News & Media

Rodman: New-style racing creates new thought processes

February 13, 2011, Dave Rodman,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Two-car drafts all the way around the track were the way to go in the Shootout

"I've got a headache," Denny Hamlin told a questioner in the Sprint Cup garage, minutes after he exited his race car in the aftermath of the Budweiser Shootout.

His anguish resulted not from being disqualified from an apparent win, he said -- but rather from the mental strain of a new brand of racing, seen Saturday night for the first time at Daytona International Speedway.

Two-car drafts ruled the evening -- with the exception of a couple four-car breakaways seen late. The whole thing had Hamlin figuratively scratching his head -- and looking at a questioner who suggested this brand of racing was simpler, as if he'd suggested the moon was made of cheese.

"There's an art to it, whether it's a big, 40-car pack or a two-car tandem -- there's an art to all this," Hamlin said. "There's more thinking going on. And for me, it was hard. It was strategic; trying to get back up to the front at the right time, and ultimately it didn't work out at the end.

"But I think the fans saw a great finish -- three-wide at the line, at the end, for the win. And I don't see the Daytona 500 being different."

But Hamlin wasn't steaming, and that was as much a function of the non-points aspect of Saturday night's event as it was the calm, focused mode he honed to near-perfection in last year's Chase.

He needed it Saturday, which turned out to be as revealing -- and as third-place finisher Ryan Newman so aptly put it -- as "unexpected" a night of racing, that no imagination could have predicted it.

Hamlin made what he thought was a three-wide pass for his second Shootout win, but in the process he went below the double-yellow out-of-bounds line on the bottom of the track -- and thus his pass was disallowed.

Hamlin was booted back to 12th, which given the blatant nature of the violation was no surprise. But when the checkered flag waved, the scoring pylons had Hamlin's No. 11 at the top -- and that, and the finish to the wildly-choreographed event -- had the broadly-estimated crowd of 80,000 standing up, whooping and hollering, ultimate winner Kurt Busch said.

In the aftermath of a record-breaking 33rd-annual Shootout due to 28 lead changes, that was the ultimate refresher.

It's a good thing the 24 drivers who were in the Shootout, and the 25 others entered in the Daytona 500, have three full days to regroup and evaluate just what it's going to take to compete -- and potentially win -- next Sunday's Daytona 500.

The only event Sunday is single-car qualifying to lock-in the front row for the Great American Race. Monday and Tuesday are quiet days, as teams from the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series arrive at the track.

There'll be plenty of head-scratching going on as drivers and teams try to figure out just what this new style of racing is going to take, to survive, first, and then succeed. The full field of 49 entrants will have 160 minutes of practice Wednesday preparing for Thursday's Gatorade Duel qualifying races.

There'll be plenty to practice, as second-place Shootout finisher Jamie McMurray and third man Ryan Newman helped to explain.

"I hope I hit the front row and can sit back and watch the Duels on Thursday," Newman said, before he laughed and explained. "Because it's fun to be a part of it, but when you've got guys in there that are mixed-up trying to go for making [the Daytona 500], it's going to get really crazy.

"All of us were very respectful [Saturday night], with the runs we were getting. There was probably 15 miles an hour [speed] difference at times and if a guy was inexperienced or had to make something happen and pulled up in front of you, it was going to be a big wreck."

"All of us were very respectful [Saturday night], with the runs we were getting. There was probably 15 miles an hour [speed] difference at times and if a guy was inexperienced or had to make something happen and pulled up in front of you, it was going to be a big wreck."


"A big wreck," McMurray concurred, with a nod.

"That's something I think we have to be prepared for, all us drivers going into Thursday's races," Newman said, "is the -- I guess, the unexpected hazardous efforts to try to make a position to make the Daytona 500."

Newman didn't have to finish the thought. Your imagination can do the rest, based on the experience of the Shootout. Twice, drivers with the experience of two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart and maybe the most respected driver in the Cup garage, Mark Martin, made errors in two-car drafts that resulted in wrecks.

And McMurray was pretty blunt in his overall assessment of what the two-car tandems, which involve cars remaining literally in contact with each other for laps at a time, might mean.

"It's so much different than what we've had here before, because handling is not important and it's just even at Talladega we've never been locked together for more than a couple of laps -- so it's completely different racing," McMurray said. "What Ryan said earlier about when the guys behind you get the runs they do and they're coming so fast. ... When you're pushing a guy you just follow him and you can't see anything. And if someone pulls up to block him, you're going to shove him right through him because you can't see."

Everyone said the night put a huge emphasis on communication both with their spotters, and something even more arcane than that. Kevin Harvick and his spotter worked out a "touch system" in which Harvick, who was following Jeff Gordon closely, told his spotter when Gordon needed to lift and Harvick's spotter communicated that to Gordon by touching his spotter.

It only worked well enough to put Gordon in sixth and Harvick, the two-time defending Shootout champion, in seventh. But there was more to it than that, as Harvick discovered when his rev limiter -- an electronic device that limits the amount of RPMs an engine can turn -- would kick-in and prevent him from effectively pushing his drafting partner.

At one point, Harvick keyed his in-car radio and said "I'm half-tempted to reach up and pull the [limiter] off," which prompted Richard Childress Racing competition director Mike Dillon to come on and tell Harvick he could pull the wires out "with 10 laps to go."

After the race, Harvick smiled when he admitted, "I found out I couldn't reach the thing, but believe me, if I could've [reached it] I would've [pulled the wires], I will promise you that."

"[Friday] in traffic during practice, I worked just fine with the No. 24, too," Harvick said. "It's just when it is up on the rev limiter like that -- I was hitting it halfway down the straightaway and all the way to the end and we were just getting further behind.

"I think everybody was looking forward to [the Shootout] for sure, [as a test session]. It's one of those deals where we needed [Saturday] to figure out some things and we know what we need to do. All we need to do is change one rev chip and we'll be ready."

And now, maybe the biggest "unexpected" might be how much the fans like this brand of Daytona racing. Several times the top 10 were split into five distinct pairs, ebbing and flowing as they tested the laws of physics and aerodynamics.

"NASCAR's going to evaluate it, but the fans were on their feet, jumping up and down," Busch said. "We do need to get the fans' opinion."

You got to hope they liked it, to hear Busch tell it.

"If there are 40 cars out there," Busch said, "there are gonna be 20 two-car packs."

The stats were telling. After 75 laps -- or a little more than a third the distance of the Daytona 500 -- there was one blown engine and nine cars eliminated by accidents. If you extrapolate that out times three, it might be the classic case of "last man standing, wins."

"It's way different than anything we've ever had in the past," McMurray said. "I hope it was fun to watch."

"That was the most unexpected race I've ever been a part of," Newman said.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.