(Whether this year's Daytona 500 features the two car tandem draft or the old school pack racing remains to be seen)
The January science experiment is over and now the NASCAR professors need to sift through the data.
Last week’s three day Preseason Thunder test session at Daytona gave NASCAR officials a lot to digest before coming back to officially start the season next month at Speedweeks.
“Once we leave here, obviously there will be a lot of energy spent on looking through all of the data that we've collected this week, looking through lap times and speeds and watching film and footage like everybody else does,” said Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby.
“You know, I would like to have the final rules package out as quickly as we can just to make sure the teams have enough time to react to everything I guess is the right way to put that. And we'll do our due diligence and get it out as fast as we can.”
A variety of rules and adjustments were used during the three-day session in hopes of coming up with the best competitive package possible for the biggest race of the season – the Daytona 500.
“Our goal and our responsibility is to try to make decisions so that the racing is as good as everybody expects it to be or better during the Daytona 500,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton at last week’s test.
“That's the one variable that all the teams, once they get through doing everything they think they can accomplish and get done, all of them know let's wait and see what NASCAR does. We have a reputation for [changing things], but it's all in the best interest of having the best racing on the race track that we can deliver.”
NASCAR has made it no secret part of the process during the test was to find a way to if not eliminate at least limit the two-car tandem draft. There were several times when the sanctioning body encouraged drivers to spend time in the more traditional pack that had been the restrictor plate track norm before the tandem style became so predominant.
Most drivers understand the reason for NASCAR trying all it can to bust up the tandems.
“We’re all about making a better show for the fans, and I feel like they like to see pack racing,” said Denny Hamlin. “They don’t like to see the cars strung out as much as it was with the tandem, and I think speeding these race cars up is going to do that.”
While most of the pack sessions during the test went off relatively well – there were a few minor incidents involving the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Juan Pablo Montoya – it remains to be seen whether the large groups will return under actual racing conditions.
“Yeah, that's a hard question because you don't know what pleases all folks, and everybody has got a difference of opinion,” said NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton no doubt referring to both drivers and fans. “So I think there will be a solid mix of all kinds of things, and you never know. In today's world something else might pop up that becomes the advantage for a driver, a team, a group. We'll see.
“But so far, we like what we've seen. It's been a good mix of what they can do in a larger pack and how close they can get for a limited time to push.”
Of all the changes used at the test including a smaller spoiler, softer springs and different sizes of restrictor plates, modifications to engine cooling systems as an effort to limit the push Pemberton refers to is the most controversial.
Smaller radiators and overflow tanks helped engine temperatures soar after only a handful of laps when the second car was tucked behind the rear bumper of the tandem leader.
The magic number at the test appeared to be in the seven to eight lap range before drivers had to bring some fresh air into the engine compartment.
“I think that if we get it figured out how to maintain those temps, then you will, you'll see it all day long,” said Jeff Gordon. “But it looks like it's more challenging, more difficult, and especially if we're in a pack trying to do it.
"I'm not saying it's going to be eliminated, but I don't think it's going to be what we've seen in the past. I think you're going to see more pack racing, more cars driving in packs, and the 500 is a long race. Survival is important, and you've got to figure out what is going to get you there to the end so that you can hook up with somebody and win the race.”
But even with potential limitations, as Gordon points out don’t expect drivers to magically stop using the tandem draft come Speedweeks. Most all believe that despite the changes, the style will remain in the arsenal to be used as an advantage when possible.
What everyone does agree on is for NASCAR to not get involved in outlawing the tandem or having to police its use during a race.
"Anytime you tell us not to do something then when we do it, it's up for a judgment call after that," said Hamlin. "That's why they don't want to get into making rules about it.
"They want to fix it by fixing the rules to where it's not as beneficial as it was before. They have closed the gap - no doubt about it."
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