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Happy Hour: Trail car in tandem draft goes by blind faith

October 21, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Martin Truex Jr. helps push David Reutimann to the top speed in Happy Hour. (Getty images)

Being the trail car in tandem draft requires appreciable skills -- and blind faith

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The most important driver in Sunday's Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway won't be the one celebrating in Victory Lane. In fact, there's a good chance he won't even see the start/finish line while he's crossing it.

Because two cars linked together are faster than one alone, Sunday's race winner will require help. And that puts drivers who excel at pushing -- such as Landon Cassill, David Gilliland and Trevor Bayne -- in demand. It's a skill that requires patience and discipline, a desire to work as a team and the ability to sense the right time to be aggressive and the right time to back off.

Talladega Speeds

Practice 1
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2.C. Edwards198.93648.136
3.M. Martin198.54448.231
4.J. Gordon198.38448.270
5.M. Ambrose197.06148.594

Happy Hour

Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2.M. Truex Jr.197.14348.574
3.J. Logano196.35048.770
4.Ky. Busch196.34648.771
5.J. Johnson196.30648.781

But for the driver piloting the second car in today's tandem drafting, it's all about blind faith. Because he can't see much other than a few hand signals from the driver in the front car -- and radio communications aren't quick enough to help him respond to split-second decisions -- the pusher has to use his ability to feel the draft more than any other sense in his arsenal.

Bayne wound up winning the Daytona 500, but he's perhaps more comfortable as a pusher. It's a spot where he feels like he has a bit more control.

"You have to know you're working with a guy who you can trust, that's not going to put you in crazy situations," Bayne said. "You can back off if you feel like it's getting too crazy and you have no other choice.

"The front guys just have to make really, really smart decisions. Your biggest responsibility as the back guy is making sure you don't get too far out [while breathing the radiator] or anything that can jeopardize the front guy."

Cassill, who helped Kasey Kahne get to the front at Daytona, said he can feel when the car in front is dragging its brakes.

"It's a little bit by feel, on the pressure of how hard I'm pushing," Cassill said. "With Kasey, we communicated really well on the radio but I also got a sense of how much he wanted me to slow down based on how I was pushing. I could feel that on the front bumper.

"We're riding along and I'm wide-open, and I could just feel pushing him, pushing him, pushing him. And then we're coming up on traffic -- you can kind of see the traffic -- and then all of a sudden, I'm getting a feeling that's a sense that I'm pushing him really hard. So I could tell he needed me to slow down a couple miles per hour. He communicated that well but I was also able to get it instantly by feeling it."

Gilliland has worked extensively with Tony Stewart during recent restrictor-plate races. He said there's a fine line to doing it right -- and causing an accident.

"It's like walking a tightrope," Gilliland said. "Being the back car, you're going by feel. You're definitely blind. You can't see where you're going.

"You can feel them on the brakes. You can feel them drag the brake to get connected. There's definitely a lot to it."

Add to that the need for the second car to slide out into clean air to keep the radiator cool, and there's a lot for the pusher to think about while he's driving blind at 190 mph.

"I think the key is obviously keeping your car cool enough and doing what you need to do, sliding across the guy's bumper coming back as smoothly as possible," Gilliland said. "That's really what I've worked on, personally, as a driver -- and have gotten that down pretty good."

As tandem drafting has evolved, the idea that the quicker cars make better pushers has gone out the window, Denny Hamlin said.


"It used to be you had to have a really fast car to push," Hamlin said. "And now, everyone can do it. So the playing field's a lot more level now than what it used to be.

"The guy in the back is at such a disadvantage because they can't see anything. You really rely on the trust of the guy in front of you, that he's going to guide you in the right direction."

The only incident in Friday's final practice session had nothing to do with tandem drafting. Kyle Busch was running by himself on the track 40 minutes into the 60-minute session when his No. 18 Toyota cut a right-front tire and slammed into the outside wall at the apex of the tri-oval. The car suffered heavy damage to its fender and right side.

Busch's crew was busy unloading the backup even before he made it all the way around the 2.66-mile track and back to the garage area, and they worked quickly enough to get him back out for a shakedown run.

* Video: Drivers discuss tandem racing | Busch blows tire

Only 39 of the 47 cars entered recorded at least one lap in Happy Hour. Because handling is perhaps less important at Talladega than any other track, drivers such as Ryan Newman and Hamlin felt they got enough of a feel for the conditions to feel comfortable skipping the final practice.

David Reutimann was clocked at 197.159 mph to top the leaderboard in a tandem draft with teammate Martin Truex Jr. But for the most part, the cars which need to qualify for Sunday's race on time where the ones taking advantage of the final practice session. That included Bayne, who was 20th-quickest with a best lap of 180.857 mph in qualifying trim.