Tom Bowles
Friday January 21st, 2011

The words "racing" and "chess" typically don't go together that well. One competition takes you 10 minutes to travel over 20 miles, while in chess you might not have made a move in the same length of time. But as testing continues down at NASCAR's 2.5-mile superspeedway mecca, one main theme remains clear: The 53rd Daytona 500 will come down to a battle of wits.

"It's not just about seeing how fast your car is now," explained Tony Stewart. "It's trying to figure out the strategies and techniques we have to use as drivers, playing the chess game to figure out where you've got to be at the right time."

More than ever, mental fortitude will define the sport's Super Bowl after a repave -- its first since 1978 -- left the track smooth as silk. Just like a smaller Goodyear tire test last month, rubber was showing minimal wear Thursday when 34 cars took to the track. That means February's 500-mile marathon will be run almost entirely as part of a snarling, three-wide, 43-car pack in which restrictor plates and perfect handling should lead to little or no separation between the field. The only way of stopping it is the drivers themselves, deciding whether to save their equipment until the final moments of a race that typically runs for well over three hours.

At times, we've seen it during NASCAR's restrictor plate era for here and the track's stepsister, Talladega, where engine changes keep cars from barreling into the turn at 230 mph, but leave much of the racing beyond drivers' control. Needing to use the tricky air of the draft to go from last to first, many of the sport's superstars have figured out how to go from 43rd to 1st in just a handful of laps, sometimes leading to single-file, boring parades for large stretches while they wait for the "time to go" to present itself, typically within the last 20 laps or so.

Here's the problem: Unlike a typical regular season stroll, this race is the most important on NASCAR's schedule. When the biggest trophy (and payout, too) sits right in front of you, who's going to run 43rd for the first 170 laps, slow down and risk losing the draft?

"If everybody decides that they're going to race and try to stay up front, it's going to be a big huge pack, and everybody is going to be in it all day long, and it's never going to -- it's just never going to separate," explained Martin Truex, Jr. "So it'll be constant three-wide, four-wide. There will be no chance to catch your breath and relax at all."

"For the Daytona 500, at least in my mind, and I think most drivers look at it the same way; you're willing to make a lot of risky moves and willing to wreck your car," added Denny Hamlin. "It's definitely going to be very, very tight-packed, and that's what's going to make it so intense for the drivers and spotters."

With the cars that equal, it's the little things that will turn into the big advantages on race day. A new, expanded pit road allows for greater flexibility for slowing down and speeding up on green-flag pit stops, so that's important for the drivers to navigate as well as figuring out little tricks hidden within the track to gain extra speed.

"Turn 2," was Stewart's answer as to where any type of slight skill advantage might pop up. "How the transition falls off a little harder ... if guys were pushing through that area [with bumpdrafting in the draft], it had a tendency to push the lead car out further on exit than they wanted to be and toward the wall. If that lead car goes in the wall, most likely the guy that's pushing him is going to follow him right in it."

But how much will knowing those tricks of the trade work to Stewart's advantage, as he competes with a bunch of equal cars and a back-and-forth, plate-controlled draft Truex compared to gambling? It's why the roster of teams at the test didn't include full-timers like Front Row Motorsports, Bobby Labonte's JTG/Daugherty Racing or several others looking to save money. Why test on a surface that's not only similar to Talladega, but with a chassis and engine package that never leaves you tapping on the brakes unless there's a wreck? With accelerator pedal-only, regulated speed, the crew chief becomes as helpful as the guy who scans your ticket at the race track.

"It's probably going to be a little bit easier for [them]," said Denny Hamlin of the head wrenches. "They don't have to deal with the balance of handling versus speed. I think they're going to just put the most optimal speed in the race car that they can possibly get. So really, it's very laid back from my standpoint. There's not a whole lot -- you can turn this car around backwards and I'm going to say it drove the same as it did the last run. I don't know what to tell you."

"I'm looking forward to it to see how the draft works."

But anticipation at this test appears trumped by worries over torn-up equipment and seeing how single-car engine packages stack up. There was surprisingly little drafting in a big, 30-car pack Thursday as many worried about the complications of one bad move, one multi-car wreck within a three-wide showcase that could rack up $1 million in damages for just a handful of spectators and a fraction of the normal audience watching on SPEED. Unlike the Indy 500, where you spend weeks trying to perfect how you get through those turns, NASCAR's biggest event has now been reduced to a 10-minute microwaveable meal for these teams: Heat it up, bring it to full speed and you know exactly what you got, putting a battle of wits against the one adversary it can't control -- bad luck.

"There's very few things that we really can work on as far as drivability is concerned," said Hamlin. "I think everyone's car is going to drive good. But when it comes to speed weeks it's going to be very interesting because I think it's going to be survival."

The word unspoken there was NASCAR's "Big One," which has haunted restrictor-plate races and wiped out 12, 15, 20 cars at a time over the years. With the new rules, such a problem appears inevitable, although everyone is crossing their fingers and hoping against hope that skill, luck and mental toughness is what really prevails.

"It's being in the right place at the right time, trying to make sure that you're positioning yourself to be where you want to be on those last couple laps," said Stewart.

If checkmate doesn't come with flipping on your lid 50 laps earlier, of course.

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