Drivers still concerned, but bumping down in Duels
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For all the fuss kicked up over the practice of "bump drafting" at Daytona International Speedway, Thursday afternoon's Duel 150 qualifying races were relatively calm and far from the dangerous conditions NASCAR's Nextel Cup champion predicted could take a driver's life in Sunday's Daytona 500.
Bump drafting is where a trailing car will slam into the back of a car ahead of it in an effort to give the lead car a shove and in hopes that the draft created between their two cars pulls the trailing car with it. After drivers reported an increase in the amount of bump drafting after the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race last week, defending champion Tony Stewart sounded an alarm with NASCAR when he said the practice could result in the first death in NASCAR's main series since Dale Earnhardt died here five years ago.
Before Thursday's Duel 150 qualifying races, NASCAR President Mike Helton issued a stern warning to all drivers about the practice, and he announced no-bump zones at the track's four turns and backstretch trioval where drivers would be penalized if they engaged in bump drafting. Helton also took a moment to urge the younger racers to exercise caution, insinuating that it was they who were responsible for the increased danger.
After the 150s, however, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he doesn't believe that either the rules or all the fuss were necessary. In his mind, what drivers do in an exhibition car is completely different from what they'll do in a competition car, where more is on the line. On Thursday, drivers took care because the cars they drove are the cars they would drive in the Daytona 500. And on Sunday, Junior predicted, drivers would take care of their cars because the championship points system would be in effect.
"It goes back to what type of race the Shootout is [and] what type of race you got to expect when you're running an [exhibition] sprint for 200-grand or whatever it pays," Junior said. "[There's a] big difference there between the mentality and attitudes out on the racetrack."
Driver Greg Biffle agrees, but only with respect to the race's first 450 miles. Over the last 50, he said he expects no-holds barred.
"It's a 500-mile race and things are going to be pretty calm until 20 [laps] to go and then everybody's going to be racing for that one-and-a-half million dollars."
Still, many drivers feel encumbered by NASCAR's no-bump zones, insisting that it's not geographic location which dictates when you should or should not bump, but rather the racing conditions at the time.
"It's the way to go fast here," Kasey Kahne said. "You've got to bump, but you've got to bump in the right areas and I think some people might have been stepping over the line and bumping where it's going to cause a big accident and cause a lot of cars to get wrecked. Hopefully, it doesn't get there. You'll be bumping, but hopefully not in the wrong spots."
And hopefully not in the wrong ways, either.
"It comes down to knowing what you're doing out there," Junior said. "There's guys where, you know, not naming any names obviously, but there's guys out there you don't want to get bump drafts from and there's guys you're glad to see in your mirror and know they know how to bump draft.
"I like getting bump drafts when it's done for the purpose of improving both of our positions. A lot of guys rear back and just slam you. I think the veterans need to stand up a little bit and talk to some of the rookies coming into the sport."
Junior isn't the only driver placing blame on the young racers.
"I can honestly sit here and say that some of the young guys that have come in just saw it on TV last year or two years ago and thought it looked cool, so they just slam you wherever they want to, and it makes it tough. Three-time Daytona winner Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon just don't come and slam you in the middle of the corner taking a chance on taking their car out and yours, so I think it's a big difference between the veteran that has won this race many times and the guys that haven't."
Sophomore racer Kyle Busch, who has been charged with causing two wrecks at Daytona Speedweeks, said he's got a bum rap. But he doesn't deny that young drivers can't handle bump drafting as well as the veterans. But he said it wasn't a matter of young bucks being hard-chargers. He says it's just that they're inexperienced.
"You learn by trial and error," Busch said. "You have to go out there and learn how to do it."
But Busch said he's got no problem with learning it under NASCAR's no-bump zone rules. And while some vets are irritated by the rule, others see it as another safety initiative that's just a good idea.
"Even if you're not the one causing problems, it's good to know that the ones who are aren't going to get you in the middle of a turn," Jeremy Mayfield said.
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.