Matt Stallknecht · Thursday February 21, 2013
Well folks, it’s time. The 2013 Daytona 500 is finally upon us. The biggest event in the NASCAR world is only two days away, and after Thursday’s Budweiser Duels and last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, we are starting to get an idea of what this year’s iteration of the Great American Race will look like. Kevin Harvick has been the class of the field throughout Speedweeks thus far, winning both the Sprint Unlimited as well as his Budweiser Duel race. Is he the favorite to take home the checkers? Perhaps, but many questions are still left unanswered as we edge closer to the 2013 Daytona 500.
1. Could the 500 end up being a dud?
Thursday’s Duel races were… sedate, to say the least. The high side was clearly dominant, and it appeared to be very difficult to pass using the low lane. There were moments in both of the races where it appeared that both worked equally, providing some opportunities for exciting racing but, by and large, Thursday’s Duels were single-file parades.
With how much has changed in terms of drafting with the new Gen-6 cars, it is nigh impossible to pinpoint what exactly led to such sedate racing in the Duels. It’s easy to point to the aero package (especially the small spoiler) but there have been moments over the course of the Unlimited and the Duels where it appeared that things could get quite racy. It is entirely possible that a combination of inexperience with the new cars and general cautiousness by drivers is what led to such uneventful competition. But until we get to the “real deal” this Sunday, it is impossible to know whether the culprit is man or machine. My early diagnosis is that the small spoilers are at the root of the problem, but if you mess with the spoilers too much, trying to add height to them, you run the risk of bringing back tandem racing, and you can bet your bottom dollar that no one in the NASCAR world wants that fiasco on their hands again.
One thing is certain, however; if the Daytona 500 turns out to be a dud like the Duels were, you can expect that there will be some changes to the superspeedway aero package once the series rolls into Talladega in April.
2. Kevin Harvick is the man to beat, right?
With the return of old-school, 90’s-esque drafting back en vogue in the Sprint Cup Series, it’s not the least bit surprising that one of the best old-school drafters in the garage area, Kevin Harvick, has seen so much success this past week in Daytona. It is no longer brainlessly easy to pass and work the draft like it was in the COT era. You need a good handling race car and a keen ability to utilize the draft in order to make effective passes. Kevin Harvick had both of those items in spades during both the Sprint Unlimited and the Budweiser Duel, rewarded handsomely for his expertise. Harvick was the only driver in both Duel races who was able to use the low side to take the lead. Whether his car is just that good or he really does have something figured out is a mystery, but there is no question at this point that the No. 29 is the favorite to win the 500.
But alas, history is not on Mr. Harvick’s side. Never in the history of Daytona Speedweeks has a driver been able to win all three events (The Unlimited, his/her Duel, and the 500) in the same year. Not since 2003 has a driver been in Harvick’s position. That year, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. nearly pulled off the sweep, winning both the Unlimited and his Duel but missing out in the 500.
Should Harvick find himself in Victory Lane on Sunday, he will have delivered one of the most incredible performances in the history of Speedweeks, standing alone as the only man to have pulled the Unlimited/Duel/500 sweep. He seems to have the car and the skills to do it, and as such it will be a key storyline to watch throughout the race.
3. Are the Hendrick cars a step behind?
Larry McReynolds openly questioned midway through the first Budweiser Duel as to whether or not the Hendrick cars had “detuned their engines” for the Duels in order to preserve them for the 500. His reasoning behind this puzzling remark was that two Hendrick machines in that particular Duel (Nos. 48 and 88), appeared to be somewhat uncompetitive in relation to what was expected out of the team. While I in no way believe any of the Hendrick cars were detuned for the Duels, it does appear that at least half of the Hendrick squad is a step behind in terms of speed this week at Daytona. Now, I say half, because the other two Hendrick cars (the No. 24 and No. 5) performed much, much better than the No. 48 and No. 88 teams. Jeff Gordon led the way in his No. 24 machine for over half the race before a pit road speeding penalty robbed him of a good finish, and Kasey Kahne ran strong all race long and brought home a solid second place finish in his Duel.
Thus, the question that begs is… why is the Johnson/Earnhardt Jr. half of Hendrick Motorsports so far off of the Kahne/Gordon half? It is important to remember that Hendrick Motorsports operates much like two separate teams under one roof, with the 48/88 being housed in one shop and the 5/24 being housed in another. With this fact in mind, it appears that the 5/24 shop has something figured out that the 48/88 groups do not.
Whatever that advantage is needs to be shared if Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have any plans of being competitive on Sunday,because their cars are not up to snuff as it stands right now.
4. How will the Daytona 500 be won?
Following on our first Burning Question, there are still a lot of unknowns as to how the draft works with the new Gen-6 cars. It is clear that handling is a huge factor and that passing is much more difficult and skill-oriented than before, but it appears that no one has yet figured out how to make a race-winning move. Think about it. Both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, winners of the Duels, made their final moves to the lead long before the races reached their closing laps. Busch got to the front mostly via pit strategy and courtesy of a partner-less Kasey Kahne. Harvick, on the other hand was able to find a way to grab the lead on-track using the low lane around the halfway mark — and he never looked back.
Obviously, as Harvick showed, there is a way to make the low line work to grab the lead; drivers simply need to learn how to work it effectively. In typical FOX (er, SPEED) fashion, the audience did not get a chance to see how that move was made, due to an untimely commercial but the move was made nonetheless. With how supremely dominant the high line is in this aero package, the race will have to be won from the bottom, and you will not be able wait until the last lap to make your move.
Watch for drivers to test the low line throughout the race in hopes of finding the magic method of making it work for use in the final ten laps. Make that bottom work, and you will be a front-runner in the 2013 Daytona 500. Whichever one succeeds, running as close to the apron as they can when it counts will undoubtedly be the one who hoists the Harley J. Earl Trophy.
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