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Like the weather, racing at DIS bound to change

June 29, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Competition at restrictor-plate tracks is constantly evolving, as will drafting

He is easily one of the best restrictor-plate racers of his generation, a two-time winner at NASCAR's most famous race track who may very well have triumphed in the sport's biggest event this year had a cut tire not intervened at an inopportune time. Dale Earnhardt Jr. should relish trips to Daytona International Speedway as much as a grizzly bear enjoys romping in a river during a salmon run.

But not this year. Tandem drafting has changed everything.

"I'm not looking forward to going to Daytona, not with the way the drafting is there," said a driver who could very well win Saturday's annual summertime 400-miler. "But, we'll just have to see if we can get lucky out there. What is after Daytona? [I] will be glad to go there. New Hampshire? I love that place."

Jeff Gordon pairs up with Trevor Bayne during the Daytona 500.

"If you want to be good and have a shot at winning, then you have to learn how to do it well."

--JEFF GORDON

Actually, it's the inaugural Sprint Cup event at Kentucky Speedway, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Another trip to Daytona means another round of hand-wringing over the two-car, nose-to-tail drafting arrangement that was spawned during Speedweeks, a setup that forced some drivers to drive blindly, led spotters to spot for two cars rather than just one, and left many fans conflicted about the state of competition on NASCAR's biggest stage. No question it produced a hold-your-breath race complete with a stunner of a winner in Trevor Bayne, but the means to that end were so alien to many in the grandstand that they felt like they were watching a brand new racing series.

The drivers, who had to adapt to workmanlike pusher roles and get used to hearing the voices of other competitors inside their helmets, can surely relate. In February it was all something of a surprise, one produced by a combination of the new track surface and the new noses on the cars, and it led to two weeks of frantic adjustment in preparation for the Daytona 500. It's not a surprise anymore. Everybody knows what's in store beginning with practice on Thursday, and they're all girding for it.

"It's not really about whether you have an opinion or like it, it's just the way it is," said six-time Daytona race winner Jeff Gordon. "If you want to be good and have a shot at winning, then you have to learn how to do it well. You have to learn how to cool the engine, and you've got to find somebody that you can stick with and they can stick with you all day to be there at the end to win the race."

That pragmatism aside, it's clear that Earnhardt isn't alone in his feelings over this type of racing at Daytona. Obviously, it's polarizing; some like the excitement and strategy it injects into the race, others just can't get past how strange it looks compared to what they were accustomed to. And yet, it's important to remember that competition at Daytona, and at NASCAR restrictor-plate tracks in general, is constantly evolving. Daytona racing hasn't always looked like this, and it won't always look like this. It's like the weather in Florida -- just wait a little while, and eventually it will change.

Even the fairly recent history of racing at Daytona will bear that out. This season's 500, won by Bayne, was defined by the two-car pair-ups. When Ryan Newman won three years ago, cars piled four-wide into turns at every restart, and the field was a hornet's nest of moving and shoving from beginning to end. When Gordon won in 2005, single-file restarts near the end helped the leaders pull away, and everyone else filed into clearly defined inside and outside lanes. When Dale Jarrett won in 2000, the cars were often strung out in such a single file that they seemed to be on parade. Every style had its supporters and detractors, and every style eventually gave way to another

"It looks like you're just going to have to team up with a guy and work with him all day long and try to stay out of wrecks and push him to the lead or get pushed to the lead, you know?"

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

That will no doubt eventually happen in this case, too, and one day people will tell stories about tandem drafting just like they do now about rear wings or bias-ply tires. At some point the new surface at Daytona, put down following this race a year ago, will give up some of its grip. At some point tire compounds and rules packages may be altered. And then there's the 2013 season, which all four Sprint Cup manufacturers are eyeing as the year to roll out new race cars that would more closely resemble their respective production models, an event that could be a game-changer in and of itself.

"I guess the next big thing that's coming is the car of the future, the 2013 car that they're working on right now," Gordon said. "It doesn't seem to be a big evolution from where we're at, but you never know what all those small little details that are going into that car, what they can produce."

The nose on the current Sprint Cup cars, designed to give manufacturers more brand identity, shows how much change one of those little details can affect. There are so many variables here involving both the cars and the track surface, and all of them play a part in an aerodynamic equation that can seem bedeviling until vehicles are actually on asphalt rolling alongside one another. Gordon has seen it evolve since his first start at Daytona in 1993, when Jarrett won a 500 in which cars at the front didn't seem to need as much drafting help to make moves on one another.

"The surface had been the same for a number of years, but aerodynamics were changing, technology was changing, so you were starting to see small differences each year in drafting," Gordon said. "Then there was the big change with the car, the [current] car, with the bumpers lined up. Totally different aero package, a lot more downforce than we're used to, a lot more drag on the cars. That sort of led us in the direction we're in now with these two-car drafts. But you didn't do that at Daytona, you did that at Talladega, because of the grip level. That track had been repaved, [was a] big, wide race track, with very easy transitions. Then the repave came to Daytona, and a lot of us didn't think even with that, there would be enough grip to do the two-car draft at Daytona. But as we saw in February, that's not the case. You certainly can."

It's almost gone back to the future a little bit, in that drivers at Daytona can now make slingshot-type moves in the draft resembling those their predecessors used on the same track decades ago. But now we're in the height of summer, and temperatures in Daytona Beach this weekend promise to top out near 90 degrees, and drivers are wondering if the heat will rob the surface of any of its grip and change the race as a result. That seems unlikely, though, and everyone is prepared for a hairy night of competition similar to one seen at Daytona on a February afternoon just a few months ago.

Like it or not. "We've got a fast car," Earnhardt said. "We sat on the pole there in February. We rebuilt that car and we're taking it back. And I'm sure it'll be great. I'm sure it will race really well. It looks like you're just going to have to team up with a guy and work with him all day long and try to stay out of wrecks and push him to the lead or get pushed to the lead, you know? I don't know. It's all going to come down to circumstances."

That's the way it is now, but it won't be like that forever. Eventually, just as it always has, some combination of circumstances will force racing at Daytona to morph into whatever shape it will take next. Like the Florida weather, competition at NASCAR's most famous race track never stays the same for very long.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.