NEUTRAL: NASCAR's opening weekend was a merciless one on the hard work of team fabricators in the sport's top division. In total, two days of track activity substantially damaged 15 separate Sprint Cup cars with many more requiring varying amounts of repair either before or during the Bud Shootout.
None, of course, felt the same damage as the thrashing Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet received after the gymnastic exhibition it put on exiting Daytona's Turn 4.
And so, naturally, the echo chamber of fear started even before Kyle Busch finished his sensational display of driving ability in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout: Will Sunday's Daytona 500 be a farcical mess of caution flags and torn up race cars?
I say no.
The reasons for the wrecking exhibition in the season's first exhibition race vary widely, but they are real. But if we have learned anything about race car drivers over the century-plus of race car drivers being called race car drivers, it's that they very often learn how to avoid crashing in the same way over time. Typically, that stretch of time is pretty small.
Let's look at last season, for instance, to see how well the new idea of tandem drafting affected overall accidents in restrictor plate races. In the 2011 Daytona 500, a whopping 16 caution flags waved over the track — the most ever recorded in the event's 53 editions; 13 of those cautions were for an incident on track and many were of a direct byproduct of drivers losing control while being pushed for laps on end.
The next time Sprint Cup drivers faced the tandem style of racing at Talladega in April 2011, just four of the race's six cautions were for crashes. The 400-miler at Daytona in July featured only six crashes, as did the restrictor plate season finale at Talladega in October. Many variables affect the rate of crashes in a race, but the level of experience drivers had with the push-or-be-pushed racing certainly aided in reducing the number of incidents.
Now, returned to Daytona, crashes have seemingly become much more common again. But let's not forget how different the rules package is this week — compared even to the January winter testing many teams participated in. The most significant differences to affect handling this year are a smaller rear spoiler (along with it, reduced rear downforce and grip) and a restrictor plate that is aiding in faster speeds.
The result is a car designed to be a bit more unstable during tandem drafting while it goes faster through Daytona's corners — turns narrower than Talladega's wide open grooves. Additionally, it's more unstable in the pack-racing scenario that NASCAR is looking for, creating more opportunities for trouble when bump-drafting techniques are carried out. Pack racing, in itself, is also somewhat of an unknown at Daytona due to the different car setup and lack of experience in those conditions on Daytona's new pavement in 2011.
Plug all these variables together — plus the fact that many race teams are on edge about practicing full-race conditions — and the recipe for what we saw Saturday night in Daytona seems about right. Fortunately, these drivers have light years more time of practice to get properly acclimated to the conditions ahead of the bright lights of Sunday's race.
They will practice Wednesday afternoon, have 150 miles of honest-to-goodness racing action during Thursday's Gatorade Duels qualifying races and more practice both Friday and Saturday.
There is a reason this group is paid to do what they do: pilot NASCAR Sprint Cup race cars. Sure, some mistakes and over aggressiveness will cause more wrecks this weekend, but don't expect to see a Daytona 500 produce torn sheet metal and broken dreams at the same rate as the Budweiser Shootout.
Moving along, let's talk about a few other things of importance ahead of NASCAR's most exciting weekend.
HOT: I still can't get over Kyle Busch's saves during the Budweiser Shootout. I don't think any feat of driving can top it in 2012. That standard is very, very high.
NOT: It's a shame that ESPN couldn't find a single spot for Busch's on-track action in any of their "Top-10" best play countdowns this weekend. That's a thrilling sight for anyone who has ever driven an automobile, and NASCAR should rightfully expect a bit more help from an organization it calls a TV partner.
NOT: Staying on the TV topic, I've already had enough of Michael Waltrip and Danica Patrick on the Fox broadcast. Fortunately, Danica won't likely be a regular in-studio guest due to either her participation in the Sprint Cup event Fox is covering or her being long gone after her Nationwide duties are filled.
Waltrip, on the other hand, is already tiring me out. I like the guy and he's good for the sport, but overexposure is a very real thing and it's not helped by the blatant conflicts of interest he has in Sprint Cup that Fox seems to sweep under the rug.
NEUTRAL: Kurt Busch's new personality for television after his ouster from Penske Racing is hard to believe right now. It's interesting to watch, but you've got to think the bubble will burst at some point.
HOT: Do you realize Casey Mears will start on the outside of the front row for one of Thursday's Gatorade Duels? Mears, trying to string back together his NASCAR career, easily qualified for the Daytona 500 in startling fashion. Yet, he didn't get a whole lot of coverage from the Sunday qualifying broadcast.
That's unfortunate, because Mears' No. 13 may be the biggest underdog story so far at Daytona.
HOT: Give a call to the drivers in the ARCA race, won in thrilling fashion by Bobby Gerhart Saturday afternoon at Daytona. Normally a lesson in lump-in-your-throat wrecks due to inexperience, the event had mostly a green look to it until a big last-lap crash caused more by cars running out of fuel than bad driving. Kudos — and if you get the chance to see one of their short-track races, consider me an endorser.
HOT: Finally, a call to NASCAR officials for their insistence — even at the real cost of design criticism and probably lost enthusiasm from many fans — for being so proactive in making race cars safe enough that Jeff Gordon can walk away unscathed from his big accident late in the going Saturday.
Nothing NASCAR does, short of making them race at 140 miles per hour, would have kept Gordon's car on the ground after the nasty front end lick on the Turn 4 fence. However, the car has been built with enough safety components to make sure that sudden stop and then violent tumble didn't hurt their star one bit.
That said, NASCAR is still toeing a line of safety that could easily be crossed if they lose interest in pressing for new and improved safety measures. Don't let crashes like Saturday's allow any guards to be laid down — especially in the sport's major shift to directly accommodate fan demand.
See you in Daytona.
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