NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: So Begins the Task

The Cup circuit spends nearly two weeks at Daytona each February. The 500 and the preliminary events leading up to the big race generate a lot of hype. The new season is starting and the drivers, teams and fans are excited. The media starts cranking things up after a long winter nap. And, oddly enough, some folks will begin predicting trends based on what happens at Daytona. If Daytona success was an indicator of year-long good fortune, right now it would seem Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Joe Gibbs drivers are in the catbird seat.

But there is a danger in paying too much attention to the Daytona results. As a plate track, racing at Daytona is fairly unique. Talladega is the only other plate track on the circuit and, as each year goes by, it seems that Talladega is becoming more of an animal unlike any other, including Daytona. Even if you lump Daytona and Talladega in the “plate track” category together, the two tracks combine to stage four points races out of a total of 36 such races.

The next three races: Fontana, Las Vegas and Atlanta will give fans a much clearer picture of who the big guns are going to be in 2008. While all are high-speed superspeedways, California is low-banked, Vegas is moderately-banked, and Atlanta is high-banked. The majority of this year’s events will be run on these sort of superspeedways. Drivers and teams who fare well in the next three races combined can at least stake a claim to being players in this year’s championship chase.

Why is Daytona such a poor indicator of season-long success? First and foremost the engines are restricted with the plates at Daytona which requires an entirely different engine package than the rest of the season. Annually, the big teams spend millions of dollars on plate-engine programs that are budgeted separately from the main engine development program. That’s because the Daytona 500 and the other three plate races are such high profile events. Of course you want to keep the sponsors happy by running well in the first race of the season (often the honeymoon for a new team and sponsor) and in the race that traditionally draws the highest TV ratings.

With the advent of the Car of Tomorrow (Car of This Year?), there should be less differences between the aerodynamics of the plate-track cars and the regular-season cars. In fact, some teams that had Bud Shootout cars wiped out in practice wrecks even ran short-track cars in the Shootout. But my guess is they chose to run those short-track cars, not the cars they’ve designated to run at Fontana, Vegas and Atlanta, because they’ve already found some new tricks with the CoT and they didn’t want to risk wiping out the carefully tweaked pieces they’ll need over the next few weeks. They have a month to rebuild those Martinsville cars.

What’s the difference? Traditionally essentially it boils down to the plate engines again. With horsepower restricted, teams tweaked the cars’ bodies to minimize drag, even at the cost of downforce. Drag slows a car down heading down a straight and, with the engines down on horsepower, teams faced a double-whammy. The high banking helped the cars through the corners anyway.

The cars designed for a track like Fontana are very different indeed. Teams were willing to accept a certain level of drag on the car’s body if they could find more downforce, particularly in the front end to help the cars through the low-banked corners. It doesn’t matter how fast the car is down the straight if the driver has to lift all the way out of the gas early to get his car to steer through the turns.

Driving the plate-track races is also a lot different than racing on the rest of the big oval tracks. At Daytona and Talladega, a driver must have drafting partners to help push him towards the front. With the plates limiting horsepower to the least common denominator, the packs at Daytona and Talladega tend to feature a lot of two- and three-wide racing, 10 and 11 rows deep into the field. On the normal oval tracks, drivers can pass without assistance. The better handling cars with higher horsepower engines and more capable drivers run at the front of the pack and the rest of the field gets strung out behind them.

It’s as if a shooting championship featured 32 rounds of target shooting and four firefights in which contestants tried to shoot each other. If you want to know who top gun is going to be, wait until the Easter Break next month. By that point we’ll all have a clearer picture of who the big dogs are going to be in 2008. Yes, Daytona is a big deal but Daytona is over. Let the real season begin.

Drivers to Watch This Week

Jeff Gordon – Gordon has won three times at Fontana and finished second here last year. A California native, Gordon puts special emphasis on running well here and he really needs to get his season back on track after Daytona.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson is another California native who wants to run well here. To date, he has run well at Fontana indeed, scoring his first ever Cup victory here in 2002 and winning here again last fall. His average finish after 10 career Cup starts at Fontana is an impressive seventh.

Matt Kenseth – Kenseth has won this race the last two years (and finished seventh in the last three Fontana fall events oddly enough.) These big flat tracks just seem to suit Kenseth and the Roush iron beneath him.

The Joe Gibbs Mob – Sure, they all ran well in Speedweeks, but can they back up that power on a non-plate track? This weekend’s race might give us an insight into how well the Toyota teams are going to run this year.

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