Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday January 13, 2012
It’s all about possibility.
This week, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams take to the racetrack for the first time since the engines fell silent at Homestead, it’s about nothing but possibility. Right now, for every team, every driver, and every driver’s fans, a win is a possibility, a Chase berth is a possibility, a championship is a possibility. Once the season starts, that will evaporate into reality for all but the sport’s elite, but for now, anything is possible.
Daytona testing doesn’t need the fancy moniker of Preseason Thunder to make everyone around the sport take notice. It’s been a long winter, and this is the first sign to race fans that spring will once again arrive, even if there is snow on the ground and frost in the air. It’s coming-can you feel it?
After a long winter of speculation, the 2012 picture begins to come into focus this week.
One thing that became clear during the opening drafting session, though, was that the dreaded two-car draft is still the fastest way around the track, despite NASCAR’s efforts to break it up with shorter spoilers, smaller grille openings, more sensitive radiator overflow valves, and a ban on communication between drivers during a race, which will also put an end to the two-drivers-one-spotter situation at the plate tracks while the cars drafted in pairs, because two drivers can’t be on the same channel at the same time.
NASCAR even intimated that they might order the cars to run in packs on Friday in an attempt to appease the masses. All of these changes beg the question, why?
I get why the drivers don’t love the two-car draft, but I also get why they do it. I don’t get why the fans don’t like it, though. The two-car units are much more maneuverable than a 20-car line, which makes for lots of passing and dicing in the pack. Better yet, the passing and dicing happened without, for the most part, the 20-car pileups that happened in the past. Last year, many crashes that would have involved double-digit car counts inn the past involved only a few cars instead. This type of drafting is tamer, safer, though there is plenty of jockeying for position.
And that is probably part of the problem. Lots of fans watch plate races for the wrecks. Not all fans do, of course, but there are a lot who do, and the tandems have taken away a large chunk of their entertainment. Sad, but true. Some fans lost their taste for carnage after the death of Dale Earnhardt, but many still watch for the wrecks, especially at Daytona and Talladega.
Another complaint, especially after last fall’s race at Talladega, is that drivers hang back too much, avoiding trouble, knowing the tandem will allow them to move up when it counts. Except at Talladega last fall, the strategy failed for two key players. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Carl Edwards both took the conservative approach along with their drafting partners, and some late race dust-ups ruined their chances at a good finish. Many fans attributed Carl Edwards championship loss to that race, where Edwards held back. Had he passed just one more car, he’d have the title.
Finally, there is the wheeling and dealing that goes on before the races. It does sound a little bit like grade school at times, and just like back in third grade, some kid gets left out, like the most recent victim, Denny Hamlin. If a driver’s draft partner gets in a wreck or there’s a pit call miscue, someone gets screwed. Deals can also fall through in a minute, or at the behest of an owner or manufacturer…and someone gets screwed. But to say this is something totally new with the tandem drafting is inaccurate. When the cars ran in packs, a driver needed at least one partner to make a move out of the line he was in. Drivers made deals before the race, during the race, and sometimes drivers got screwed when their partner found someone else to work with. While exaggerated with this style of racing, it’s certainly nothing new and different.
If anything, the two-car drafts are a little more old-school than the big pack. If you watch a race at Daytona or Talladega from the era before restrictor plates, you’ll see small groups of cars, maybe 2-5 drivers working together in the draft. The biggest difference between then and now is that the tandems now still run in a big pack, and everyone stays on the lead lap unless something happens mechanically or they lose the draft for some reason. Back in the day, the groups were spread out. But if you wanted to make a pass, you still needed to use the draft to make a sling shot move. That hasn’t changed much.
But many fans found those old-school races “boring” because there often weren’t many cars on the lead lap, and the races often came down to just two or three contenders. The advent of the restrictor plate changed that, eventually, and the racing evolved into the one-giant-pack formation that ruled in the late 1990’s through 2010 and the Daytona repave. And people complained that the racing was “boring” because drivers hung back to avoid trouble, made and broke deals, and ran in a parade formation for much of the race, knowing that you didn’t need to risk a big move before the closing laps. But the wrecks were bigger, and that kept some fans happy. Now, the racing has evolved again, and it’s “boring” because some pairs still choose to hang back, or one guy gets left out, and the wrecks are smaller to boot. Oh, and if their guy is happier with his car while pushing, his partner is an arrogant jerk if he takes the checkered flag first.
See the pattern here? Some race fans like to wax nostalgic, but in reality, they were just complaining about something else in the “good old days.” But the bottom line is, the two car draft is faster. In Thursday’s drafting session, a two-car draft was approximately seven miles an hour faster than a three-car group. And, as many fans point out, especially when talking about the good old days, the sport was built on finding a way to go faster. That’s what the drivers have done with the tandems. In short, they’ve done what has been the point of auto racing since the first race: finding the fastest way around the racetrack. Do race fans really want the sanctioning body to make rules that don’t allow this? Teams are already saddled with the restrictor plate and the yellow line rule, rules which keep them from going around as fast as they can at plate tracks. In the case of the plates, it’s a necessary evil for safety’s sake. But making rules to flat out prohibit drivers from going as fast as they are capable of going under the current package? That flies in the face of everything NASCAR is and has been.
It’s about finding the most speed allowed within the rules. Period. The teams are shackled enough by the restrictor plate. Do we really want to force them to run in a configuration that makes them slower and less maneuverable? Really?
Not to mention, the no-communication rule is a dangerous wreck waiting to happen. Drivers will still relay information; they will just have to relay it to their spotters, who will then relay it to their partners’ spotters, who will then relay it to their partners, like a high-stakes game of telephone. It won’t break up the pairs, but it may make for fewer pairs at the end of the race and bigger wrecks on the way. Then again, there is that faction who will enjoy that aspect of the game.
Right now, there are a million possibilities for the upcoming season. Any driver could win the Daytona 500. Drivers from smaller teams can enjoy four races a year when they are real contenders, thanks in part to the tandem drafting. In the packs, there were still guys without a prayer. Now, not so much-everyone can run up front and be a factor for a win, a top 5, a top 10. For some those will be the best finishes they get this year. NASCAR has no business taking away the possibility from any driver’s fans. And they have no business trying to stop the drivers from using the fastest way around the racetrack any more than the necessary safety rules dictate.
The fact is, the tw-car draft is faster than a group of cars running together. And the whole point of racing, of NASCAR itself, is to go faster than the next guy. Do we really want to find another way to take that away, to stop drivers from doing that. I know I don’t. It’s racing…and with racing, with the whole season still ahead, anything could happen. Anything’s possible. Let’s keep it that way.
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