News & Media

Caraviello: For good or bad, pack racing is back at Daytona

February 19, 2012, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There were some big crashes, but the drivers prefer pack over two-car draft

The No. 29 car of Kevin Harvick was missing all of its front-end sheet metal as it was pushed through the garage area late Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. The No. 17 car of Matt Kenseth was up on jacks, its nose smashed in as if it had recently taken a punch to the face. The No. 51 car of Kurt Busch looked as if a giant animal had taken a bite out of its left-rear flank. And then there was the No. 24 car of Jeff Gordon, hanging from the hook of a wrecker, scraped and dented and crumpled in almost every way possible after tumbling again and again and again near the end of the Budweiser Shootout.

The only thing louder than the roar of the 13 remaining Sprint Cup cars restarting to finish the race was the gnashing of a power saw, which Hendrick Motorsports crewmen used to cut away chunks from Gordon's mangled vehicle. All eyes and mobile phone cameras were pointed in the direction of the mechanical carnage -- until Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch barreled wheel-to-wheel toward the finish line, leaving spectators cheering an apparent victory by the three-time champion, and then showing shocked expressions when a red No. 18 blinked atop the infield scoring tower.


The return of pack racing also brought back the Big One -- and there were a few of them in the Budweiser Shootout. Take a look at all the crashes from Saturday night.

Goodness. Pack racing is back, and with it all the glory and calamity that is so often synonymous with it, all of that very evident in 82 laps Saturday night at NASCAR's most famous track. Now take a deep breath, multiply everything by a factor of two or three, and pull tight on those belts in anticipation of the Daytona 500.

Everything that people love and hate about pack drafting was shone in vivid relief Saturday under Daytona's bright lights. There was the sound, that unmistakable roar, and the spectacle of 25 cars -- just imagine 43 -- bundled wide and deep. There were saves like Kyle Busch's double-correction, down-on-the-apron, swerve job that made jaws drop. There were drivers who were able to go from the back to the front. There was that amazing finish, Busch and Stewart hurtling toward the checkered flag, and a margin of victory of .013 seconds that was the closest in the event's history.

And then there were the wrecks. Say what you want about the tandem drafting that's cropped up on restrictor-plate tracks the past few years, those two-car pods that evolved from track resurfacing and front-end tweaks, a format that many fans reviled and NASCAR officials worked diligently to eliminate. But that style also served to string out the field, and make the Big Ones just a little smaller and little less catastrophic. Back in the pack, everything is magnified. There was a nine-car wreck early, a six-car wreck later, and an eight-car pileup near the end, the latter of which took out a number of top contenders and sent Gordon on his Richard Petty-like barrel roll down the track.

"It's pretty wild and crazy," Gordon said, "but I mean, I like this better than what we had last year, definitely."

To a large degree that seemed the consensus, that despite all the accidents many of the drivers really prefer it this way, a judgment that will surely please fans who have been lobbying for a return to pack drafting since the day the two-car tandem reared its head. It's not totally eliminated -- Kyle Busch and Stewart essentially tandem-raced to the end -- but that might have been more a product of the green-white-checkered finish than anything else. Saturday night there were plenty of drivers who endured hold-your-breath moments, who saw their chances to win ended by a hail of sparks and crunching sheet metal, who were caught in somebody else's mess or wrecked through no fault of their own. But there were also many who lauded what they experienced, who felt like they once again have control of their own destiny, who will take this over what they experienced before.

"You can choose your own fate in this kind of racing," said Denny Hamlin, who finished fifth. "You don't have to rely on someone else for you to have a good day. You can race your own race. If you choose to run in the back, or choose to run in the front, or mix it up all day, you choose your own fate. You don't have to continue to worry about someone else, and I think everyone else will agree that they like it like that."

Stewart agreed. "It was definitely a lot more fun, and you felt a lot more eager to be engaged in the race this way than in the two car deal," he said. "I actually had fun racing at Daytona again, which I haven't had for a while, so I'm really, really appreciative to the work that NASCAR has done in the offseason, and the test session, and even after the test of the changes that they made to try to make it better for us out there. I don't know what the consensus is from everybody else, but I had more fun as a driver than what we've had in the past."

"It was definitely a lot more fun, and you felt a lot more eager to be engaged in the race this way than in the two car deal. I actually had fun racing at Daytona again."


There's a disconnect there that can be difficult to wrap your head around -- all those wrecked cars on one hand, all those drivers happy to be back in control on the other. No question, the big accidents left you wincing, and wondering what a much longer and much more pressure-packed Daytona 500 might hold. Of course, the Shootout is also a season-opening exhibition with a history of being somewhat chaotic, and the 500 is an event in which drivers have to exercise more patience because the finish line is so much further away. At least, that's the hope in the wake of Saturday night, when only a few cars escaped without damage.

"Look at the history of this race. They always crash here," Stewart said. "Go to Talladega, they crash cars there. It's a yard sale every time we go to a restrictor-plate track. ... We're telling you, it's better. You guys [in the media] are like, is it going to be that bad next week? It's not that bad. It's the Bud Shootout. Everybody pushes the envelope. Everybody tries to see what that limit is, what that boundary is. When it comes to Sunday, you have to race 500 miles, you have to make it last till the end. I think it's in the drivers' hands. Everybody, people that didn't even run the Shootout [Saturday] ... saw better than we did behind the wheel how the scenarios played out in each one of those accidents. I think that's kind of to a certain degree what NASCAR had in mind when they came up with this package, was to put the decision in our hands."

The accidents were no different. Saturday night, many of the crashes were started by drivers pushing too hard on the left-rear of another car. The only people who can remedy that are the ones holding the steering wheels. "Its all up to us," Kyle Busch said. "... It's a product of what us drivers need to be better at. We need to fix that."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was more succinct: "You just hold your damn car where it needs to be and not drive around like an idiot," he said. But he still liked the pack drafting better than the tandem style. "I think we have really made a lot of great improvements, and I have more of my destiny in my hands in this type of racing," he added.

Not that it wasn't nerve-wracking. Busch called it a "tense pack," given that drivers were pushing all the time, even five rows back. Alterations made to cars' cooling systems to deemphasize the tandem drafting left many teams worried about their water pressure, particularly given that the vehicles can run hotter when they're all bunched together, particularly given that next Sunday's big show will be in the warmer afternoon. And then there's the experience factor, the theory that some drivers just aren't as used to drafting in a big pack on restrictor-plate tracks, and they'll have to get accustomed to it again in order to prevent more big wrecks like the ones on display Saturday night.

"I think it's just the rust coming out on everyone," Hamlin said. "It's been a couple of years since we've had this, and we've got to get acclimated."

They have eight days to do it. Take a deep breath. Invest in sheet metal. For good or bad, with all its glory and misery, the pack has returned to Daytona. And what we've seen thus far is only a warm-up.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.