DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- What if they gave a duel and nobody fought? That seemed to be the case during much of Thursday's Daytona Duels qualifying races, which quickly turned into a 190-mph conga line around the 2½-mile Daytona International Speedway. Actually, that's not entirely true. At least there is some movement in a conga line. For the most part, these races were little more than a high-speed game of follow the leader. Blink and you missed absolutely nothing.
There were a total of four lead changes in the first 60-lap qualifying race and eight in the second, for a grand total of 12 lead changes among seven drivers. And even that stat is somewhat exaggerated, since one of the lead changes took place when race No. 1 polesitter Danica Patrick was passed on the very first lap, and Marcos Ambose led for a single lap during green-flag pit stops in race No. 2. So in reality, there were only 10 true lead changes among five drivers over a total of 120 laps, which is the equivalent of 60 percent of the Daytona 500.
In addition, both races ended with a whimper. Kevin Harvick led for the final 18 laps of the first race, and runner-up Greg Biffle never made a move to pass him at the end. It was a case of deja-snooze in the second race, as winner Kyle Busch led 18 of the final 19 laps and was never threatened down the stretch by second-place finisher Kasey Kahne. There was no attempt at a last-lap slingshot maneuver for the victory, the type of move that has become a trademark of restrictor-plate racing over the years.
All of which is a shame, because the Duels traditionally have been among the most exciting races of the year, with plenty of passing and three-wide racing. Busch posted an average speed of nearly 194 mph in his caution-free victory, making it the second-fastest race in the history of the Duels, but faster definitely was not better. If speed was all that was needed to produce excitement, then drag racing would be the most popular form of motorsports.
So why did the Duels become such a dud? The primary reason is that the drivers have yet to gain a comfortable feel of the new car design, dubbed the Gen-6, which has been roundly hailed as the anecdote for recent seasons of NASCAR boredom. There were several multi-car accidents during practice sessions in the week leading up to the Duels, prompting the drivers to take a cautious approach during the first actual racing of the season as they continue to learn what the new car can and cannot do in traffic.
"There's something weird going on with the aero stuff of the car," Busch said. "Sometimes you can be fighting a little bit of a snug issue or a tight issue through the corner, then all of the sudden the back jumps out and the whole car is out of the racetrack. Once you break traction in either tire, it seems like it's really hard to get that back. The car takes off on you.
"We saw that with (Ryan) Newman and Carl (Edwards) in practice. I think those are some of the things that you see with this car so far, is just the insecurity, the stability issues sometimes in traffic. That might be why we all ran single file, because we're scared to run side-by-side."
Busch has never been one to enjoy simply turning laps and biding his time running single file until the end of a race. And sure enough, about midway through his race, he pulled out of line while running in third place and attempted to make a move on the leaders. But nobody else pulled out with him, and he steadily drifted back to seventh place before dutifully falling back in line.
"I figured what the heck, I might as well give it a try and see what happens. I learned it didn't work," Busch said. "I was ready to put on a show, but I didn't have enough people around me to make it happen."
Busch wound up grabbing the lead by taking gas but not changing tires during the lone pit stop of the race, enabling him to return to the track ahead of the drivers who changed two tires. It was a smart strategy, but pit-stop passes for the lead do not excite the masses.
"There wasn't enough lane-by-lane racing." Busch said. "I hate to say it, but it's just a matter of whoever gets out front. These cars so far have shown it's a little bit harder to pass the leader."
The last time NASCAR made a change to the design of the cars was in 2007 with the so-called Car of Tomorrow. Busch won the first race with the COT, at Bristol Motor Speedway, and then proceeded to proclaim, "I can't stand to drive them. They suck." Now that he is six years older and somewhat wiser, Busch had a more analytical response when asked Thursday why it seems to be so difficult to pass in the Gen-6 car.
"Basically it's the air off the windshield that's dumping on the rear spoiler," Busch explained. "The cars in the side draft get hurt so much more than what they used to. I think it's because of the windshield angles. The windshield is flatter, where the old car had a bow to it and was rounder.
"So the air was able to round the car before it dumped on your neighbor's car. This car, it just shoots it right onto your neighbor's car. If you want to get rid of that, take the rear spoiler off. But then I think all of us drivers would be crying to NASCAR to give us the spoiler back (because the cars would be too loose and difficult to handle)."
It is still too early to say what all of this means for Sunday's Daytona 500 and the rest of the season. There were fewer than two dozen cars in each of the Duels. Once the full 43-car field is on the track, then it is possible that passing will return because there will be more opportunities for drivers to team up in larger packs, thus creating more of an aerodynamic push. And tweaks will be made throughout the season that could improve the on-track racing product.
But if Thursday's Duels are any indication, it also is possible that Sunday will bring 190 laps of yawn-inducing, single-file racing, followed by a 10-lap sprint to the finish. And that is definitely not what a restless NASCAR nation wants.