By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal
In four of the 36 races a year, the practice times are of little use in handicapping and that’s because the two races each at Daytona and Talladega use restrictor plates. The plates change the handicapping equation because it takes away much of the advantage that some of the top teams have week to week due of the volatile nature of this track.
The aerodynamics of the draft are everything on the 2.5-mile high banked track of Daytona and depending when, where and who a driver drafts with while they’re bunched up determines each cars individual speed. Just about anyone can have the fastest lap if they’re hooked up with the right group of cars and there was no better example than Thursday’s happy hour when Robby Gordon, who is 32nd in points, had the fastest lap of the day.
So where does that leave us and what formula should be used to sift through all the drivers to find the top candidates to win Saturday?
This will be the first race run at Daytona with the new spoiler which looks to be giving the cars more grip in the turns with more drag on the straight-aways. It’s quite possible that we’ll see more of the sling shot moves coming off of turns like we used to see from the good old days of stock car racing, and similar to what we saw Kevin Harvick do to Jamie McMurray on the last turn at Talladega this year.
This week will also feature slightly larger holes in the restrictor plates which will drastically change the throttle response of what every driver on tour has been used to while driving in the Cup series. The driver will no longer feel like they’re driving a Yugo on an inclined highway. The larger holes in the plate is expected to give about 40 more horse power to each car.
There was no more evidence needed to show just how different a feel the cars were for the drivers than watching several of them wreck during Thursday‘s practices. At least seven drivers will be forced to use their back-ups with a few others having minor damages.
If looking at what happened at Daytona and Talladega already this season, you’ll see there are several drivers who did well in each. Of the top-15 finishers at Daytona, 10 of those finished in the top-15 at Talladega which is a very strong correlation. One of the drivers who dominated at Talladega didn‘t even make the list. Jeff Burton finished 11th at Daytona and led the most laps at Talladega but was involved in a late accident.
The two major surprises who didn’t make either top-15 list were Hendrick teammates, and rivals, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson which comes as a major shock just because of how dominating they were in restrictor plate races just three seasons ago. Gordon has six wins at Daytona while Johnson captured two plate wins in 2006, including the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Jr is only three points out of the 12th and final position for the chase -- with nine races to go -- and he’s coming into this race with his best successions of runs this season having finished 11th or better in the last three. Look for Junior’s focus to be better than ever for this race as looks at the larger picture, while also trying to end his two year winless streak.
The teammates of Harvick and McMurray have also been pretty solid as well with Clint Bowyer and Juan Montoya also finishing in the top-15 of both. Montoya finished third at Talladega and has learned the difficult nuances of how the air works in the draft rather quickly.
Kyle Busch led at both plate races this season and also finished in the top-15 of both. He has arguably had the best plate car on the circuit since he’s been affiliated with Joe Gibbs beginning in 2008, the year he won at both Daytona and Talladega. Last season in this race, it looked like his race to lose and he did. He battled back to nearly catch Tony Stewart close to the finish line, created contact, and got sent spinning into the wall taking away what would have been a solid second-place finish and turned it into 14th-place.
Tony Stewart has always been known as one of the best plate drivers and has won the summer Daytona race three times, but hasn’t had any success this season with the plates on. The question with Stewart this week is if you want to doubt him, because he is currently on a tear. June has always his best month where he makes his real push for the Championship. In his last four races he has had three top-five finishes with the other being a ninth-place run at Sonoma.
All eight Ford’s from the Roush and Petty organizations will be running the new FR-9 engine as they did at Talladega. There has been some reluctance in using the engine, especially after watching Kasey Kahne’s engine blow up last week during a great run, but they should be fine with the restrictor-plates on.
Michael Waltrip Racing has two drivers that both finished within the top-15 in each plate race this season. David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr finished fifth and sixth respectively in the Daytona 500 and then 14th and 12th at Talladega in April. It should come as no surprise that Waltrip would look to have an emphasis put on his restrictor-plate program since those were the only tracks he ever won on during his own career.
With all the changes in the cars and the drivers not being fully comfortable with those changes, there are bound to be more cautions than usual. It wouldn’t be a shock to see a long shot win this race just because there might be a shortage of cars on the lead lap. Expect a lot of wrecks followed by all kinds of fireworks after the race as there are sure to be a few drivers upset.
Have a great Independence Day and good luck in the race!