Daytona practice sessions eventful
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Two-car breakaways with speeds pushing 204 mph, as well as a blackout on the back straightaway, ruled Friday's two practice sessions on the newly paved surface at Daytona International Speedway.
Things were anything but dull as NASCAR prepared for Saturday night's season-opening Budweiser Shootout.
The speeds had some drivers wondering whether NASCAR would shrink the size of the restrictor plate hole to slow cars as it did after speeds approached 200 mph in the December tire test.
NASCAR officials said they would continue to monitor speeds during Saturday's practice that will include all 49 cars entered in the Feb. 20 Daytona 500.
"I don't know what NASCAR is going to do," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led the first practice with a speed of 199.862 mph. "I bet if they put a smaller plate on it we'd still be able to do it with the two-car lockup. The plates, when you're talking about 64ths and 32nds [of an inch], I don't know if the plate can get us out of those speeds with a two-car lockup.
"I wish we were going about 220. That would be awesome. That would feel pretty good," he said.
The two-car lockup that has become prevalent at Talladega since it was repaved a few years ago has never been a factor at Daytona. But with the new surface most drivers expect it to be a major factor in the Shootout and 500.
Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson agreed.
"Each time we have a shot to work on it we're getting smarter," he said. "It all started at 'Dega. Each team has done a better job with the cars of making them do it better. Then we're learning as drivers what to do.
"Now it's all we're focused on because we know we can go faster doing it," he said.
The biggest concern with the two-car breakaway is overheating the pushing car. Earnhardt said it took three to five laps for his car to get hot.
"I'm not certain that us as drivers will be willing to put the motor through that," Earnhardt said. "We'll probably want to watch and wait."
Johnson said he has learned ways each time out to keep his engine cooler when pushing, and he definitely believes it will be a factor.
"If you have a clear road in front of you and get connected -- whooooosh, you're gone!" he said.
While the breakaway and high speeds dominated the two sessions, the most interesting moment came when the back straightaway lights went out early in the second with cars at or above 200 mph on the track.
There were no incidents. Many drivers weren't even aware there was an issue.
"Did the lights go out?" Earnhardt said as he signed autographs. "I didn't notice. I guess I was in the pits."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
2011 Daytona 500
The 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is on the horizon, with a new racing surface greeting competitors heading into a new season of hope. It all begins Feb. 20 at Daytona International Speedway.