Drivers avoid pack, play it safe at Friday's Daytona 500 practice
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Carl Edwards sat in his Ford at the end of pit lane all by himself at Daytona International Raceway Friday just waiting to find a buddy to draft with.
Unfortunately for Edwards, there were no takers.
For the 43 drivers that made the starting lineup for Sunday's Daytona 500, Friday's practice session was a lonely affair as cars made laps around the massive 2.5-mile superspeedway by themselves rather than risk running in a pack. It wasn't until the end of the second practice session on Friday that cars started to experiment with two-car tandems to see how well those worked and how long the engines could take the air-restricting practice before overheating.
It's a strange new approach to preparing for NASCAR's biggest race. In the past, drivers would have turned laps in a pack, but on Friday it was more a matter of keeping it clean and staying out of trouble. That meant some rather lonely, uneventful laps around the track.
"You just don't want to tear up your car at this point in the week," said Edwards, the Daytona 500 pole sitter. "I got with Aric Almirola and we tandem-drafted for several laps. There is a balance. You have to try it to see what you've got. I was trying to find somebody to draft with but everybody has their different strategies. You don't know which one is the smartest one until you see how it turns out in the end in hindsight."
Only 23 cars took practice laps in the afternoon session with Toyota driver Kyle Busch logging the fastest lap at 199.885 mph. His tandem partner, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano, was second at 199.885 mph. The two JGR drivers worked together toward the end of the second practice.
"It's so unpredictable that you don't know what's going to happen," Busch said of Sunday's race. "If I knew what was coming I would certainly plan for it and try to figure out how to make sure that I was the one that made it to the start-finish line first. The thing that you do is you just have to be patient."
Brad Keselowski doesn't know what's coming Sunday either, but he isn't taking any chances in the interim.
"Everybody is protecting their cars," said Keselowski, who finished 13th in Thursday's first Duel. "It's late in the week so you just want to make sure you don't do anything stupid in these practices. My car does a good job of not tearing the splitter off when it goes through the grass but it didn't do a good job staying out of that first wreck on Thursday but that is more because of the driver than the car.
"I feel pretty good entering my third Daytona 500. I think in general we are good shape. There are about 30 guys that can win this race and, hopefully, I'm flying under the radar."
Kevin Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 champion, also didn't see much need to overextend his race car in Friday's practice session. He already knows what his strategy will be in the Daytona 500.
"Unless there is a rule change of some sort, I don't believe we plan on practicing," Harvick said Friday. "I think the qualifying race and the Shootout [were] the biggest tools that we have as to how the racing is going to go. The mistakes that I made on the racetrack; you try to think through all of those scenarios [heading to] the 500. You won't see those in practice, those scenarios that you can get in the race."
Edwards told SI.com that as soon as a car tucks in behind another car for a two-car tandem the engine temperature soars. Some drivers complained the floor boards got so hot in Thursday's 150-mile races that they suffered a case of "Hot Foot."
"As long as you are not touching the car in front of you, your engine temperature should be OK because it gets a little air into the engine," Edwards said. "But if you touch another car it starts to overheat."
Edwards started on the pole of Thursday's first Daytona Duel to learn just how far back in the pack he could go before he could race his way back toward the front. He finished fifth in the race won by defending Cup champion Stewart.
"I think those [150-mile races] went really well so I wouldn't change much," Edwards said of Thursday's races. "At the end of the Daytona 500 it will be extremely crazy. I'm really confident. We're good. We're excited. You need to build a little bubble around your car, make sure you don't wreck, but I don't think you will see guys hanging back there the same way because if you lose that front draft you are in trouble."
Robby Gordon was hoping to strike a deal with fellow Dodge team Penske Racing for an engine after suffering overheating issues in Thursday's Duel. Team Penske president Tim Cindric told SI.com that isn't going to happen.
"Robby came to us and he needed some help and we were willing to do it but with EFI [Electronic Fuel Injection] it's a bit more complicated than dropping a motor in," Cindric said. "We figured out a way to make it happen but it turns out he felt like the problem he was having they found the answer to it so he is going to run what he has at this time."
Gordon said his ride in the Daytona 500 was for sale if Michael Waltrip wanted to buy it after the two-time Daytona 500 winner crashed by himself in Thursday's first Duel and didn't make it into the field for his 26th Daytona 500. MWR announced Thursday night it was not interested in Waltrip buying his way into the Daytona 500.
As for the attitude in the garage area regarding Friday's practice, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Ryan Newman summed it up best.
"We're good," he said. "We have more to lose than to learn today."