It seems like just yesterday Brad Keselowski was hoisting the Sprint Cup championship trophy in honor of his grand performance in the 2012 Chase. But alas, it’s been almost three months now since NASCAR last took to the track, and this Saturday night the stars of the sport will make their glorious return to start 2013, competing in the newly rebranded Sprint Unlimited race (formerly known as the Bud Shootout). There will be a mind-boggling array of changes on display in this event, such as (another) new style of drafting, new rules, new jet dryers, and of course the much-ballyhooed Gen-6 race cars.
It goes without saying that we have lots to cover this week, so let’s get started, shall we?
*1. Will the Gen-6 cars live up to their billing?*
The big question on everyone’s mind going into the Unlimited will undoubtedly be how the new Gen-6 cars will race and draft. There was near-unanimous opinion in the garage after Preseason Thunder testing that bump drafting will not be possible with the new cars due to a variety of factors. However, although that strategy appears to be a thing of the past, there are still a great many questions left to be answered in terms of what the racing will actually look like. The jury is still out on how well these new cars will be able to suck up to others and pass; thus, this Saturday’s race will act as the ultimate test session for the drivers as they figure out what, exactly they can do with these cars in actual racing situations.
With so much uncertainty about how the cars will react when running in packs for an extended period of time, it is tough to really gauge what to expect in terms of the quality of racing. Looking back at Preseason Thunder, the drivers noted that it was tough to suck up to other cars, but if you lagged back and timed things just right you could get excellent runs. The drafting most closely resembled the early 2000s style that was uber-popular with fans; assuming nothing has changed since January, we ought to be in for a quite a show on that front. Handling was also said to be a huge factor in how the Gen-6 cars drove at Daytona, as the small spoilers robbed the cars of rear downforce, causing many a driver to complain about extreme looseness on corner entry.
So can we really know what the racing will look like on Saturday night? Yes, but only to a certain degree. Expect big packs, slingshot passing, and a great deal of white-knuckled moments due to the small spoilers. Oh yeah, and expect lots of wrecks, which leads me to our next question…
*2. Will the new aero package lead to a glut of wrecks in the Sprint Unlimited?*
There’s no debate on this one, and fans will quickly see why during the opening laps of the race Saturday night. There is a high risk that the new superspeedway aero package NASCAR applied to the Gen-6 cars will make the race “crash central.” As was covered in Question 1, NASCAR made a load of changes to the aero package for Speedweeks, and perhaps the most important of those changes was the new 4” high x 53” wide spoiler that the teams will have to run. The lost downforce caused by the shrunken spoiler will make the cars a handful to drive, and Dale Jr. showed everyone during testing what can happen when edgy cars with bumpers that don’t line up try to push draft. Jack Roush reiterated these fears in an interview earlier this week, stating, “I think there’s going to be more wrecks than normal. The thing that has happened is that NASCAR has taken off 450 pounds or so of downforce from the car totally, and they’ve shifted the aero balance from the back toward the front by 13 percent. The cars are going to be extraordinarily loose, you saw Biffle nearly spin out and you saw Marcos Ambrose get loose with Dale Jr. pushing on him (during last month’s Daytona test), so I think there’s going to be more wrecks. It will be a surprise if there’s more than a third of the cars that finish the (Daytona) 500 and I think the (Sprint Unlimited) is going to be a crash-fest.”
Make no mistake, this event is not the first time that handling has ever been a factor in a restrictor plate race. Before the track’s repave, in late 2010, Daytona was extremely bumpy, and it was always difficult for teams to get the cars to handle just right. But its been almost three years since these drivers engaged in a handling-oriented restrictor plate race, and it’s going to take them a while to adjust to pack racing with ill-handling cars that can’t bump draft. While one would hope that the teams and drivers figure out how to race safely before the Daytona 500, it’s a safe bet that many will not have a grasp on the car’s handling and driveability by the end of this week, meaning that the Sprint Unlimited will likely be filled with crashes.
*3. Will any one team display an advantage going into the rest of Speedweeks?*
The Sprint Unlimited has traditionally provided a rough picture as to who is fast and who needs work going into Speedweeks. Last year, the Roush cars were very strong in this race before late-race accidents robbed them of good finishes, and the next week in the 500, they utterly dominated. Could we see such foreshadowing again this Saturday night? It’s very likely that we will.
The key thing to remember is that although teams do not bring their Daytona 500 cars to the Sprint Unlimited, the cars they do bring are usually Daytona 500 backup cars or ones built with similar specifications. This means that the guys with speed in the Sprint Unlimited will likely be the same drivers who end up fighting it out for the Harley J. Earl trophy a week later in the 500. Keep a watchful eye throughout the race to the cars that appear to (a) handle well and (b) suck up well in the draft. Those will be the two keys to success this year at Daytona. Even though a certain driver/team may not be dominant, any team that has (a) and (b) covered will likely have a stout piece for the Duels and the 500.
*4. Could we see an underdog take home the victory?*
The way the draft has worked the past two seasons with push drafting and such has made Daytona and Talladega more of a “lottery” than in years past. It was very easy for an underdog driver, such as a Trevor Bayne to simply hook up with the right guy at the right time and get a lucky push to the front. The tandem drafting utterly ruined the integrity of the racing at the plate tracks such that any driver with a full set of fenders could win the race if given the right push.
That is all about to change in a big way this Saturday, however, as a return to “old-school” pack racing will put strategy back into the hands of the drivers. With a new rules package aimed squarely at putting a premium on car control, along with an ability to work the draft, the more talented and skilled drivers will be the ones fighting it out up front. Keep a special eye on Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Tony Stewart, as the new style of drafting is very similar to the early-to-mid-2000s drafting style that those three were so dominant at.
Admittedly, there aren’t many underdog drivers (other than perhaps Terry Labonte, Aric Almirola, and maybe Marcos Ambrose) in the field anyway, but nonetheless, you can expect that it will be one of the usual week-to-week front runners who takes home the trophy in the Sprint Unlimited.
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