Drivers mix it up in Shootout rehearsal
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Cars were spinning out of control as Denny Hamlin got into the back of Mark Martin in Thursday's first session of Budweiser Shootout practice. Emergency crews were scrambling to carry drivers to the infield medical center for evaluation.
Crew chiefs were ordering backup cars from North Carolina with the urgency of fast food at a drive-through window.
So this was what NASCAR meant when vice president of competition Robin Pemberton recently said "Have at it, boys" in regards to bump-drafting and aggressive driving.
Although there will be the usual amount of wrecks in Saturday's Shootout -- and every other event through the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14 -- don't expect a wreckfest like we saw the first two times Sprint Cup drivers got on the track at Daytona International Speedway.
Some of it was drivers getting used to a faster closing speed with the larger restrictor plate, larger fins on the left rear window and other changes to -- cross your fingers -- make the cars handle better.
Some of it was the normal aggressiveness preparing for a race in which no points are at stake.
Some of it was simple rustiness.
"It's normal," Cup series director John Darby said as he enjoyed a relaxing lunch before Friday's first practice for Daytona 500 qualifying. "Go back and look at the last five years of Budweiser Shootout practice.
Maybe. But two incidents before you could get the tires warm had drivers scratching their heads and six teams -- Hamlin, Martin, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch -- going to backups.
Biffle predicted there would be more of the same as the weekend unfolded, sarcastically saying, "Yeah, it's aggressive bump-drafting. That's what we're looking for -- aggressive bump-drafting."
He said this even though Hamlin and Martin agreed the first incident was triggered by a simple miscalculation with two drivers trying to be careful.
And Biffle wasn't alone.
"I swear," two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip said. "I was thinking, 'OK, these are the best drivers in the world. Surely they are just a little bit rusty.' I think a lot of it was guys that have been cooped up too long."
That might have had something to do with it. The second practice was much calmer as drivers became acclimated to the cars.
"It would be easy to say, 'Oh, look at what the new rules have done. It's going to be terrible,'" said Carl Edwards, who won the pole drawing for the Shootout. "None of us have been in a car very much. We jump in there, and it's a little slippery.
"I'm telling you, if we can make it through the first 10 laps of a run all weekend on tires, it's going to string out and be a really good race."
It could be a much different race than we've seen in the past. Edwards predicts we'll have small packs instead of one large one. In the long run, that will make for a more entertaining product.
"I'm telling you, in sunshine the Daytona 500 is going to be a fun race," he said. "There's going to be cars slipping and sliding, running all different grooves. It's going to be cool."
Until then, there are a lot of uncertainties. Closing speed is one. Hamlin said the "suck-up" to the rear bumper of the car ahead wasn't as good as before. Edwards, noting Hamlin didn't have a problem sucking up to Martin to cause the first wreck, said it was better.
Said Darby with a laugh, "Welcome to my world."
I was thinking, 'OK, these are the best drivers in the world. Surely they are just a little bit rusty.' I think a lot of it was guys that have been cooped up too long.” -- Michael Waltrip
Several crew chiefs hint that the governing body might have to return to a smaller plate, suggesting the speed in general was too fast -- 193 mph or better when not in a pack.
Darby doesn't expect that, reminding us that the larger plate was implemented to keep speed where it was after offseason changes to the car created more drag. He also doesn't expect chaos now that the bump-drafting handcuffs have been unlocked.
Neither does Edwards.
"The cars are moving around pretty good and everybody is aggressive, but we're still in Shootout practice," he said. "Once everybody gets a little calm and more is on the line, we'll be all right."
Still, it'll be interesting to see how far the bump-drafting is pushed. Will it turn into slam-drafting, as Jeff Gordon and others dubbed it in 2006? Will it get so rough that Stewart will predict "We're going to kill somebody," as he did four years ago?
Nobody knows for sure, which NASCAR has to like as it seeks to rebuild interest in the sport. Uncertainty sometimes builds as much drama -- and interest -- as good racing.
There's also uncertainty for the drivers. Just how far will they be allowed to push things before NASCAR will say they have had at it enough and penalize somebody?
"I don't know," Martin said. "When it's time to go, it's time to go. It's simple. If you wreck somebody on purpose in the middle of the straightaway, then you will still get parked because that is putting somebody in danger. But if you get in a corner and you tangle and you hit each other, I think they will be OK with that."
That's just a guess. NASCAR hasn't said how far it will let things get out of control before stepping in.
And what exactly is the difference between bump-drafting and slam-drafting? Does the driver in front have to get whiplash to constitute a slam?
"I don't know that there really is a difference," Stewart said. "The part to where there's a problem is when the guy that's pushing the guy in front pushes him to where the guy in front becomes out of control or gets put in a situation he doesn't want to be in.
"That's the part where the bump-drafting gets out of control."
That's where NASCAR hopes the drivers self-police so officials don't have to step in.
"I'm not confident that everybody is going to use their head in that," Stewart said. "I think there's gonna be some self-policing between the drivers that are going to say, 'Hey, that's too much.'
"So at least I hope that's what happens because you don't want to have to put that in NASCAR's hands. You don't want to have to put them in that position to have to make that call."
More intrigue. More drama.
Just what NASCAR wants and needs as it begins 2010.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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