Soft bumpers change drafting equation at Talladega

Updated: April 30, 2006, 12:42 AM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

To bump draft, or not to bump draft? That's the question they'll be asking this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, though anyone even paraphrasing Shakespeare will find more than a few odd glances coming their way at the racetrack.

The question, though, is certainly a big one heading into the Aaron's 499. Bump drafting became an issue during Daytona's Speedweeks and NASCAR officials hope they've done something about it.

The front bumpers cars will be utilizing this weekend are now the same as those used most weekends. Gone are extra steel supports that allowed a driver to smash into the rear end of the car directly in front of him, with the momentum the collision induced pushing both cars through the field.

Done properly, bump drafting is effective. But when a driver wouldn't be perfectly lined up with the driver in front of him, the contact could turn the lead car, thus sparking the large-scale crashes that have become commonplace at both Daytona and Talladega, where restrictor plates limit the horsepower cars make.

NASCAR's hope is that drivers will now fear smashing their front ends in and blocking the flow of air to the radiator if they bump draft too hard. Still, at least some drivers think they'll be able to practice the tactic, if only in moderation.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr. thinks that might just be a good thing.

"Sometimes you would get guys that would get a run on you and they would not lift; they would just hold [the gas pedal down]," Earnhardt Jr. said. "They would just run right into you with everything they had coming. And that would sort of be a big startle to the guy that's getting the bump draft, and it really was not effective. It just sort of put both cars out of shape and it … might not have sent the guy that far, anyways.

"The real effective way to bump draft is to, once you get a run, right before you get to the guy, you sort of come off the gas and you get the bumpers [together] and then you put the throttle back down, once you're in the slipstream of the draft you're able to actually push the guy along all the way down the straightaway.

"You just have to let go of him before either one of you start to arc the car into the corner. You'll still be able to bump each other in the corners, you'll still be able to bump in the straightaways and you'll see guys that will do it too hard and mess their cars up. You'll see people get penalized for bumping in the corner maybe, I don't know. I don't think it's really going to change a whole lot as far as how we race Daytona or how we've raced in the past."

In short, Earnhardt Jr. said he thinks people will still give bump drafting a shot, just maybe in ways that are truly effective.

"If you do it right, the person that's on the receiving end is appreciative of the help," Junior said. "People just don't like being knocked the fire out of all the time to where we're knocking the bumpers off. Because at the end of the race when the bumper is all the way mashed into the fuel cell, some guys won't push you because it just basically lift[s] the car up and spin[s] you out, because all you're doing is getting into the bumper cover and there's nothing there. At least we'll have the bumpers on the back of the cars near the end of the race where you can still get some help when you need it."

Jeff Gordon hopes things are a lot different as he tries to win the spring race at Talladega for the third straight year. Among the drivers who were successful at Daytona and Talladega before bump drafting became so prevalent, he wouldn't mind if that style of restrictor-plate racing became the norm.

Then again, having won there the last two years, Gordon's shown he can adapt to whatever style it takes.

"I think there is still going to be some bump drafting -- especially late in the race. But I think it will make guys have to think a little bit more about how they pass," Gordon said. "That goes back to the type of drafting I learned early on. We used the air to push the cars around instead of the bumpers. I like that type of drafting, and I'm curious to see how we'll manage it."

But if Jeff Burton's right, Gordon may find himself disappointed by the time the race ends. He believes the front bumpers are still strong enough that people will bump draft more than some expect.

"When we go to Talladega, it's almost a vacation for the drivers until Sunday," Burton said. "You go out and practice, but there's not a lot you can do once you get to the track. Once Sunday comes though, business picks up and it's a little bit of a crapshoot to miss the big wreck. There's going to be a big wreck, you just have to hope you miss it."

One of the reasons Burton expects a wreck is because he thinks some drivers insist on bump drafting at the wrong part of the track. At Daytona, NASCAR said it would police "aggressive driving" more than it had in the past, and that was intended to keep drivers from bump drafting in the corners, or running into the side of an opponent to break their momentum.

"NASCAR has unfortunately been put in a box by the drivers to have to police the race more than ever before and I don't like it. I think it puts NASCAR in a bad spot and I don't want them to make a call on me when they don't know everything that happened," Burton said. "Unfortunately, that is where we are. They are going to have to start doing more than putting a guy to the tail end of the longest line because that's not a penalty at Talladega. They're going to have to put him down two laps or something to ever get the point across. It's in the drivers' hands. Drivers need to decide that we can do it the right way and it's no problem or we can do it the wrong way and open up Pandora's box."

Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Tony Stewart, hopes drivers take everything into consideration while on the track. If so, he thinks the "soft bumpers" will make a difference.

"I think it's definitely a step in the right direction to make the bump drafting minimal," Zipadelli said. "What's going to happen is these cars, these noses are so sensitive, the air inlet and that radius, if you damage that, your car's going to run hot. The way the noses are mounted on these cars, they're so high, the cooling; it's a really hard thing to get mastered anyways. If you hurt that radius, you're going to just make yourself a real long day.

"I think everybody's going to have to be aware of that, and hopefully it will help the situation."

In short, the question remains: To bump draft, or not to bump draft?

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.