DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When the 54th running of the Daytona 500 goes green today, questions will remain about whether the NASCAR rules package implemented to bunch up the field and produce more pack-style racing will actually work. Or will it produce as many overheated tempers as it has engines in the run-up to the marquee event of Speedweeks 2012?
“I think there are times when guys are paying more attention to their gauges than they are where they are going,’’ said Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet and winner of the 2008 Daytona 500. “I don’t know where that makes for the best racing.’’
Said Jimmie Johnson, the five-time NASCAR champion and 2006 Daytona 500 winner, “Even without pushing, we’re right there on edge. And that’s fine design by NASCAR. They don’t want us to be able to stay connected for long. But it keeps me worried all day long to see my gauges flash at me.’’
In addition to rolling out electronic fuel injection for the first time, NASCAR officials implemented rule changes - reducing the size of the air inlets on the front radiator grills, setting pressure relief valves at 25 psi - to eliminate the two-car tandem-style racing that prevailed last season at restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega.
“I think it can be a good day,’’ said Danica Patrick, who will make her Daytona 500 debut in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas car. “Obviously, things that are out of your control can make it a bad day. But that is kind of the excitement about racing at Daytona and the excitement about big pack racing.’’
The race will likely incorporate elements of both styles, which could result in an exciting green-white-finish similar to Kyle Busch’s win over Tony Stewart in last Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout.
In the crash-marred Shootout, which saw Jeff Gordon get turned upside-down in the biggest of three wrecks, Busch rallied from a pair of near-disasters to help push Stewart to the lead. Busch and Stewart separated themselves from the pack, but Busch managed to complete a thrilling last-lap pass of Stewart for his first career Shootout win by .013 seconds, the closest finish in event history.
“Back in 2005, 2006, 2007, with the old cars, it was a little bit harder to get to guys,’’ Busch said. “You sort of ran single file, you could get the outside lane to move, and it seemed like there were times when you could get three, four, five cars hooked up in a lane and it would actually move.
“With the new car, we saw guys in the outside lane with five or six of us - we couldn’t ever make the outside lane go forward without pushing each other. We just can’t push each other because our temperatures are so high. You can’t take a chance of hurting the engine, especially in the 500. You’ve got to save that thing for everything its worth until you get down towards the end of the race.
“We’ve seen, too, when you get above 270 or 280 degrees that you start losing horsepower. You can definitely feel the car kind of slowing down a little on you.’’
And that can make it difficult for cars to stay bunched up - in a pack or a tandem.
“There are two reasons to that, and part of it is just the rules package the way the cars are drafting,’’ Newman said. “The second part of it is the cars are getting so hot. My feet were glowing inside the race just from the heat off the firewall. My pinkie toe was laying up against the side of the foot rest and whenever there was any contact on metal, it was hot.
“But we are doing everything we can to get the cars cooled off.’’
It all could produce another heated finish in the Daytona 500.
“I don’t really know which way is more comfortable,’’ said pole-sitter Carl Edwards, when asked if he preferred pack-racing over two-car drafts at Daytona. “I think the temperatures out there right now are higher than we have run and the track was a little more slick.
“I think it is probably better in the pack but you still see cars teaming up and able to run a lap or two at a time and I think it will be a lot like the Shootout and the winner is going to be doing that.’’