News & Media

Caraviello: Busch brings glimpse of clarity to foggy Speedweeks

February 17, 2011, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Three years ago, Kurt Busch played the good teammate. He stayed in line on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and pushed former stablemate Ryan Newman to victory in NASCAR's biggest event. Newman celebrated amid champagne, confetti and flashbulbs. Team owner Roger Penske reveled in the only major race victory to have eluded him at that point. And Busch was content to offer handshakes and backslaps, having performed his role in the greater drama.

"When you do good unto others," Busch said, "you hope it comes back to you."

"The guys are going to be gunning for you. We have the pole, the starting position, we won our Duel today. I don't like to be a favorite, I like to be an underdog."


This weekend may be that time. Daytona International Speedway has been a cauldron of chaos, a place where the new asphalt surface and the vagaries of aerodynamics have combined to send both NASCAR officials and team members scrambling to find the right mechanical combinations for Sunday. There have been high speeds, restrictor-plate changes, alterations to engine cooling systems, and plenty of hand-wringing over a tandem drafting setup that's both alien and fascinating at the same time. The 53rd running of Daytona 500 has become as uncertain as the first.

Thursday, though, at last brought some clarity -- not necessarily in how to master this drafting technique, or in what NASCAR may or may not do as far as forthcoming rules changes, or in whether spectators and competitors have fully embraced a style of racing that can be as strange as a track with a dome over the top. But the fog of uncertainty parted long enough to allow a glimpse of the driver who has asserted himself as the favorite to win this Daytona 500. And he's wearing a firesuit colored lemon yellow.

That would be Busch, the bridesmaid in this event in 2008, who on Thursday added a victory in the first of the Duel 150-mile qualifying races to back up his triumph in this past Saturday night's exhibition opener on the 2.5-mile track. And because of pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s accident in practice on Wednesday -- which necessitated the move to a backup car -- Busch's new No. 22 Dodge will also occupy the top starting spot when the field takes the green Sunday afternoon. Every Speedweeks there's one driver who separates himself from the pack based on his performance in the preliminary events, and as someone put it on Busch's radio Thursday, the No. 22 is two-for-two.

"I would say we're hard pressed not to be the favorite," Busch said. "... The guys are going to be gunning for you. We have the pole, the starting position, we won our Duel today. I don't like to be a favorite, I like to be an underdog. When you're tabbed or dubbed the favorite, you try to block the outside emotions what the day is going to be on Sunday and focus on what's important. I'm going to lean on [crew chief] Steve [Addington] and my guys to keep me in check and get me through these 500 miles."

No question, the unknowns still lurk. The tandem drafting techniques inadvertently spawned by this new racing surface has forced drivers to pair up like nervous students at a school dance, all of them wondering who they should go with who and in what order. Not everyone is comfortable in that environment. But Busch clearly is, as evidenced by his ability to consistently get to the front Thursday. The big push at the end came from Regan Smith, and the two pulled away from Kasey Kahne and Juan Montoya on a late restart to power to the checkered flag. Afterward, the brown paint was all rubbed off the front of Smith's No. 78 car. No matter -- it had done its job well enough to secure the fifth starting spot in Sunday's main event.

"I think our cars together were that good," said Smith, who has no career Cup wins, but suffered an agonizing near miss at Talladega, another restrictor-plate track, three years ago. "It's just something about our two cars together. We found it in practice the other day, too. And I've always had good luck working with Kurt down here in the past, and I don't know why. It just seems like I've always had a car that could draft with him. We found each other, and it worked good."

Replicating that feat in the Daytona 500, though, may be considerably more difficult. Throughout the garage area there are real concerns about engine failures, given how NASCAR asked teams to modify the cars' cooling systems in an effort to bring down speeds that topped out in the white-knuckle neighborhood of 206 mph in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout. That change limits how long cars can pair up before engine temperatures get too high. And then there's the simple issue of space, given that every car needs a partner to get to the front, and Daytona can be treacherously narrow in spots, and the finish of the 500 even under normal conditions can devolve into a case of too many vehicles vying for the same small patch of real estate.

"Right now I think the key element to all of Speedweeks thus far is the fact we had a Shootout with 24 cars, and we had the Duels today with 23 cars apiece," Busch said. "We're going to throw 43 out there on Sunday, and it's going to be a different game again."

Jeff Burton has a theory. "We're going to have about 400 miles of some stuff happening, and we're going to have 100 miles of more stuff happening than you can keep up [with]. We're going to have six or seven cautions in the last 100 miles, a short race 'till the end of the checkered. That's what's going to happen," said the Richard Childress Racing driver, who won Thursday's second qualifying event.

"It's my prediction it will be the same Daytona 500 we've had the last six or seven Daytona 500s. It's going to be different getting up to that point. But when somebody has a chance to take the Daytona 500 trophy home, you do things that you weren't going to do 100 laps before that. It's the same thing every time we come down here. I can almost guarantee you that's the way the Daytona 500's going to break. We could have some crazy thing where it doesn't happen like that. But I can almost guarantee you, that's what's going to happen."

The engine situation looms large. The power plant that Ford teams began using last season places an emphasis on cooling, perhaps allowing a slight edge to the Roush-Fenway cars and Wood Brothers phenom Trevor Bayne in an event that promises to stretch well over three hours in length. And then there's the simple matter of history -- plenty of drivers have been here before, showing consistent strength throughout the duration of Speedweeks, only to have a minor part of a set of circumstances derail what took 10 days to build. If Busch sweeps the Shootout, a qualifying race, and the Daytona 500 in the same year, he'll be the first ever to do it.

"I don't know how you would call anyone a favorite," Burton said. "Nothing against what Kurt's done, and he's won the two [races] he's been in. But it looks like the Roush guys have their cooling package, and are probably ahead of the game on everybody. I wouldn't turn my head on them, because it seemed to me that they could push longer than anyone else. I thought that could have been an advantage for them. But listen, there are a lot of quality teams and drivers, and a lot of people like [crew chief] Todd [Berrier] staying up until 2 in the morning trying to make this thing work. I don't know who you would call a favorite."

The driver who pushed Busch to victory in the first qualifier Thursday would agree. "I don't know that there is a favorite right now," Smith said. "It just depends on who gets hooked up, and how they work together and how they are together. I don't know that you can pick a favorite, I'm not going to lie."

Even Busch will admit he's still trying to wrap his head completely around this drafting system, trying to find the right partners, trying to find the moves that work best on the race track. It's not outside the realm of possibility that the Daytona 500 could come down to how seamlessly two cars switch positions, a maneuver that's demanded by the cooling system change and allows the field to catch up to the cars in front. There was one big pothole out on the race track last season. There are many more out there this year, and nobody -- not even the driver who has established himself as the favorite -- is able to see them all right now.

"I can't get too far ahead of myself, because this is Daytona, and this place can jump up and bite you pretty quick," Busch said. " But we are going to ride this wave."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.