Drivers develop new strategies for new cars
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Passing on the left? It may be the understanding on interstate highways, but it wasn’t the case Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Matt Kenseth certainly tried, pulling his yellow Toyota to the bottom of the 2.5-mile race track again and again over the course of the season-opening Sprint Unlimited exhibition race. And although the vehicle seemed as strong as any in the 19-car field, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver couldn’t generate enough momentum to challenge Kevin Harvick for the victory.
LEADERBOARD: See the final results
Kenseth finished fifth, but as the focus now turns to the Daytona 500, he took solace in the fact that his Sprint Unlimited car was speedy enough to mix it up at the front and lead 26 laps. And with the Great American Race now a week away, he knows it will take more than a few cars in the low lane to try and outrun those charging along the top.
“I just needed to get a couple more guys on my bumper,” Kenseth said. “One time, we had a good enough line to do it and they got three-wide behind me, stalled the line out and we just couldn't go anywhere after that. But we had to try.”
"Lot of different things happening out there, and everyone’s just going to have to learn what works and what doesn’t."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He certainly did, often without a whole lot of help. “I need more people with me here!” he barked at one point over the radio, as he tried to outmuscle the majority of the field plastered to the top. Saturday night’s non-points event was the first featuring the more brand-identifiable Generation-6 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars, which from the drivers’ perspectives carried with them plenty of unknowns -- particularly in the draft on one of NASCAR’s wildest tracks.
The checkered flag brought a degree of clarity, even in an event that had been whittled down to 12 cars by a pileup on the 15th lap. The side-draft is more a factor now than ever. And a few cars by themselves found it very difficult in the low line, even if those vehicles were as strong as Kenseth’s or that of fourth-place finisher Tony Stewart. Harvick may have swooped across the track from the low side to put a block on Greg Biffle on the final lap, but in such a limited field, the road to victory was clearly through the high line.
“Everybody figured out you could really side-draft and slow down that bottom lane,” Harvick said. “The 20 (car of Kenseth) definitely probably had the fastest car. He couldn’t make it all the way by himself and through the corner and get on the straightaway, because of the side-draft.”
Kenseth certainly did all he could, nosing up on Harvick again and again. “We had three or four shots to almost get cleared on Kevin, but he had a strong car and we just couldn't make it happen,” he said. That may have had less to do with the vehicles’ power than their positioning relative to the rest of the field.
“There were just few enough cars that when about eight or 10 of them started controlling the top line, they basically controlled the fate of everyone else,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished eighth. “You really had to have more cars moving around and going for the lead to get a little more racing, a little more action. But I thought what I saw the first segment and the second segment, even with just a few cars out there, it was pretty dicey.”
But from beginning to end, cars had a hard time overtaking the leaders from the bottom. Kenseth was often simply outnumbered, with too few other competitors willing to switch down to the low line.
“It looked like everybody lined up on the top, and then if everybody commits to one line, you don't want to be the lone guy out there trying to make something happen,” said Carl Edwards, who finished 12th. “Right now, it seems that this race -- the 500 -- it could turn into anything. Anything could develop because as the race went on tonight, we learned different things the whole event. There's no telling what's going to happen. I don't know if it'll be the top or the bottom, middle, who knows?”
It’s a new challenge, one Earnhardt seems to enjoy.
“You’ve got to really think about what you’re doing up there, what you do, the decisions you make, what line you’re in,” he said. “We haven’t had to worry about what line you get in for years, so that’s kind of neat, wondering whether the top or the bottom is going to move. Lot of different things happening out there, and everyone’s just going to have to learn what works and what doesn’t.”
Joey Logano said it’s not unusual for the high line at Daytona to be faster, because cars up there have an easier time staying close together, and therefore encounter less resistance from the air. Cars on the bottom, meanwhile, are more apt to be pulled apart, which makes it more difficult for them to overtake the vehicles on their outside.
“The outside lane, you come off the corners, it’s got a head of steam, and it tightens everybody up,” the third-place finisher said. “And when the cars tighten up, it takes a lot of drag off everybody’s cars, and that whole lane will accelerate. When you’re pulling those guys apart on the bottom, they’re getting further and further apart, and it just slows your lane down. If they can’t quite get there and stay tight, the top guys will just keep dragging them down, dragging them down. That’s why the top prevails, for the most part, unless you have some really stout cars on the bottom.”
But will that still be the case later in Speedweeks, with more cars on the race track? Earnhardt believes the Daytona 500 will be different -- there will be enough cars in that event, he said, for both high and low lanes to storm to the finish.
“Absolutely, with more cars on the track it will be way more racier,” he said. “When you’ve got 12 cars on the track and eight or 10 of them decide to run the top like that, it really controls the rest of the field. You can’t get two cars together and make enough speed that eight or 10 can do at the same time. They just outnumbered everybody on the top, so that’s what you kind of had to run out there. That just kind of forced everybody’s hand out there. That was smart. Sometimes you use your brain to win races.”
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