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Testing hints at chaotic Daytona 500

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports
Testing hints at chaotic Daytona 500
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NASCAR has lowered the rear spoiler in an effort to limit two-car drafting

Did the new rules NASCAR imposed at Daytona break up the two-car draft fans railed against a year ago?

Nope, and the few cars that did run nose-to-tail showed the Daytona 500 could be full of carnage.

The winter break is officially over (for most drivers; more on that later), with cars back on the track Thursday for a three-day test session at Daytona International Speedway in preparation for the Feb. 26 Daytona 500. And it didn't take long to see the impact of NASCAR's new rules package.

Forty-four minutes into the second test session, new teammates Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer were hooked up in a two-car draft. But less than two laps later, Bowyer got sent spinning as Martin tried to make the swap.

The difficulty? The smaller spoiler, which makes for less stable race cars.

"The cars move around quite a bit more than they did and when we made that switch, he went to go underneath me and it just pulled the air and turned me around," Bowyer explained on SPEED. "I don't know what the fix is. I know they're trying. But you're either going to have to make it where you can't do it somehow or get it back to where we can at least make laps and not wreck each other and not have half the field finish."

The new rules package – a smaller spoiler, a bigger restrictor plate and several radiator adjustments – has been implemented in an effort to limit the two-car drafting that emerged in last year's Daytona 500. With fans voicing their displeasure, NASCAR reacted in an effort to bring back the single, 43-car pack racing that had been a staple at Daytona and Talladega.

[Related: Richard Petty: Sponsors leery of Kurt Busch]

The idea is the smaller spoiler will make it more difficult to draft and the radiator adjustments will mean one car can't push another for very long before the engine starts to overheat. Both "fixes" are apparently doing what they were intended to do.

Martin said his engine began heating up after only a few seconds, which presumably means more switching. More switching means testing the stability (or instability) allowed by the spoiler. Toss in the ban on radio communication between drivers on the track and this could lead to a chaotic Daytona 500.

"You're going to have to [two-car draft]," Martin told SPEED. "Gonna be a real challenge. Gonna be real different. But there are going to be people try it and succeed, and people try it and come in on the hood."

Knaus not in Daytona

Chad Knaus, the ultimate workhorse, will not be in Daytona for the three days of testing. Why? He's on vacation. Jimmie Johnson didn't seem to mind. He clocked in sixth on the speed chart in the first test session. Car chief Ron Malec was on hand to oversee testing for the 48.

Junior confused by No. 10

During Thursday's first test session, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked up on the scoreboard, saw the No. 10 car on it and said to himself, "What? There's no 10."

There actually is this season: Danica Patrick.

"She's been relatively quiet," Earnhardt said, "and that's probably good for her to be able to come in here and work and get everything done she wants to get done and concentrate on her driving and concentrate on her new team and everybody."

Why Greg Zipadelli?

Over the offseason, Tony Stewart hired his former crew chief Greg Zipadelli to become the competition director at Stewart Haas Racing. Stewart also pegged Zipadelli to serve as crew chief for Patrick during her 10-race Cup schedule.

Stewart said it's hard to find a quality crew chief to serve on a part-time basis, and having Zipadelli was the perfect solution, especially in a situation where Patrick faces a steep learning curve.

"The last two guys he had both were rookies when they came in," Stewart explained, referring to himself and Joey Logano. "So he's familiar with this and the process of getting a rookie adapted to the car and knowing what to do to make them comfortable."

Because Patrick isn't guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500 – only the top 35 from last season are guaranteed spots – speculation is that Stewart will give Patrick his guaranteed spot and rely on his champions provisional to assure him entrance into The Great American Race. When asked about that possibility, Stewart was noncommittal.

"We're still trying to figure that equation out, but the good thing is looking on the sheet today, the car seems to have good speed right off the bat," Stewart said. Patrick was eighth in the first test session. "I've got the utmost confidence that even in the worst-case scenario that we've got the right driver that can get this car in the race, no problem. But we're working through that and trying to get that finalized and trying to figure out our options to make sure we give her the best opportunity to get in the Daytona 500."

Kenseth owes Dale Jr. $2,500

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says Matt Kenseth owes him $2,500.

On New Year's Eve, Earnhardt held a '70s-themed party at his house. (Earnhardt dressed as Evel Knievel, by the way.) Kenseth was there sporting a beard. According to Earnhardt, he bet Kenseth $2,500 that he wouldn't keep the beard through testing. When Kenseth showed up in Daytona, he was beard-less.

"You guys can remind him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I told him to go to the bank, but maybe he forgot. I want my $2,500."

About 15 minutes later, Kenseth showed up in the media center and the first question he was asked was about the bet.

"I will try to scrounge it up somewhere, I guess," Kenseth said. "Back when he was younger he would have had enough beers in him that he wouldn't have remembered that.

"I was actually going to [keep the beard] … it looked really stupid but I hate losing any money, and he kept upping the money and upping the money until finally I said OK. I checked first to make sure I didn't have any photos and then I get a call saying that I had a photo shoot here and an interview there and, anyway, I guess I lost."

(UPDATE: Friday morning, Earnhardt said Kenseth has paid up.)

Petty announces sponsorship for the 43

Smithfield Foods will be on the No. 43, driven by Aric Almirola, for 15 races this season in a three-year deal with Richard Petty Motorsports.

The length of the deal is significant for RPM considering just a few weeks ago the car was unsponsored. Best Buy had bolted to Roush Fenway and finding a primary sponsor – Roush is still looking for full funding for former champion Matt Kenseth – hasn't been easy even for the bigger teams.

"When Smithfield came up, that took up a big, big gap where we are with the 43," team owner Richard Petty said. "The 9 car [Marcos Ambrose] were in good shape. We got that all squared away. The 43 car we can use some help , if anyone wants to step up. We're going to make it with or without it."

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