DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Sunday's 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is going to be unlike any of the 52 before it.
No longer will the race be one of a single 43-car herd barreling around Daytona International Speedway as one giant convoy. Instead, it will be a collection of two-car packs spread out over the entirety of the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
This is the way drivers have figured out is the fastest way to get around Daytona's new silky smooth pavement. The track was too bumpy and had too little grip to accommodate that kind of racing before. But after Daytona's facelift in the offseason, the cars stick to the track like glue, and as it turns out, a two-car draft moves faster than a 43-car one.
Will the new style of racing put on a better show than the old one? That's up to the eye of the beholder, but there is no doubt the Siamese racing adds an element of strategy never before seen in the sport.
"I've never experienced anything like it … what you have to do today to make this work," said Bill Elliott, who's been racing at Daytona since 1976. "When you get two really good cars that can work well together, they're going to be hard to beat. This is the same thing you're going to see all day Sunday – two guys working together to make it work."
Throughout Thursday's Gatorade Duels, drivers searched for a workable partner – be it an actual teammate or someone willing to have a one-race stand. Spotters standing atop the press box at Daytona International became negotiators as well as liaisons, passing along radio messages from their driver to the spotter of their dance partner.
Jeff Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, spent much of his Duel talking to crew chief Alan Gustafson about the best way to link up with rookie Trevor Bayne on restarts. Dale Earnhardt Jr. told his crew chief to get a tape of his Duel ready because he's got a lot to learn.
It's a whole new Daytona, one that was only just discovered during a January test session when drivers figured out a two-car draft could actually work.
The new style seems to have leveled the playing field for everyone. Kurt Busch hadn't won a single restrictor plate race in 40-some tries. He won the Bud Shootout on Saturday night with a push from Jamie McMurray, then went to victory lane again after Thursday's first Gatorade Duel with help from Regan Smith. Neither are his teammates.
"Did we think this was going to be an important factor? Yes," Busch said of the two-car draft they discovered in the January test session. "Did we think it was going to be as strong as it is right now and as potent? No. But we thought this was going to be an interesting part of what the new draft was going to be about and how can we learn as much as we can in this short amount of time."
NASCAR could take measures to try to eliminate the two-car draft, but it's not likely anything they do will change things dramatically. As Gordon said, the cat's out of the bag, and teams will use what they've learned to their advantage.
"Once you gain the knowledge of how this works and how much faster your car can go teamed up with one other car like this, you're not going to watch those guys just drive away from you," Gordon said. "I think that it's also something that the fans need to accept as well because I think there is some very exciting and entertaining aspects of it. I've had a lot of people have mixed emotions and several people have said to me, 'Hey, I thought that was pretty cool. It wasn't want I'm used to, but it's pretty cool.' "
But will fans find it cool?
Restrictor plate racing – where speed-choking plates installed for safety purposes essentially make everyone's engine produce the same amount of horsepower – has long been a lightning rod for diehard fans. Some love it because of the fender-to-fender racing it produces – with no horsepower advantage, every driver is essentially travelling at the same speed – and the gigantic wrecks that ensue because of the 43 cars racing in such tight quarters. Others loathe it because it's manufactured, not organic.
Sunday's race will have a little bit of both – organic in that drivers will have to figure out who to dance with, manufactured because it's still plate racing.
Burton predicts that the first 400 miles will be different, but once they enter the final 100 miles the action will be just as hairy as it's always been.
"It's going to be different getting up to that point," Burton said of the first 400 miles. "But when somebody has a chance to take the Daytona 500 trophy home, you do things that you weren't going to do 100 laps before that. It's the same thing every time we come down here."