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At Daytona, action on spotter's stand rivals that on the track

February 18, 2011, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tandem style of drafting at Daytona is creating havoc for the eyes in the sky

On the cool-down lap after the conclusion of Thursday's second qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway, Jeff Burton's spotter keyed the microphone on his headset and sent his driver a final message. "I don't know if I can do this for 500 miles on Sunday," Brett Griffin said. Up on the spotter's stand perched high above the race track, all of his peers were surely thinking the same thing.

The action on the race track this weekend has been tame compared to the frenzy on the spotter's stand, where the tandem style of drafting spawned by Daytona's new racing surface has created unbridled havoc for the eyes in the sky. The cars preparing for the Daytona 500 may not be running in huge packs this year, but they are running in nose-to-tail pairs that limit driver visibility and can create large discrepancies in closing rates. As a result spotters are scrambling -- both to physically relocate themselves next to the spotter for whomever their driver is drafting with, and to rapidly relay information that can become outdated in a matter of seconds.

"This is like going to the high school dance. You're going to hook up with some girl and go until about 11 o'clock. But by 11:05, you're going to have to find another date, because she hooked up with your buddy. That's what you're dealing with."


"Mayhem," Tab Boyd, spotter for Juan Montoya, called it.

"It's not fun," added Keith Barnwell, spotter for Martin Truex Jr. "I'm downplaying it. It's a fricking nightmare."

Spotting for a driver enveloped in a 43-car pack seems easy compared to this. Although drivers have more space around them in this tandem-drafting setup, the driver in the back is effectively running blind. In Thursday's second qualifying race, Montoya told Boyd that he couldn't see through or around partner Kasey Kahne's car, so the Earnhardt Ganassi driver didn't know who was in front of them or where he was in the running order. And drafting in such close proximity demands fighter-pilot timing on the part of the drivers, who have to execute switches and moves up or down the race track with mutual dexterity to avoid spinning one or the other out.

Then there's the closing rate. Two cars drafting together have proven so much faster than cars running on their own, so when they separate to switch positions -- a move mandated by an engine cooling system adjustment that NASCAR ordered to try and keep speeds down -- other drafting cars can make up ground at a blinding rate. Dale Earnhardt Jr. partly blamed closing rates for his incident with Truex in practice on Wednesday, a crash which forced the Daytona 500 pole winner to a backup car.

"It is so much harder. It's five times as hard now than it ever was in the worst pack it's been before," Boyd said. "The closing rate is the big thing. Even though you only have two by two by two, when there was a big group, it was easier to determine what was going to happen, because the moves were slower. Now, when two guys get hooked up and another two guys get separated, it's three seconds a lap difference. They are either catching you or you're catching them in a hurry. It is so difficult to figure out what's going on."

Last year Barnwell spotted for Jamie McMurray, helping guide the driver of the No. 1 car through a last-lap jumble and to victory in the Daytona 500. "It was easy compared to this," he said. "It really was, even in the hornet's nest. Here's the thing -- in the hornet's nest, you're either clear, or somebody's inside, or somebody's outside. But there is no element of a guy shoving up your butt trying to push you through it."

Information from spotters is always crucial to drivers, but even more so this week. Pushing Kurt Busch in the season-opening Shootout this past Saturday, McMurray would hear spotter Lorin Ranier tell him that Busch was going to pass a car on the outside. So McMurray would adjust, moving his front bumper to the right-rear of Busch's car so they'd be centered as Busch made the move. "When you watch it on TV and you see the cars zigging and zagging back and forth, if you misjudge that, it will be a wreck," McMurray said. "I think the spotters are more important with the two-car drafts than at any other time."

It's all changed the way spotters do their jobs, at least this week. High above the Daytona frontstretch, spotters typically use hand signals to alert their drafting counterparts as to what their drivers are intending to do. Now, though, the moves are happening so quickly, and require such precise coordination, that spotters are moving around to physically locate themselves next to the spotter of whomever they're drafting with. That's not always simple, especially at a sprawling track like Daytona that features two spotter's stands. When Montoya hooked up with Kahne late in Thursday's qualifier, "I looked everywhere for a Red Bull hat," Boyd said, referring to Kahne's car sponsor.

"It probably looks like a bunch of ants up there running around as things switch on the restarts as to who's going to work with who," former Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick said. "There's just more strategy and more talking than any race I've ever been a part of."

It can be tricky, given that spotters still have to keep their eyes on the track, and give information to their drivers, while searching out or maneuvering into position next to the spotter of their current drafting partner. Barnwell found himself in that situation Thursday when Truex hooked up with Denny Hamlin, whose spotter Curtis Markham was working from another stand. "I literally have to get off, go down, up the steps to Curtis," Barnwell said. "First time he came to me, second time I went to him. But if you're doing that, you're taking away from what you're doing. So it's a little bit of a bad situation there."

And the dance partners change every time two drivers hook up or separate. Keeping an eye on the No. 56 car through binoculars, Barnwell on Thursday relayed every communication from Truex to whichever spotter he was standing next to. In an attempt to prevent drivers from inadvertently spinning one another out -- something that's become too common this week --some spotters have developed a shoulder-pat system to let their drafting partners know when their driver is getting into or off the throttle. Many drivers are using team radio channels to communicate with one another directly. Back up on the spotter's stand, hand signals can leave no doubt: crossed arms followed by one finger, for example, mean the cars will be switching position in Turn 1.

"There's so much information, you can't hardly get it all out of your mouth quick enough before the situation changes and you're telling him about another situation," Boyd said. "It's fun once you get going. But the restarts and the initial hookups and getting everybody going, it's crazy."

And as soon as a driver changes drafting partners, the spotter's stand shuffle begins again. Barnwell estimates that about 75 percent of the pairings on the race track are forged by the eyes in the sky. "This is like going to the high school dance," Barnwell said. "You're going to hook up with some girl and go until about 11 o'clock. But by 11:05, you're going to have to find another date, because she hooked up with your buddy. That's what you're dealing with."

Thursday, the end result left them all exhausted. Barnwell said he felt as physically and mentally drained after the 150-mile qualifier as he typically does after a 500-lap event on the short track in Bristol, Tenn. "Those were the toughest 60 laps I've ever done, and I've been doing this for a long time," he added. And it was just a hint of what's to come over 500 miles and nearly four hours on Sunday.

"Sunday," Boyd said, "is going to be the hardest race I've ever done."