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Caraviello: Tandem drafting puts a premium on partnership

October 19, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Tandem drafting puts a premium on partnership

On the morning of the Daytona 500, David Gilliland had to feel like he was stranded all alone in the middle of Lake Lloyd. Somewhat frantically, he went through the Sprint Cup garage area, looking for other drivers to team up with in a new style of drafting that demanded a partner. When NASCAR's biggest event finally started, most of the field had several other drivers' frequencies programmed into their radios, so spotters could coordinate the delicate dance it took to get to the front. The only frequency available on Gilliland's radio was his own.

All of that changed, though, after the Front Row Motorsports driver recorded a surprise third-place finish in the season opener, the first in a series of strong runs on restrictor-plate tracks this year. Like a homely high-school girl who had become fetching during the summer, Gilliland suddenly was getting approached -- a lot. "It was pretty awesome after Daytona," he remembered. "People were coming over and asking us if they could put our frequency in their radio. It's a good feeling."

"Your new best friend is a guy that wants to push you."

--KURT BUSCH

There will be no scrounging for potential partners this weekend, when the restrictor plates are dusted off and the Sprint Cup tour heads to Talladega Superspeedway. Although NASCAR has made some technical changes in an attempt to discourage tandem drafting -- a larger restrictor-plate opening to give drivers more horsepower, and an altered pop-off valve setting that will put a premium on cooling the engine -- drivers are expecting more of the same. And that means making friends, and filling the radio with unfamiliar frequencies, and spotters working more like air-traffic controllers. And more than anything else, it means finding partners who will be there when you need them.

And in tandem drafting as in marriage, one trait stands out above all else. "Loyalty," said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. whose six career victories on the big Alabama race track lead all active drivers.

"I think when it comes to these two-car drafts that we've been seeing on the restrictor-plate race tracks, you want somebody that's going to be there for you, and you're going to be there for them," he added. "It's obviously best if they know how to ... get air into the radiator, to prevent having to swap at all. You want somebody that's calm and experienced that you feel like can get you to the front, or you can push to the front. At the same time, you have to be open, knowing that can change. That's why we put so many different radio channels into our radios now, in case we lose the partner we go into the race with because, you know, a lot of things can happen to them and you have to be able to pick somebody else up. The last thing you want to be is the odd man out."

Which means alliances must be formed. For drivers with several teammates, the list begins in-house. Gordon plans to try and draft with Hendrick Motorsports stable mate Mark Martin, who he worked with well in this season's first Talladega race in April. Kurt Busch intends to draft with Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski. But a lot can happen over 188 laps, and cars in the draft move from the back to the front to the back again, and hooked-up vehicles often need to switch position to keep the pusher from overheating, a not-easy tactic that can leave partners separated in traffic. Everyone goes in with a long list of contingency plans, aware of not just who their teammates and manufacturer affiliates are, but of who they've drafted with in past races and who they can trust in a pinch.

That's where drivers like Gilliland -- who may or may not have a teammate in the race, given that Travis Kvapil has to qualify on speed -- come in. With finishes of third, ninth and 16th in the first three restrictor-plate races of this season, Gilliland has proven himself more than adept in the draft, and he's earned the trust of fellow competitors who have championship hopes on the line. Gilliland, Dave Blaney and Regan Smith are among those drivers outside the spotlight who see their popularity in the garage area spike prior to plate events, given their ability and willingness to push while keeping their cool in traffic. All three played major roles in the draft in the late stages of the Daytona 500, even if only Gilliland got a strong finish out of it.

Their reputations, though, survived intact. Busch worked with Smith at Daytona with such success, that he plans to do it again Sunday. Tony Stewart said Gilliland was one of the best he'd ever worked with in the draft. Like any strong relationship, making a tandem-draft partnership work relies primarily on commitment and trust. It helps that a team like Front Row is most competitive with NASCAR's elite teams on plate tracks, given that cars for those type venues have changed the least in recent years.

"These are tracks where we can be competitive with the budgets and the equipment we have," Gilliland said. "It's a good feeling going there and knowing that. And somebody like me, and Regan and Blaney, too, we can make a commitment to a guy like Tony Stewart, who I worked with last time, and say, hey, when the race starts, I'll work with you. We're committed, and we're going, where some other guys can't quite make that commitment. I think that's some of it, too."

Since Gilliland drives a Ford, his plan for Talladega is to work primarily with other drivers within that manufacturer's family -- which could mean giving a push to Roush Fenway big guns Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, two of the top three drivers in the Chase standings. "Definitely our main goal is ... to help those guys win a championship," he said. But like every other driver on the beastly 2.66-mile track, Gilliland has to stay flexible and be prepared to forge new relationships on the move.

"Anything can happen," he said. "If you come down to five laps to go and there are nine Fords running, you're going to have to go somewhere else, because you're the odd man out. But I have drafted with every manufacturer out there, and feel like our car pushes equally as good to all of them. You just kind of leave that up in the air. I don't know how many people's frequencies our radio holds, but it will be full with other people's frequencies, and plan A, B, C, and so on down the road. Even with the best-laid plans, it's still auto racing, and we all know you can go there with the best plan in mind, and it usually changes along the way."

At Talladega, plans are made to be changed. Gordon learned that late in April's race, when he and Martin got separated, and Gordon paired with whomever he could -- which, in that case wound up being Kyle Busch. The green flag flew, Gordon's line moved, and suddenly he and the younger Busch were working together. It can happen that fast. "It can be a split-second decision that changes just like that, and you've got to be prepared for that at any time," Gordon said.

"You find a new best friend every restart," Kurt Busch added. "You have your game plan going in. That's to draft with a teammate, of course. I always have my little brother to count on. There's a couple other guys I've buddied up with on restrictor-plate tracks. When it comes down to the end, you're fighting to find a partner because of the restart scramble. Your new best friend is a guy that wants to push you."

And many times that's a guy like Gilliland, who flies below the radar on many weekends, but knows his way around tandem drafting and at Talladega believes he's capable of a top-10 finish -- or more. Before the first restrictor-plate race of this season, he was a driver desperate for drafting partners. Before the final plate event, he has potential drafting partners coming to him. "It's definitely a good feeling to have," he said, "and it definitely gives us some confidence going into these kinds of races."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch all the highlights from the April race at Talladega: