Sunday, February 19, 2012

Motor Mouth: The pack is back, but so are the wrecks

The first "Big One" breaks out in Saturday's
Budweiser Shootout. Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The 34th annual Budweiser Shootout on Saturday at Daytona was an on-the-edge-of-your seat thriller. To the joy of many fans and several drivers, the pack is indeed back. But with it comes not only the excitement of three-wide racing, but as FOX announcer Mike Joy called it, the “dreaded consequence” of big crashes.

The rule changes NASCAR made to the Sprint Cup cars for Daytona worked to bring back the traditional pack racing that fans overwhelmingly prefer. The two-car tandems that were the norm at restrictor-plate tracks in 2011 were far and few.

The two-car phenomenon still played a role in the race outcome as Kyle Busch pushed Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart to the front of the field before passing him to win his first Budweiser Shootout. The green-white checkered situation may have aided the occurrence, however, helping to separate the pack. We may see the tandems again in the final laps of the Daytona 500 as drivers strive to gain that extra speed to go for the win in NASCAR’s premier event.

The pack and its multiple lanes of racecars drafting together was a thing of beauty - the familiar style of racing hadn’t been seen for more than year in a restrictor-plate race. It was exciting and unpredictable, with lots of movement and action. Drivers easily weaved in and out around each other, which was nearly impossible with the two-car drafts that dominated Daytona and Talladega last year.

Unlike the tandems, a driver in the pack doesn’t have to rely on a partner to race his way through the field - each driver is in control of his own destiny.

This is the main reason I prefer the pack, and I wrote about this after last year’s summer Daytona race, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. mused about the pack vs. tandems.

Last night Denny Hamlin, who recovered to finish 5th after being involved in the night’s first wreck, summed up the sentiment.

"You can choose your own fate in this kind of racing,” Hamlin told NASCAR.com writer David Caraviello. "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."

While the return of the pack may have been a sight for sore eyes, the multi-car crashes that accompanied it were not. Saturday’s race had four wrecks - three of those were "Big Ones" - that affected 22 of the 25 cars in the Shootout field. At the green-white checkered finished, half the field – 13 cars – were running, with 11 on the lead lap. That’s a lot of torn-up sheet metal that teams will be hauling back to the shops.

Hendrick Motorsports – whose stable appeared strong – had a particularly rough night with all four cars damaged in wrecks, including a horrifying crash involving four-time champion Jeff Gordon. Thanks to the safety measures in place in the racecar, Gordon was able to walk away with only a scratch on his finger.

Kevin Harvick was one of six drivers caught up in the
second "Big One." Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
While the pack racing carries the sense of more control from the drivers’ perspective, there’s a seeming contradiction in that they’re also at the mercy of the “Big One.” Though wrecks involving multiple cars do happen with two-car tandems – remember last year’s Daytona 500, in which an early crash ensnared 17 drivers – the tandems serve to break up the field, which typically means less cars involved when a wreck does happen, not the pileups that come hand in hand with the pack.

Jeff Burton, who finished 11th, one lap down, nailed the advantages and disadvantages of the tandems:

“Plate racing is a huge challenge and one of the great things about the tandem racing is it separated the pack. One of the bad things about the tandem racing is, I guess, people thought it was boring,” Burton said.

At the Budweiser Shootout, additional factors likely contributed to the wrecks. For one, the race - the first after a three-month off-season - does not pay points. It’s a winner-take-all affair where the last driver standing wins bragging rights and a boost of confidence going into the Daytona 500. Drivers go all out to win the Shootout, and that was evident as drivers became aggressive early, leading to the first “Big One” eight laps into the race.

“Look at the history of this race. They always crash here. Go to Talladega, they crash cars there,” second-place finisher Stewart said.

“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. It's not that they're not conscious of the fact you have to make it to Lap 75 tonight, but you have the flexibility of not worrying about points standings and not worrying about the 500 title, losing it if you make a mistake tonight.”

Like Stewart, Burton thinks the Daytona 500 will be a calmer affair.

“You saw an intensity level tonight you won't see for the 500 until ... well, what happens in the 500 every year, everybody is pretty calm. Then, it gets about halfway and it starts to get a little more intense,” Burton said. “In those last 100 miles, there is just caution after caution and you get a mad dash for the end. That is what happens.”

The crashes can also be chalked up to driver error. All of the wrecks were triggered when a driver tapped the left rear of the car in front of it. The changes NASCAR made to break up the tandems, including shortening the spoiler to worsen the racecar's handling, likely made the cars more sensitive by taking away some downforce. Also, drivers were used to pushing harder because they’d been doing it all last year in the tandems.

Race winner Busch said that’s something the drivers need to work on with the cars - not NASCAR.

“It's a product of what us drivers need to be better at. We've got to fix that,” Busch said.

After being caught up in the night’s second “Big One,” Kevin Harvick pointed out that the inexperience of some drivers in the field who haven’t raced in the pack contributed to the crash-filled event.

“It’s going to take a lot more patience from a lot of guys who hadn’t done this before. Obviously, you can’t hit guys in the left rear … There’s two pedals in that thing. So you just got to keep them off the left rear,” Harvick said in a TV interview.

The drivers will have to push “reset” to get back into the pack mentality.

As to whether NASCAR may implement more changes to the cars in preparation for Sunday’s Daytona 500 in the wake of the wrecks, NASCAR Spokesman Kerry Tharp said in an email, “We’re always keeping a close look at things – those incidents were very similar to what we are accustomed to seeing at high-speed ovals, though.”

If the Budweiser Shootout is any indication, the rest of Speedweeks promises to be full of excitement – with its share of wrecks.

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below. To read past columns and other posts by Rebecca, click here.

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