NASCAR NEWS : Daytona test refines direction, but no solution
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tuesday's one-day test at Daytona International Speedway was positioned as a chance to move away from two-car drafts on NASCAR's biggest speedways, but after six hours of running, both NASCAR and its most experienced drivers said "don't expect tandems to ever completely disappear."
But Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said the day was invaluable in determining a proper direction to find options to the two-car tandems that fans have voiced their displeasure about this season.
"More than anything it's a big learning curve for everybody," Darby said. "Daytona and Talladega for years have been all about aluminum -- whether it be an aluminum spoiler on the back of the trunk lid or the aluminum [restrictor] plate underneath the air valve, in this case.
"We've looked at a lot of different -- very different -- concepts here in relationship to changing up the downforce and the drag on the cars and how it affects what the drivers can and can't do on the race track."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has voiced his displeasure with the two-car drafts, seemed to accept the inevitable after his participation in the test.
"I'm not exactly sure what they're trying to achieve to this point," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I know that they would like to have the pack racing we used to have. I will say, too, that NASCAR and the drivers are all in agreement that there is no way possible to get rid of the tandem drafting.
"But what we would like to do is make it possible to race without having to tandem draft the entire day -- get back to where we're having passing, racing amongst the leaders, guys jostling around, moving in and out of packs and lines. Then, at the end if it comes down to a one- or two-lap tandem draft that wins the race, that would be expected by everyone here, NASCAR and the drivers as well."
Earnhardt said the current style of racing is a perfect storm that once learned, can't be forgotten.
"The bumpers match up so perfectly, we're so comfortable, even at 206 miles an hour getting into the corner that I don't think you'll ever be able to get rid of it," Earnhardt said. "But you can make it to where it's not the norm as much as it is now. We're doing it every single lap to stay in these races at this point. We'd like to get away from that a little bit -- have it as a tool, but not something that's a necessity."
The biggest variable NASCAR asked the seven teams at the track Tuesday to experiment with was a range of rear spoilers, from the 4.5-inch x 63-inch wide blade that was used here in July to a three-inch high x 62-inch blade contoured across the deck lid, as well as a variety of springs designed to lower the back of the car out of the airflow.
Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. said those changes only made the cars faster, and no less comfortable. Earnhardt, a student of the sport's history, lauded the progress made Tuesday, but said the solution to NASCAR's issue with tandem drafting might lie in the sport's history -- not some outside-the-box concoction.
"The answer is in the past, the answer is in the history of the sport," Earnhardt said. "I've heard people comment that tandem drafting was always there, it just took this long for people to figure this out. That's not true. You couldn't tandem draft in 1998 or in 2004. You bump-drafted, but when you went in the corner, you would spin somebody out if you stayed on their bumper.
"We have to get to that point, however that is. It's going to be difficult with the surface of the race track being as grippy as it is. That's not helping us at all. We got to figure out a way to take a little bit of grip out of the cars where it's back in the drivers' hands and the lead guy doesn't want anybody pushing. That's what you want to do."
Darby said the same restrictor plate, with 29/32nd-inch holes, as was used in July was used Tuesday with the exception of several drivers who tried qualifying runs with plates larger than one-inch, which resulted in average speeds of better than 203 mph.
But even though Truex Jr. and Joe Nemechek, were extremely enthused about their long-unseen high-speed qualifying runs, Darby was most pleased to have made progress on reducing the great difference drivers had discovered the past two years in the speed of two cars operating in tandem and larger packs, which previously had been thought to be the ideal way to post the fastest lap times.
"I think our goal is to reduce the differential, if you will, from the tandem car push to what we consider a normal drafting type of a race," Darby said. "Maybe instead of being a seven mile an hour difference we get it to one or two [mph], so there's just more options available for all the drivers in whichever way they choose to approach the Daytona 500.
"I think we've done a lot of that [Tuesday]. I don't think it will be one simple thing that does it -- it's going to be a whole package of things. We'll have to look at cooling systems, restrictor plates, spoilers, grill openings. It will be a menu of items that will ultimately help close that gap up."
"I didn't anticipate coming down here and finding the magical solution -- I just knew we needed to come down here, put in some work, figure out what we can while we're here," Earnhardt said. "This is an important thing to do. We also get an opportunity to work on our fuel injection. That's all going really well.
"Like I said, we'll be better off and smarter than we were before we got here [Tuesday], and hopefully that helps us and gives us an opportunity going forward with NASCAR and their engineering staff to come up with a solution eventually."
Hendrick Motorsports sent two cars to this test, as did Roush Fenway Racing. Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and NEMCO Motorsports each had a single car and while Darby said he appreciated their effort, the lack of cars impacted the progress.
"If there's one drawback to [Tuesday], it's that we're working with seven cars," Darby said. "One thing that we know is 43 cars make a heck of a difference. You can get close to something. Once you put a big group on a race track, you see more of what's really happening."
In the end, Darby said he was definitely looking forward to the next Sprint Cup test session, here at Daytona Jan. 12-14, 2012.
"We absolutely got a good start," Darby said. "I'm not disappointed with [Tuesday] by any means. We've seen some really, really interesting results that on paper you would expect to be different -- much different.
"We've taken a considerable amount of drag off the cars, for example. We've increased the restrictor plate size quite a bit from when we were here in July, but the overall speeds haven't gone through the roof.
"Whenever you can make those kinds of adjustments, there is something good that's come out of it. We've got a ton of data to go back and look at and crunch and everything. The real goal is to try to formulate a package at least that we can give to the teams so they can work on coming down here in January for the Daytona 500 test."