Daytona test shows pack racing is back, but is that a good thing?
To NASCAR fans desperate for the way it used to be, the vision was as breathtaking as seeing water in the desert.
There, at Daytona International Speedway last weekend, cars ran clumped in a pack in testing. Twenty of them! Nose to tail! Gone were the two-car drafts that annoyed fans and led NASCAR chairman Brian France to say in November that officials "would prefer to eliminate tandem racing."
With France's mandate, NASCAR officials played the role of mad scientists during the three-day test. They enlarged the restrictor plate, then shrunk it. They downsized the front grille and adjusted the pressure relief valve setting. Series officials also trimmed the spoiler, softened the springs, banned driver-to-driver communication (for all races) and more. All to reduce the effectiveness of the two-car draft.
Jamie McMurray said all the changes made testing "wild.'' Defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne countered: "That makes it normal testing then if it's chaotic, right?''
For races fans it was a welcome break from the monotony of winter. Suddenly, there were images of cars together in a pack and hope that the Daytona 500 might look like this once again instead of the slot-car racing it has become.
Hope, though, might not be reality.
No matter when series officials issue the rules for next month's race -- John Darby, Cup series director, said he wanted to get the rule changes to teams "as quickly as we can'' -- teams will look for advantages. The more time teams have, the more likely at least one will find a way to run in a two-run tandem longer than others.
"The challenge is to figure out how to [fight] the gains Cup teams will make before they return to Daytona in a few weeks,'' Kasey Kahne said, aware of how his new employer, Hendrick Motorsports, is apt at finding advantages in rule changes.
What NASCAR must do is take what it learned at the test, determine the rules and give teams enough time to adjust. Yet, NASCAR must be ready to make more changes if teams find a way to continue the two-car draft at Daytona.
Competitors, though, remained convinced that the two-car draft would determine who wins the Daytona 500.
"You're going to have to win the race with it,'' Jeff Gordon said of tandem drafting. "I think if we get it figured out how to maintain those [engine] temps, then you will ... see it all day long.''
As NASCAR searches to reduce the two-can tandem, a bigger issue is if pack racing truly is the answer.
Even now drivers differ on which they prefer. For every driver who likes the two-car draft because they feel it gives them a greater chance of avoiding a crash started in a pack, there's a driver who likes pack racing because they feel more comfortable doing that than blindly pushing someone around the track at 200 mph.
"At the end of the day, NASCAR walks a fine line of ... making the cars hard enough to drive that they're not in a giant dangerous pack and that people aren't super aggressive with them,'' Carl Edwards said. "So they've got to make them hard enough to drive that we drive down the corner and we aren't quite sure what's going to happen with the car. They don't want to make it so hard that the race is -- one guy runs away from the field and it's not exciting for the fans, because let's face it, the fans come to Daytona to see an exciting, crazy race, a pack of cars or two cars teamed up, and that's what fans -- it seems like to me -- that's what fans come to see.''
And what if NASCAR actually keeps the field from doing two-car drafts for much of the race? Will fans who saw a race-record 74 lead changes in last year's Daytona 500 be satisfied if there aren't as many? Four years ago, Ryan Newman won the race with a last-lap pass -- the 42nd lead change of the race. Would that be acceptable to fans? Or what if part of the field is eliminated because a crash in the pack?
When teams ran in a pack during Saturday's test session, three cars were damaged in an incident. Juan Pablo Montoya made contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr., sending Earnhardt's car into Jeff Burton's car. That incident happened at the back of the pack. Had that happened at the front of the pack, one can only imagine how many cars could have been damaged.
Denny Hamlin admits thoughts of a crash crossed his mind when he ran in the pack for the first time Friday in testing.
"You started thinking, 'Wow, if we wreck, this could be big,'" he said. "That's the consequence that we know that could happen. We're all about making a better show for the fans, and I feel like they like to see pack racing. They don't like to see the cars strung out as much as it was with the tandem and I think speeding these race cars up is going to do that."
Determining what type of racing fans will see next month is critical for NASCAR as it seeks to build its momentum. Last year's dramatic title Chase, which finished with Tony Stewart beating Edwards by a tiebreaker, helped raise fan interest and TV ratings. Can that continue?
The Daytona 500 has proven critical in determining the sport's momentum, particularly the past two seasons.
The 2010 race twice was delayed by pothole problems, turning fans away before McMurray won the race. Even McMurray's win couldn't take away the bitter taste from the pothole issues. With the Winter Olympics going on at the same time, the delays made it easier for some to ignore NASCAR, starting a trend that lasted throughout the season.
Last year's race helped revive interest in the sport with 20-year-old Bayne scoring the surprising victory. His win provided a bridge to the younger fan base the sport covets, but also reached out to the older fans as they saw the Wood Brothers win the Daytona 500 for the first time since 1976. The sport rode that momentum through the rest of the season.
As the series looks to the upcoming season, series officials face key questions on how they will give fans the type of racing they want to see. Fans got a glimpse at the test. Will they get more of that next month?