News & Media

Smack: Fords were pack leaders, but will it continue?

February 23, 2012, ,

Strong qual efforts could be for naught in a wreckfest, and what about Danica?

1. Roush cars swept the front row for the Daytona 500, with Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle fastest in qualifying. Should we view them as favorites to win the Great American Race?

Mark Aumann: Perhaps the only other track on the circuit where qualifying up front means diddly squat is Talladega. Check out the starting positions of three of the past four 500 winners: Trevor Bayne, 32nd; Matt Kenseth; 39th; Kevin Harvick, 34th. It's great that Doug Yates builds stout motors. That's a feather in the cap of the Roush Fenway guys. But Sunday is all about how your car works in the draft, again.

Joe Menzer: I think perhaps that's oversimplifying a very complex deal here. I think the Fords will be stout. Hey, Trevor Bayne won last year in a Ford. But I wouldn't be surprised to see someone else sneak in there -- maybe even Kyle Busch in a Toyota, based on his incredible win in the Bud Shootout (which, admittedly, doesn't frequently transfer over into Daytona 500 success).

David Caraviello: Ah, Daytona. Ah, the return of Track Smack. It's morning in NASCAR-land again, boys and girls. As for whether being on the front row translates into success at Daytona -- Trevor Bayne started 32nd last year, as Mark said. Especially now that the pack is back (we'll get to more on that later), cars are liable to be zooming from the back to the front, and more than once. Now that's not to say that the Fords aren't very good here, and one of them may very well win the race, but I don't know that getting on the front row for the Daytona 500 means much more than a nice photo op and a slap on the back.

Mark Aumann: The last pole-winner to get to Victory Lane? Dale Jarrett -- in a Ford with Yates power -- more than a decade ago. And hey, welcome back to Smack, jack. And David and Joe as well. And by the way, there's no truth to the rumor that Carl Edwards is pushing for points to be given retroactively for winning poles. In a roulette wheel of a race in which it's much more important who you know -- and who can push you -- what you have under the hood is key but it's a lot of luck as well.

David Caraviello: Hey Mark, let's not forget that David Ragan won the most recent Sprint Cup race at Daytona, and did it in a Roush Ford. Not the Daytona 500, I know, but still the same manufacturer at the same track. Ford has long touted the fact that this newer engine of theirs cools better, and that may be just the thing in a long afternoon race where everyone may be worried about their cars overheating in pack traffic.

Joe Menzer: Geez, David. So are you already contradicting yourself in the first few minutes of Track Smack 2012? You just got done saying that qualifying well for the Daytona 500 didn't mean diddly squat. Or was that Mark?

David Caraviello: Um, that was Mark. I think what most impressed me was the depth the Fords showed in front-row qualifying. Yes, Carl Edwards is on the pole and Greg Biffle is on the outside. But Casey Mears was up there. Ragan was up there, in his new Furniture Row car. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was up there in a one-off Roush car. All the Fords were clustered up toward the front, it seemed. One of them may not win the race, but they'll all be fast, which means they'll at least give themselves a chance.

Mark Aumann: The Twins -- or Duels, or whatever we're calling them this year -- have changed in importance. Back in the good old days, they were keys to getting a good starting spot for the 500. Now they're much more important as a "tune up race" to finding a drafting partner in the clutch. So I really think we'll know a lot more about who's hot and who's not by Thursday evening.

Joe Menzer: This race is clearly going to be about who can stay clear of the trouble for about 490 miles and then find a fast drafting partner for the last 10 or so. Easier said than done, and luck, as usual, will play a role both on the good and bad side.

Mark Aumann: At the same time, David, some of the strategy has been for teams to hide in the back, so it's really hard to pin all of Ford's front-running status on just the engines. Not to say they haven't been stout, but seems like we've seen a lot more "hide and seek" from top teams since the tandem draft.

David Caraviello: Joe, I don't think it's quite that simple. If we learned anything in the Shootout, it appears that cars must handle well to be able to get to the front and stay in those mini-tandems we're seeing within the bigger pack. It was tough for some cars to stay together, because one was faster than the other, or one handled better. I get that chance plays a very large role here, and I get that avoiding the Big One is key, but I feel like the cars being good is perhaps a little more important than it was in the past.

Joe Menzer: The one thing I will concede is that with all the Fords in the race that appear to have those stout engines that cool well under these circumstances, Edwards and Biffle and anyone else wheeling a Ford should have plenty of choices when it comes time to choose a fast drafting partner toward the end of the race. That does bode well for them. Having said that, I'm still going with my ample gut and picking Kyle Busch to win his first Daytona 500. I have spoken.

David Caraviello: The Fords just have made too much of a statement to ignore, boys. Give me a Ford driver who is very good at staying calm and patient, and won't rush things in a long race where keeping cool -- for the driver and the car -- are going to be key. Give me Matt Kenseth.

Mark Aumann: Sunday's forecast is for a high near 70. That's good horsepower weather -- and may help the smaller radiators mandated this year.

Joe Menzer: That's good race-watchin' weather, too, whether you're a fan or a team member on top of the pit box, or a member of the media roaming the infield. I look forward to it.

Mark Aumann: All right. Looks like I'm going to have to intervene and stand up for the bowtie guys. Tony Stewart finally breaks the jinx and turns the tables on Busch in the 500.

Joe Menzer: Of course all this means is that someone other than Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart or Matt Kenseth probably is going to win this year's 500.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, don't run to Las Vegas and mortgage the house.

David Caraviello: Speaking of overheating concerns, I'm just worried about Joe making it down to Daytona in his 1996 Windstar. Now there's one Ford I don't have much faith in at all.

Joe Menzer: I'm flying, not driving. Besides, don't dis the Blue Max. It's a 2001 Ford Windstar minivan. Has power windows and doors, too.

David Caraviello: And an AM/FM cassette player, I hear!

Mark Aumann: Please tell me its nickname is Rusty.

2. As we saw in a wreck-filled Shootout, pack racing has returned to Daytona. What does that portend for the Daytona 500?

Joe Menzer: Good question. I would say more of the same. There are going to be more wrecks. I'm in the minority, I know, when I say that I did not mind the tandem racing. I found it different and interesting, although I guess it got less so the more we saw of it. Regardless, NASCAR says pack racing is what 87 percent of the fans wanted -- so that's what they'll be getting.


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.

David Caraviello: I fear it means we're going to have a wreck-filled Daytona 500, particularly given that the Shootout is usually comprised of the best drivers on the circuit, and includes only about half the cars we'll see running Sunday afternoon. Yes, it's an exhibition, yes, guys take risks in it and go for broke. But add in a lot more cars, and add in a lot more drivers who aren't as experienced or talented as the ones who took part Saturday night ... it could be a long day.

Mark Aumann: I think Thursday's races will tell us a lot more about what to expect. It's easy to think with pack racing, we'll get back to the "avoid the Big One" mentality. But I'm not so sure that drivers are willing to be that conservative for 500 miles in this instance. The real key is the quicker closing rates. It seems like guys were surprised by that, and it only takes one misstep to set off a chain-reaction melee.

Joe Menzer: Well, I think the most experienced drivers will be prepared to exercise the patience required of riding around and essentially "avoiding The Big One." But like David said, not everyone is going to be that experienced or that patient. And when others start to push it, that tends to get everyone moving toward riding the edge.

David Caraviello: I'll be honest, Joe, I didn't mind the tandem racing because it strung the cars out a bit, and seemed to make the Big One a little smaller. I don't like big multi-car crashes on restrictor-plate tracks. Never have, never will. They hit me right in the pit of the stomach. And the finishes under the tandem format were often just as electric as what we saw Saturday night -- especially given that the endgame between Tony and Kyle was essentially a tandem draft with a nice slingshot at the finish line.

Joe Menzer: Exactly! How nice of you to agree with me.

Mark Aumann: If the 500 winds up anything like the majority of races in the past five or so years, we'll see a lot of patience through 400 miles. Then everything goes haywire after that. And oh by the way, since the advent of the green-white-checkered, only one race -- 2008 -- has ended in regulation. Now, we've usually seen an early multi-car wreck -- mainly because guys get a little jittery in the early stages -- then it settles down. If that happens near the front of the pack, it could really ruin the day for some good cars.

Joe Menzer: Yeah, earlier I said 490 laps -- but that was an exaggeration. With about 100 to go, it usually starts to get crazy as even the ones who have exercised the most patience start ratcheting it up. Of course, Kenseth in 2009 was a rain-shortened victory, but your point is well taken. Usually there is a G-W-C finish.

David Caraviello: What Mark says is right on. These guys are going to have to be much more patient than they showed Saturday night. Stewart pointed out afterward that the Shootout is always kind of crazy, and guys have to use a bigger-picture mentality for the 500, and he's right about that. But how many guys will actually do that? How many drivers are going to be impatient? How many are going to race on lap 50 as if it's the final lap of the race? And don't we have a halfway leader bonus in play this year? Saying it is one thing ... actually seeing it is very much another.

Joe Menzer: Forgot for a moment about the halfway bonus. That could make the first half of the race far more interesting than it's ever been. There are teams who definitely will plan to go for that, I do believe. And I like it.

Mark Aumann: The weird thing is the Duels have been much calmer in recent years, perhaps because starting positions aren't nearly as critical as they once were -- and fewer guys are battling for open spots. But this year? If we see some big wrecks Thursday, watch out for Sunday. I personally like this better than the bungee-cord drafting. But I'd rather go back to the era when cars could get away from each other and drafting was more on a one-to-one basis. However, with restrictor plates and common templates, that horse left the pasture long ago.

David Caraviello: Hey, this is the style of racing the fans wanted, and NASCAR worked to give them, and even the vast majority of the drivers said they enjoyed better. Who are we to throw cold water on all that? I'll give you, the sight and the sound of that big pack circling Daytona is awesome. It's like some large, menacing, living creature snarling the whole way around. Viscerally, it pushes all the right buttons, so it's easy to see why fans liked the aesthetic of the pack draft over the two-car format. Of course, then Jeff Gordon rolls over and lands on his roof.

Mark Aumann: No cold water. Sunshine. Warm. It's Florida.

Joe Menzer: Listen, here's what cool about it. When they ended up with the tandem racing, it was new and different and kept things interesting. Now that we're making a switch back to pack racing, it's another adjustment and it's kind of new and interesting and different in its own right. Keeps everyone on their toes -- or the edge of their seats, whether they're drivers or fans in the stands or at home, watching on TV. That's the bottom line, really.

Mark Aumann: If the seats are lined with bottoms, NASCAR will be pleased.

David Caraviello: Ah yes. Sunshine, the beach, and fresh-squeezed orange juice make it all better. Speaking of Florida, where is the Windstar now, Menzer? Jacksonville? I think I can hear those fan belts squeaking from here.

Joe Menzer: Plus let's not forget that the tandem drafting hasn't gone away completely. It's still going to be the single-most important element in deciding who wins the race when it gets down to those last 20-30 laps. As for the Windstar, I'm looking for another minivan to draft with as we speak. Any ideas? What's Jimmy Spencer driving these days?

David Caraviello: Just put another .38 Special tape into the cassette player and rock on down here, my man.

Mark Aumann: "I swear we were doin' 80 when Joe saw those Daytona lights ..."

3. There's a new driver making her first Sprint Cup start this weekend, and her name might be a familiar one. What should we expect from Danica Patrick in the Daytona 500?

Joe Menzer: No one will be watched more closely in the Duels than Danica. That will tell us a whole lot, I think. But hey, she said during the preseason media tour in Charlotte that she thinks she can win it. Her theory was, hey, if Trevor Bayne can do it in his first Daytona 500, why can't I? Of course Trevor actually has far more experience than her in stock cars, even though he's only 15, er, 21.

Mark Aumann: With the exception of Trevor Bayne, most rookies are lucky -- and happy -- to get to the checkered flag somewhere in the middle of the pack. Since 1998, there are four exceptions: David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Scott Wimmer and Ryan Newman. Ragan finished fifth in 2007, Bowyer sixth in 2006, Wimmer third in 2004 and Newman seventh in 2002.

David Caraviello: On paper, you have to think all the right factors are present for Danica to have a really nice debut. She's at her best on big, fast tracks, she has a car prepared by the team that won the Sprint Cup championship last year -- no, we're not talking about Tommy Baldwin -- and she's not afraid to stomp on the accelerator and mix it up. Daytona is her kind of place. Of course, then I saw the Shootout, and thought about a driver making his or her Cup debut in the middle of that hornet's nest, and wondered -- should she maybe wait until Phoenix?

Mark Aumann: The equipment is top-notch. She's obviously talented. But I'd put the list of drivers with competitive cars -- and loads more experience -- at over 25 and probably closer to 30. So she's going to have to beat two dozen drivers. In a situation where she's unfamiliar with the cars and drafting.

David Caraviello: None of this is a knock on Danica, whom I've long argued has the talent and the mentality to make it in stock car racing. But when even championship-caliber drivers are talking about how tense and stressful that pack is -- what's it going to be like for someone starting their first Cup race?

Joe Menzer: Let me be clear that I sure don't expect her to win it. And truthfully, I'm sure she's enough of a realist to know that lightning isn't likely to strike twice in two years in the Daytona 500. I think a more realistic goal for her would be to finish in the top 20. She could possibly do that. No matter what happens, she'll be the top-finishing female in the Daytona 500 in 25 years.

David Caraviello: Of course, it's Daytona, so anything could happen. She could absolutely win the thing, especially if events unfold like they did in the Shootout, and wrecks take out a lot of the best cars. She could also get knocked out on the second lap, through no fault of her own. Who knows?

Mark Aumann: I really hate when people call Bayne's win a "fluke" because he was there all day. But it definitely was lightning in a bottle -- and I can't imagine we'll see anything like that again. And somewhere, Janet Guthrie is probably saying, "Take your best shot, Danica." Janet finished 12th in 1977 and 11th in 1980.

David Caraviello: Mark, we knew Trevor was a contender last year because of the way he hung in there during the Duels and in practice leading up to the 500. Remember Jeff Gordon raving about the guy? Danica has a chance to do the exact same thing. The next few days will tell us whether she's a legitimate contender for the Daytona 500, just as those final days before the big race did for Bayne.

Joe Menzer: Oh, wait. I forgot Janet ran again in 1980. I doubt Danica will finish as high as 11th. I was trying to be cute with that previous comment, thinking Guthrie last ran in 1977. Whoops.

Mark Aumann: And don't forget that Shawna Robinson finished 24th in 2002.

Joe Menzer: But David, you are right. The proving ground for Danica will be during the Duels. If she performs well there, she can carry it over to Sunday. And sorry, I did forget about Shawna Robinson as well. I'm lucky I remember what year the Windstar is.

David Caraviello: Joe evidently forgot to take his ginkgo biloba this morning.

Joe Menzer: I'm not even sure what that stuff is.

Mark Aumann: David makes a great point, and it goes right back to the first question. Yes, sheer horsepower can balance out inexperience. And Bayne kept his nose clean -- plus got a huge break when Ragan blundered on the late restart.

David Caraviello: And then, Mark, how comfortable will Patrick be in the pack? I don't envy anybody in the middle of that thing, particularly someone doing it for the first time. The amount of patience and focus and exactitude it takes to keep from wrecking every 10 seconds -- that's when drivers really impress me with their skill. It's one thing to have the courage to go 200 mph. It's another to do it with other cars inches off your front and rear bumpers.

Joe Menzer: Exactitude? Good word, dude, if it is one.

David Caraviello: Hey, I see some smoke on the horizon. Does that mean the Windstar is near Palm Coast? In fact, I think I can hear faint strains of "Hold on Loosely." Welcome to Daytona Beach, Menzer!

Joe Menzer: Thanks! Now somebody find me a tow truck.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.