News & Media

Menzer: Thunder only whetted appetites for Speedweeks

January 16, 2012, Joe Menzer,

Interest high to see what happens in the Daytona 500 after active test sessions

From a public relations standpoint, it appears three days of Sprint Cup testing at Daytona International Speedway at the end of last week could not have gone better for NASCAR.

Why? Because now even more so than prior to the testing sessions no one is completely sure what is going to happen when the season-opening Daytona 500 is run at DIS on Feb. 26. But NASCAR officials seem pretty certain that whatever goes down, it's going to be compelling.

"All in all," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, "everything is going according to plan."

For three days last week, NASCAR tweaked and adjusted and poked at everything from restrictor plates and cooling systems to shark fins, radiator-pressure relief valves and front-grille openings on the cars. On the track, there were single-car runs, tandem drafting sessions and, finally, a couple of mass-pack drafting sessions with speeds soaring past the 200 miles per hour line once thought to be too fast for stock cars to run safely.

During an afternoon session last Friday, Kurt Busch tandem drafted with Regan Smith and ripped off a remarkable lap of 206.058 mph that was unofficially declared fastest of them all. (Officials from NASCAR say the higher speeds are safe because the cars themselves are safer and are better engineered to prevent them from becoming airborne as easily as they were as recently as two years ago).

There is something about the cars regularly topping 200 mph that is exciting to both fans and drivers alike. It's sort of a mythical barrier that keeps everyone on the edge of their seats.

Still adjusting

Of course, NASCAR is not done with all the tweaking. It will take what it learned over the three-day test, crunching more numbers in the coming days at its Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., before coming up with the final technical rules package for the upcoming Speedweeks.

And oh yes, for good measure NASCAR also restricted radio communication between cars, even teammates, in a further effort to limit the two-car tandem drafting that so many fans appear to dislike in the most recent restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega. That adds further uncertainty to what will happen in the 500 -- and uncertainty in limited, regulated doses such as those currently being administered by NASCAR only builds the drama and excitement.

Intrigue in Daytona

Three days of testing and plenty of changes later, still no one knows what to expect from the Daytona 500.

It should be noted that after further adjustments to the cars, the fastest tandem-draft speeds recorded during the final day of testing last Saturday appeared to be 201.545 mph, achieved by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne after they paired up. But to give one an idea of how much of an advantage that was over cars not paired up, the fastest lap turned that day in a single-car run was just 194.809 mph by Joe Nemechek.

Bottom line: at some point in the 500, the drivers will pair up to attempt going the fastest that they can. It's inevitable. When they will do so and how they'll pull it off with the limited communication adds to the strategy element of the upcoming race, upping the intrigue.

The final afternoon session last Saturday included testing out the mass-pack drafting that appeals more to fans and, apparently, NASCAR officials -- if not most of the drivers. Brad Keselowski seemed to be about the only driver raving about how much fun it was publicly, and most fretted about it privately.

Their fears were confirmed when the session was cut short by an accident involving Dale Earnhardt Jr., Juan Montoya and Jeff Burton. In true mid-season NASCAR form, none of the three drivers accepted blame and all declared they didn't know what had happened.

So what will happen when these guys go three- and four-wide in mass packs at some point during the Daytona 500? Who knows for sure? More uncertainty. More potential drama.

New looks

Meanwhile, there are so many old faces in new places this season. Kurt Busch, for instance, is out of his long-time ride at Penske Racing and into the No. 51 Chevrolet for owner James Finch at Phoenix Racing. After a tumultuous season in which he repeatedly lost his temper on and off the track and feuded with team personnel, media and other drivers -- five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, in particular -- Busch claims to be a new man.

"And [Kurt Busch] isn't the only old face in a new place. That list, in fact, is so long it's almost mind-boggling."


We'll see. Actions truly do speak louder than words.

But the fact is that Finch-owned cars traditionally have done well in restrictor-plate races despite operating on a limited budget. Busch turned the fastest lap of them all in testing, adding to the intrigue building around this 500.

And he isn't the only old face in a new place. That list, in fact, is so long it's almost mind-boggling.

A.J. Allmendinger took over Busch's ride in the No. 22 Dodge for Penske Racing, and Aric Almirola stepped into Allmendinger's vacated ride in the iconic No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. Kahne is new in the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Mark Martin -- who in turn has moved over the Michael Waltrip Racing, where he will run a part-time schedule. Clint Bowyer has left Richard Childress Racing and will run full-time in the No. 15 Toyota for MWR. David Ragan, who won one of the two races at Daytona last season, is out at Roush Fenway Racing and is in at Front Row Motorsports. And Danica Patrick will make her Sprint Cup debut in the Daytona 500, as she opens a busy season that will include a full-time Nationwide schedule for JR Motorsports and a part-time Cup ride with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Defending Cup champion Tony Stewart snatched up Busch's old crew chief, Steve Addington, and Denny Hamlin swapped out Mike Ford for Darian Grubb, who was discarded by Stewart despite helping the No. 14 Chevy driver to a championship. Several others, including many of the aforementioned drivers, also will be trying to develop chemistry with new crew chiefs; everyone is wondering if Chad Knaus, architect of five consecutive championships with Johnson, was simply toying with the field by going on an African safari last week instead of attending the Daytona test.

There will be a pause this week to celebrate the past when the latest class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame is inducted this Friday in Charlotte, but that will be followed quickly by a current drivers' autograph and question-and-answer extravaganza at the Hall on Saturday, bringing the focus right back into the present. Then it's on to next week's annual preseason media tour, put on each year by Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The offseason, such as it was, is over. The preseason is in full swing. And so far, NASCAR's public-relations machine could not have envisioned a better buildup to the 2012 season opener.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.