Monday, January 16, 2012

Tango Lives On

After three days of Daytona tests and constant tinkering with the rules package, NASCAR thinks it is close to setting the final specs for the Daytona 500.  At least they'll be final until the cars show up for Speed Weeks.  Then all bets are off.
With speeds topping 202 mph on Thursday in a day of two-car tango runs, just what NASCAR didn’t want to see, the teams were allowed to run larger restrictor plates for Day Two.  Speeds jumped above 206 mph and while the drivers said they were fine with it, the engine builders weren’t, with motors hitting never intended RPM levels.  Day Three saw a smaller plate and additional cooling restrictions, and speeds hovering around 200 mph.
The tests also saw the return of pack racing as drivers bunched up – at the request of NASCAR.  Everyone was quick to proclaim that the “Pack is Back,” and it was for all of about 10 laps on Saturday.  That’s when Juan Pablo Montoya showed he was already in mid-season form, swerving into Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was turned into Jeff Burton, sending Junior and Burton for long slides.  The incident resulted in enough damage to give the #31 and #88 crews a head start loading up their cars and put an end to the pack racing experiment for the day.
As soon as the track was open for practice after the aborted pack session, the teams went right back to choreographing their two-car tango dance moves.   The general consensus seems to be there will be more pack racing come race day, that cars wouldn’t necessarily have to run in tandem to keep pace, but that the fastest laps will still be turned by two cars hooked up to tango, if only for a lap or two. 
“The two car tandem is, definitely, probably the preferred way to go as far as speed,” Earnhardt told Speed.  “You’re not gonna be able to outrun that, without doing it.  But maybe you don’t have to do it for 500 miles. 
“But that tandem stuff is what’s gonna win the race.”
There also was widespread concern about the restrictions severely limiting the cooling systems.  Test days saw near perfect cool racing conditions, but drivers indicated engine temperatures were already rising in just 10 laps of pack racing.  Warmer weather on race day could cause real challenges for the already stretched-to-the-limit cooling systems.

Test Notes:
As expected, the new electronic fuel injection systems on the engines caused no problems while the cars were at speed, but were more of a challenge on pit road.  Michael Waltrip Racing said it conducted more than 20 practice pit stops before it was happy with pit stop performance.  Greg Biffle practiced stops for Roush/Fenway racing, purposely stalling and trying to restart the car.  Twice he said he was unable to immediately restart the car.  Others also found it hard to restart a hot engine. We haven’t heard the end of this.
Kurt Busch said all the right things and even topped the test’s speed charts at more than 206 mph, but his body language indicated just how difficult his first outing since being fired by Penske Racing was.  But give him credit, even after Richard Petty pretty much said Busch had been blackballed by sponsors, he talked to interviewers and even went into the press room to face the music.  And he made it clear he’s already looking ahead to 2013.
“My objective is to keep the eye on 2013's big prize, and going in and talking with as many teams as I did this off-season, my original plan was to work with as many groups as I possibly could, find four or five races with these guys, those guys, run Nationwide, do this, trucks even, and associate myself with as many sponsors, teams and people. That way they get to know me and go, wow, what's really the problem here, and the problem is when there's a bad day on the track, that's when there's the only issue.”
Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing both seemed to be teams on a mission throughout the tests.  The JGR guys spent most of their time practicing the two-car tango.  They were one of the few teams to hook up and try to tango during the pack session and quickly showed it was still the fastest way around the track.  The Penske team didn’t miss a beat in the transition from Busch to A.J. Allmendinger.  Two teams to watch.
A total of 32 cars participated in the tests, well under the 43 needed for a fill the field at a NASCAR race.  But NASCAR said it wasn't concerned about filling th field and shouldn't be at Daytona.  A little later in the season?  Something to watch.

IndyCar teams from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus will hit the track today and tomorrow at Sebring for the first mass test of the year.  All three engine brands have already been in action, but this will be the first time for all three to be on the track at the same time.  

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