Monday, February 20, 2012

NASCAR Speedweeks At Daytona: Week One Wrap Up

The short, but busy off-season officially came to an end this weekend, as the stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hit the track for the first time since the dramatic finish to the 2011 season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This weekend began with Budweiser Shootout practice, Daytona 500 qualifying practice, the ARCA Series race, the Budweiser Shootout, and Sunday's qualifying session to set the front row for next week's main event.

Just days into the season and the biggest stories emerging were failed inspections, the return of pack racing, the strength of the Fords, and the reassurance that Kyle Busch is in a league of his own, at times, behind the wheel of a race car.

Failed Inspections:
The controversy got underway quickly, when the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 car failed initial Daytona 500 inspection. 

While their Budweiser Shootout car made it through NASCAR technical inspection fine, NASCAR took issue with the C-Post section of the car - the sheet metal that runs from the roof down to the rear fender, adjacent to the rear windows. 

(Photo courtesy of Joey Meier Twitter account @2spotter)
Former crew chief and FOX analyst Larry McReynolds explained the C-Post area is "the last part of the car the air sees before it reaches the rear spoiler. Anything you can do to deflect air away from the rear spoiler helps straightaway speed."

The team was forced to cut massive amounts of sheet metal from the car, which promptly found its way to the NASCAR hauler for further inspection. While Johnson was focused on his Budweiser Shootout car, the team was scrambling to put their primary car for the Daytona 500 back together.

(Photo courtesy of David Newton Twitter account @DNewtonESPN)
This is not the first time crew chief Chad Knaus has come under the suspect eye of NASCAR officials. One of the best in the business, Knaus has been notorious throughout his career for pushing the NASCAR rule book to the edge, often crossing the line in NASCAR's opinion.

In 2006, Knaus was sent home from Daytona after the No. 48 failed post-qualifying inspection. Darian Grubb stepped in to fill the void left by Knaus' suspension and led Jimmie Johnson to the win in the Daytona 500.

According to Robin Pemberton, vice president of competition for NASCAR, Knaus was not suspended in this instance because the infraction was found in pre-qualifying inspection. However, fines and penalties are expected to be announced in the days following the Daytona 500.

The No. 48 team was not the only organization to have issues going through technical inspection, however. One of the fastest cars all weekend, Greg Biffle's No. 16 was sent through pre-qualifying inspection a second time Sunday afternoon. The issue was resolved and Biffle posted the second-fastest lap of the session.

Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 15 team failed post-qualifying inspection when the car failed to meet the minimum height in the front end of the car. Although the car passed pre-qualifying inspection, the front shocks did not rebound enough after the run to meet the height sticks. Bowyer's qualifying time was disallowed and he will start his Gatorade Duel race from the rear of the field.

Pack Racing Is Back:
After nearly two seasons of two-car tandem drafting on the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR listened to the complaints of the fans and attempted to return to the more traditional pack racing.

In an attempt to break up the tandems, NASCAR made a series of rule changes leading into speedweeks, including opening the restrictor plate to allow for more horsepower, lowering the rear bumper by two inches, mandating the location of the grille opening at the front of the car, as well as eliminating driver-to-driver radio communication during the race.

The result was seen right away in Budweiser Shootout practice Friday evening. While some drivers were hesitant at first, the pack racing returned. The cars were not able to stay nose-to-tail for long without overheating, and the tandem was not able to pull away from the pack as it had in the past.

One of the biggest results of the return to pack racing is the return of the 'Big One' style wreck. With tandem racing, the potential danger of a wreck was always present, but more on a small scale - one or two car incidents. With the field bunched tightly together, two- and three-wide, with little visibility and no communication, the potential for large multi-car wrecks is always present.

That became evident when Kurt Busch was turned by Tony Stewart during Friday night's Budweiser Shootout practice.

As Busch moved up the track to avoid the car of Martin Truex Jr., Stewart was unable to anticipate the move and did not follow Busch's No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. With Stewart's nose on the left rear bumper, Busch could do nothing as the rear of the car spun around and triggered the first 'Big One' of speedweeks. When the smoke cleared, Busch, Stewart, AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski were all involved.

The pack was back, but so was the potential for a lot of torn up equipment, and nothing displayed that better than Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout - the first non-points race of the 2012 season.

The racing throughout the event featured two-, three-, and even four-wide racing, with drivers able to make moves on their own, without the help of a tandem partner. The racing was exciting for the fans and the drivers, as they were able to determine their fate more than in the past.

The result was also a number of large crashes, one of which sent 20-year veteran Jeff Gordon on his roof for the first time in his NASCAR career.

Most of the wrecks were triggered in the same fashion Friday's practice wreck began, with one driver attempting to push another with his nose on the left rear of the front car's bumper.

While the pack racing returned, the two-car tandem was not entirely eliminated. With the rules limiting the air intake to the engines, drivers were not able to push for long without the engine overheating. However, with only a handful of laps to go, drivers threw caution to the wind and let the engines run hot.

Overall, however, the drivers seemed to be pleased with the return of pack racing, but explained it would be a challenge to balance the loose race cars, the engine temperature and avoiding mistakes in the pack.

“I think the biggest problem is the tandem racing has been so easy for these guys to stay attached that some of them haven’t raced in pack racing," Kevin Harvick said. "You get those big runs and things are going to happen a lot faster than they used to. (Drivers) are just going to have to be a little more patient.”

Fords Fast Yet Again:
Last year's Daytona 500 was a showcase of Ford power under the hood. With overheating playing such a crucial role in last year's event, Ford teams seemed to be able to stay cool and push in the tandem for more consecutive laps than the other manufacturers. This was evident when Ford took the first three spots in the 500.

While the tandem drafting is not playing as prominent a role this year, the Fords again showed up in style during the weekend's practice and qualifying for next Sunday's Daytona 500.

The evidence was clear during each qualifying lap, as many Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota cars began to shoot water out of the overflow (a sign of overheating) on their second lap. On contrary, most Ford teams were able to keep the engines cool enough for the entire qualifying run.

Roush Fenway Racing teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle made it an all Ford front row, while the 'Blue Ovals' took six of the top 10 spots.

“What a way to start the season," Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing, said. "This is a testament to all of the hard work Jack and his organization have put in during the off-season, and the dedication Doug Yates and the Roush Yates engine shop has displayed throughout this transition to electronic fuel injection. Our Fords are fast. We’ve shown that all week and today our teams were rewarded with the front row. Today is a day for all Ford fans to be happy and celebrate, and I know everyone at Ford is going to enjoy this week leading up to the Daytona 500.”

While the front row is locked into their positions, the rest of Sunday's field will be set by a pair of qualifying races on Thursday afternoon. Edwards and Biffle will remain on the front row regardless of where they finish in their duel race, so long as they do not need a back-up car.

Kyle Busch In A Class Of His Own:
There are few people in this world that are simply oozing talent. Kyle Busch seems to be one of those people.

Busch's performance and drive in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout was one that will be talked about in  NASCAR highlight reels for years to come.

After Friday's wreck in practice, Busch was forced to start from the tail-end of the field when the green flag flew for the first 25-lap segment, despite drawing the second starting spot the night before.

By the end of the first segment, Busch was already up to fourth. With a strong car underneath him, Busch also showcased his talent behind the wheel on Lap 48, when contact with Jimmie Johnson sent the No. 18 sliding down the track in a shower of sparks. Using incredible car control, Busch was able to hang on to the car and keep going.

With the race coming to a close, Busch again raced his way to the front in an attempt to chase down leader Tony Stewart. With Jeff Gordon pressuring from behind, Busch was again sent down the track in a shower of sparks. While Busch was able to save the car from major damage, Gordon moved up the track and triggered yet another 'Big One' style wreck.

With the race moved into a Green-White-Checkered finish, Busch was not out of contention. Restarting eighth, the No. 18 M&M's Toyota was able to find the No. 14 of Stewart and tandem draft their way to the front of the field.

As the pair came off the final corner, Busch made his move to the outside coming through the tri-oval. Using a strong side-draft from Stewart's car, Busch was able to surge ahead and score the win by only 0.013 seconds - the closest finish in Budweiser Shootout history.

More impressive than the photo-finish at the end, was Busch ability to save the race car not once, but twice. Few drivers, past or present, are capable of that type of car control at that type of speeds. Instead of over-correcting and wrecking the car, Busch was able to hold a tight wheel and drive away from major damage.

"Stab and steer - that's what you do - and some braking," Busch said when asked how he saved the car.  "There were brakes involved too."

The impressive performance was evident throughout the garage as well. Both Stewart and Johnson complimented Busch's saves while inside the car, and team president J.D. Gibbs said he thought they had to "pack it up" on two different occasions.

"I'm going to have to go back and watch that on tape again just to appreciate it," Gibbs said. "It's one of those things that you just need to take the time to evaluate it and realize what it was. I would say that whoever the driver was that could do that - you just need to appreciate it. I think having it be Kyle (Busch) and our guy really was impressive and it means a lot for the whole M&M's team and our guys - it was special."

"I was right behind him when he had the deal in (turns) one and two," Stewart said. "He had to catch it three times before he saved it. You get 3400 pounds moving like that, to catch it once was pretty big, to get away from it and catch it again was big, and the third time was big. That's three big moments in one corner and he never quit driving. There's a lot of guys that wouldn't have caught that. He did a fantastic job with that save."

Busch may have caught the attention for all the wrong reasons in the past - he was suspended by NASCAR for one race in last year's Chase - but there is no doubt the younger Busch brother is beaming with talent behind the wheel. While fans boo and jeer, and critics call for him to mature on and off the track, Busch continues to prove he is one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.

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