" with metal strips across the tops of the cars so that they knocked huge holes in the air and created a scrambled, kaleidoscopic show.

[+] EnlargeDaytona
AP Photo/David GrahamDrafting -- and the controlling of it -- has always caused problems at Daytona, and 2011 is proving no different.

Nobody paid enough attention to the one man who was howling loudest that the cars were even more squirrelly than usual. Dale Earnhardt was always complaining about restrictor-plate racing anyway. The ol' boy was crying wolf again. Right?

That was 2001. We all know what came of that. Late in the race, Earnhardt told his crew on the radio that the package was going to get somebody killed before it was over with.

When it was over with, it was he.

The wicker bill package was changed after the race. Looking back, wouldn't you rather the big hoopla happened beforehand? The week before? Even the day before?

Sprint Cup director John Darby was quick to remind me that there were no changes at last year's Speedweeks.

Yeah, well, next thing you knew, a pothole developed during the 500 itself, causing upwards of two hours' worth of red-flag delays while the hole was patched.  (Thus the repaving job that led to this year's hoopla.)

The point is, beware any buildup to the Daytona 500 when things aren't helter-skelter, when the rules aren't in flux, when NASCAR is undecided until days before the 500.

Those are the dangerous times.

This? This is just the usual pre-Daytona 500 hoot -- though, granted, with a little more pizzazz, all sprung from the new pavement on the track.

We've seen preliminary race speeds of 206 mph-plus in the Bud Shootout. That's a juicier-than-usual reason NASCAR, the manufacturers and the teams are scrambling to slow the cars down lest they take flight -- into the grandstands, in the most disastrous scenario.

The technique that brings the higher speed is what looks like stretch-limo racing until the cameras zoom in and you see that it's actually two cars running in tandem, jammed together, one pushing the other all the way around the track because the surface has so much grip they don't have to back off each other in the corners.

The "two-car breakaways" -- also called love-bug racing, or terms more vulgar -- have sent the speeds higher than they've been here since February 1987, the last unrestricted race here.

Why is that? Dodge NASCAR engineer Howard Comstock explained the differences.

"Remember, we used to push down the straightaways and get off the [front] guy in the corner, and then you're turning, and that's where you lose your speed anyway, and people would lose all that momentum and then you'd come off the corner and get ready and then get hooked back up, and all of that takes time, and then you'd get a shove down the straightaway so that it was speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down.

"Now they don't slow down … Now the new track's got plenty of grip, no bumps, so they can stay committed in the corners and you don't lose anything there," Comstock continued.

Clunky, inefficient, dangerous bump-drafting has become smooth, constant, fast push-drafting.

The problem is, the second car in the tandem tends to overheat pretty quickly, so the pairs have to switch to cool the second radiator.

And that's why NASCAR first will try to slow the cars with cooling-system measures.

And that in turn is why NASCAR won't make a final decision on restrictor plates until, oh, Wednesday evening at the earliest, three days before the 500.

And so the matter appears in flux.

Thus the grousing that NASCAR isn't sure what to do, too close to the biggest race.

But because Daytona opens the season, "you don't always know what you're dealing with until you get here," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "And this obviously is a big deal because of the pavement, with all the grip that's there, and the track being smooth. You can't anticipate everything."

[+] EnlargePemberton
AP Photo/Terry RennaWhy change the cars so close to the Daytona 500? As Robin Pemberton, vice president of competition for NASCAR, points out, you don't really know what you've got until you get here.

What NASCAR did tell teams Sunday evening was to take their cars back to North Carolina and alter the grilles to include maximum 2½-by-20-inch openings, and to prepare radiators for installation of "pressure relief valves."

Those valves overcome the high-pressure radiator systems that teams have developed.  If a radiator overheats, then rather than the water being contained by the high-pressure system, the valve pops open and water spews out.

The package is intended to shorten the duration of the two-car drafting to "five or 10 laps," Darby said, and therefore break up the momentum that allows speeds to creep past 200.

"Hopefully as we shorten the duration of it, we may not see 206," Darby said, "because the momentum lap after lap will eventually go away."

The enormous differential of 20 mph between Shootout drafting speeds and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pole speed, only 186.809, is to Darby prima facie evidence that smaller restrictor plates aren't the key to solving this.

With cars running solo in qualifying, "we've got 186 mph on the pole," Darby said. "So is it the race car and the package itself? No.

"With what we've seen in the past as normal drafting, we're probably still way in the comfort zone," Darby continued. "But it's the product of the two-car push for multiple laps that gains momentum and creeps that speed up."

If the restrictions on cooling don't slow the cars enough, will NASCAR then have to go to the restrictor plates?

"We'll have a whole lot better understanding of that after we watch some practice on Wednesday," Darby said.

So things remain up in the air through the buildup to NASCAR's biggest race.

So?

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.