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Pack racing set to rule the Daytona 500

20 February 2012

After all the hard work over the close-season revising the rules and testing the results, NASCAR officials think they've finally managed to engineer a return to the old style pack racing at Daytona, after 2011 saw controversial two-car tandem drafting become all the rage. Saturday's Budweiser Shootout certainly seemed to confirm that pack racing was back in style for 2012.

“What we're happy about is we ended up with a race exactly like we predicted it to be," said NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby after the race. "There were all different types of old-school drafting with a nice blend of the push when the guys needed it. It obviously put on one heck of a race. I don't think anybody can be disappointed with that."

Among the changes introduced over the winter were changes to the size and positioning of the air intake grilles at the front of the car that allow the engine to be cooled, and changes to the setting of the pressure release valve at high engine water temperatures.

“The chance to overheat was really easy even when you weren't pushing people,” said Hendrick Motorsports' Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I was just lined up behind people in a tight draft not pushing and saw guys in front of me pushing water out. I was getting hot!”

"It's now just about not overheating," agreed his team mate, Jeff Gordon. "At the beginning of the race, I was really concerned because we were overheating and I wasn't even pushing anybody. So as we got a little bit closer to the front and started being a little smarter with it, it was working out fine."

"If you pushed and if you stayed hooked up, yeah - you got hot, that's what happened," agreed Darby.

Temperatures were in the 60s for the evening Shootout, and Darby agreed that hotter temperatures for the daytime Daytona 500 might mean some further tweaks to the settings will be needed.

"It's just a matter of watching the weather for the rest of the weekend,” Darby conceeded. “We're fully prepared to adjust pressures as the ambient temperature changes, and we'll probably do so."

But two-car tandem drafting is not entirely gone from the race, as the end of the Shootout saw Kyle Busch push Tony Stewart clear out on front at the final restart, which allowed Busch to then slingshot around the Cup champion to win the race.

And a few drivers are wondering if they should have been careful about what they wished for: having complained about tandem running last year, they're suddenly finding that pack racing isn't quite as wonderful as they remembered. There were three major accidents on Saturday night, triggered by minor incidents which then rippled out into multi-car wrecks because of how closely everyone was running in the packs.

"I like this style of racing [pack] better if there weren't points involved and there weren't so many cars getting torn up," said Carl Edwards. "But I liked the other style because it felt like you could control your destiny a little more and get away and work. I felt like the whole night I was at the mercy of anyone's parts failure or mistake or loose car."

But most of the drivers were happy with the return to pack racing: Martin Truex Jr. was one of the drivers who ended his night early in a wreck, but despite the personal cost he still preferred the pack racing. “I really enjoyed the racing tonight,” he said. “It was a lot of fun while it lasted."

"I had fun racing at Daytona again, which I haven't had for a while," agreed Tony Stewart. "This is better than having to sit there and stare at the back of a spoiler for 500 miles."

As far as the fans were concerned, the return to pack racing - and the ensuing accidents - was a welcome sight indeed. "It's the kind of racing you can't take your eyes off of because you don't know what's going to happen next," one fan told SPEED.com after the Shootout.

"That's what racing should be,” said another. "To see the cars in big packs like that again brought back the good old days here. The difference between last year and tonight was like night and day."

Even though he won last year's Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne for one doesn't know how this year's race is going to play out following all the changes.

“I have no idea," he said when asked what his game plan would be for the rest of Speedweeks. "You want to be in the front to miss the wrecks, but to get to the front you have to push through the madness to get there.

"Last year, I thought I wanted to be in second just like Kyle did there and most of the other races we've seen that," said Bayne. "But if you're racing with other packs, or if it's a big group, I think you want to be the front car because then you're the one that's going to get the best position.”


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