Get ready for a different Daytona 500

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From the drop of the green flag, drivers will pair up in the Daytona 500

Get ready for a different Daytona 500

From the drop of the green flag, drivers will pair up in the Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In the lead-up to the 53rd running of the Daytona 500, the word most used to describe the new style of racing at Daytona International Speedway is … weird.

Is the new style – multiple packs of two cars, locked together nose to tail, taking turns pushing each other around and around – racing or ballroom dancing?

Whatever it is, the tag-team tango in Sunday's race will be a massive departure from anything ever seen before in a Daytona 500. Gone will be the thunderous energy of a 43-car convoy roaring around the track as one, with barely a half-second separating first from 41st. In its place will be 20 or more pods strung out around the entire 2.5-mile tri-oval.

Drivers like it because, for the first time since the implementation of the restrictor plate, they actually have some control rather than being at the mercy of the peloton.

"In the past, it's been just hoping you got in the right line and hope that it went forward enough that you could switch and go back and forth – kind of like being in a traffic jam," explained Tony Stewart. "At least we're out of the traffic jam now and have a little more control over our own destinies."

But how will it play to those not inside the cockpits?

The spectator intrigue of restrictor plate racing is that it creates tight racing, which increases the potential of massive, multiple-car wrecks, all while leveling the playing field so much that anyone can win. No, there's nothing organic about it, but then again, artificial flavors do tend to taste pretty darn good.

The new style will still produce plenty of lead changes, as the two-car tandems take turns pushing and pulling, but instead of 30 different drivers leading, there will only be a handful.

The playing field isn't as level anymore, either. The Toyotas don't appear to work as well in the two-car draft as the Fords, Chevys and Dodges, and among those only a few – Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch – have shown the speed to lead.

All of this is music to the ears of those who don't like restrictor plate racing, because now there is more of an emphasis on engine building, cooling engineering, teamwork and in-race strategy – technical stuff that caters more to the gearhead than the casual observer.

But we are talking about the Daytona 500 here – the one race a year that the casual observer might tune into. It's NASCAR's best (and maybe only) opportunity to show them what they're missing the other 35 weekends a year.

Will they appreciate the nuance it takes to make one duo faster than the others? Will they like this game of doubles where the partners are supposed to be opponents? And how will they digest it if the finish comes down to one competitor pushing another to victory lane?

At the end of Saturday's Nationwide Series race, only 12 cars were left on the lead lap. And though the race came down to a thrilling conclusion, with Stewart nipping Bowyer at the line by just .007 seconds – the third-closest finish in series history – it took a caution with 10 laps to go to bunch up the field. At one point in the race, Brad Keselowski had a lead of at least 17 seconds on 39 of the 42 other cars.

Bowyer, however, doesn't think that will happen Sunday because the Cup drivers have had more practice and more races (including the Bud Shootout and the two Gatorade Duels) to perfect the exchange between pushing and pulling. For some, the exchange takes only a second or two. For others, they lose contact with their partner and can take a half lap to reengage. That costs valuable time and allows the leaders to drive away.

"That's why we caught some of those cars was because they didn't have a chance to [practice switching]," explained Bowyer. "Danica [Patrick] is a prime example. She had plenty enough of a fast car, and if I could have communicated with her we'd have been able to stay up front and probably battle back and forth for a top spot throughout the race."

Bowyer could be right, but the two Gatorade Duels were strung out just like the Nationwide race.

Undoubtedly, this year's Daytona 500 will finish with one driver pushing another toward the finish line. As they exit Turn 4 on the final lap, a drag race will ensue, with the trailing driver pulling out to go for the win. It could produce another close finish like there was on Saturday.

Prior to that, however, it will be a 499.5-mile long game of leapfrog. Some will love it. Some won't.

"It is weird and it is different," Stewart said. "That's the hard part. It's something we've all never really done before."

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