Firecracker 400: The racer’s race

Winning the Firecracker 400 – that’s what I still call the July race at Daytona International Speedway – will never provide the prestige or honor that goes along with winning the Daytona 500. But from a driver’s perspective, it probably should.

For starters, I’ve always felt the July race is a more difficult race to win than the Daytona 500, which I’m sure will surprise people. And while restrictor-plate races are always unpredictable, the July 4th race at Daytona provides drivers with the greatest amount of influence in determining the outcome of the race.

How?

When it comes to restrictor-plate racing, drivers are always complaining about a lack of separation in the cars. They don’t get it because the engines are restricted, making them all equal on horsepower, which allows everyone to run wide open all the way around the track.

The only way to keep everyone from running wide open is to raise the degree of difficulty. This doesn’t happen in Talladega, and it doesn’t happen in the Daytona 500, but it does at Daytona in July.

Under the summer Florida heat, Daytona International Speedway becomes an ice rink. The track becomes slick, and as tires begin to wear on the abrasive surface, the race isn’t so much about straight-line speed (as is the case at Talladega) but how the car handles through the turns.

It is very difficult for drivers to maintain full throttle around the track lap after lap, and that’s something that not difficult to do in February. Drivers who can get through the corners without having to lift, particularly getting off of Turns 2 and 4, will gain a six- to eight- to 10-car-length advantage.

The teamwork aspect of restrictor-plate racing (drafting) is diminished in the July race. We will see it primarily at the beginning of green-flag runs, when the cars are on fresh tires, but the element of drafting diminishes as tires begin to wear and the cars become tougher and tougher to handle.

This is why I think the July race is more difficult to win as opposed to the Daytona 500. Whereas the 500 is all about teaming up, the July race is absolutely more about the car and the driver’s tolerance. I’m not saying the other restrictor-plate races are easy, but I can assure you that Daytona is always more difficult than Talladega, period, and Daytona in July is more difficult than Daytona in February.

In some respects, I think the Daytona July race is that compromise that drivers have always wished for in restrictor-plate racing, because in this race it’s not so much about picking the best lane for the draft, but having the ability to handle the car and the speed through the corners. Drivers like this race for that reason, because they do have more control over their own destiny.

The Daytona 500 is still my favorite race, because it’s the most significant. But I’ve always felt like winning the Daytona 500 was more circumstantial than winning the Firecracker 400.

Ricky Craven is Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR analyst. Send Ricky a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jul 3, 2009