Monday, January 9, 2012

NASCAR Hits The Track

As NASCAR teams head to Daytona later this week for three days of the testing, the euphoria over the Tony Stewart/Carl Edwards fight to the finish for the Sprint Cup championship has been replaced by enough question marks to cast a cloud over the fast approaching season.

Typically a boring lapping session that drivers try to avoid like a sponsor’s meet-and-greet session, there’s much more at stake this year.  NASCAR is hoping the test will show that technical changes made during the off-season will end the two-car tango racing that has been prevalent at its two showcase tracks, Daytona and Talladega.  It also hopes the tests will put an end to harping about the electronic fuel injection (EFI) system being mandated for the 2012 season.

For the competitors, an inordinate number of new team-driver-crew chief combinations will be trying to jell before the start of the season. There’s also a question of just how many teams will show up for the tests, and if NASCAR will be able to field 43-cars throughout the season.

First order of business will be an attempt to put an end to the tag-teams we’ve seen at Daytona and Talladega since NASCAR’s new generation car was introduced and the two Superspeedways were repaved.  The novelty of the racing has worn off and NASCAR is right in sensing fans aren’t excited about that type of racing.

“We are working on rolling back the clock to traditional Daytona, Talladega races,” NASCAR chief Brian France said in announcing the changes.  “We’ll have to see how that goes. I think the majority of fans would like to see that, and so would we.”

The radiators for Daytona have been reduced from five gallons to two and the overflow recovery can from one gallon to a half-gallon in hopes the cars will have to swap positions more often to keep the engines cool.  NASCAR tried this before but the teams were one step ahead with improved cooling efficiency.

The cars also will be running on softer springs, which should make it harder for the bumpers to match up.  Finally, a smaller rear spoiler should make for squirrelly handling with another car tucked up under the rear end.  The smaller spoiler also could allow the cars to run faster, so NASCAR is mandating a smaller restrictor plate.

Less evident to fans will be the advent of electronic fuel injection (EFI) for all Cup engines.  It’s an attempt by NASCAR to pull its engines into the 21st Century, where all production vehicle engines have long featured EFI.  NASCAR itself has been slow to allow the change, mainly because of concerns that the teams would find ways to cheat the system.  As a result, the fuel injection systems being mandated by NASCAR are archaic, nowhere near as technologically advanced as the systems in today’s cars.  But they are easier to monitor. 

Initial EFI tests have been less than encouraging.  Brad Keselowski said it was a “disaster” after driving an EFI car for the first time.  NASCAR spanked him with a $25,000 fine for his input.  The major complaint is that the system is less responsive.  “Just getting off pit road has been a major challenge,” said one manufacturer, “but we’ll get it figured out.”  EFI probably won’t have much impact at Daytona where drivers are flat-out all the way around the track, but pit stops could be interesting.  The real test will come on the shorter tracks where drivers are on and off the gas.

Against this backdrop, a large number of teams will be trying to mesh before the season’s most important race, beginning with the defending Cup champion and his new crew chief, Steve Addington.  Stewart fired the eventual Cup winning crew chief, Darian Grubb, when it looked like his team didn’t have a chance to win, while Kurt Busch’s whining had driven Addington from the Penske fold.

Grubb is taking over Denny Hamlin’s car at Joe Gibbs Racing from Mike Ford, who had been the only Cup crew chief Hamlin has ever known. The move may be just what the team needs to make the jump from Cup pretender to a legitimate Cup contender, although Grubb has never worked on a Toyota team. 

Stewart also lured his old JGR crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, to join Stewart-Haas Racing as competition director and to handle Danica Patrick’s Cup ride, at least for Daytona.  But it will be interesting to see how Zippy and Addington work together in the long run.
With Zipadelli leaving, JGR has moved Jason Ratcliffe up from the team’s Nationwide program.  The biggest benefactor of all this could be Joey Logano.  Zipadelli and Logano worked together for three years, never really hit it off, and Logano was nearly cut loose last year in favor of Edwards.  But Ratcliffe and Logano have worked well in Nationwide and the moved could just be what’s needed for the youngster to jumpstart his career.

Another top team with a new combo is that of Kevin Harvick, who asked for – and received – a new crew chief.  Shane Wilson is moving over the from the now defunct Richard Childress Racing team of Clint Boyer to run the Harvick operation.   The pair have worked together in the past and the combination is one of those that will need to be watched closely early in the year.

Finally, another team that needs to be watched for the first time in years is the No. 48.  Jimmy Johnson and Chad Knaus are back and from the sound of things, chomping at the bit to regain their title form.  It may not be that simple.  Both the team and Johnson made uncharacteristic mistakes last season that they had avoided in past years and there was even the first hint of bickering.  How they respond as the challenger and not even the lead challenger will need watching. 

But the most important thing of all:  it’s good to have cars back on the track.

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