The 2012 Daytona 500 could look a whole lot like the 2011 Daytona 500, if Thursday's electronic fuel injection test at Talladega Superspeedway is any indication.
In other words, the field will likely be split into two-car drafts, as has been the case for each of the restrictor-plate races this season.
But NASCAR hopes that won't be the case. The sanctioning body understands many race fans are less enthusiastic about the tandem racing than when it started, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said Thursday.
"We are worried (about the quality of the plate racing)," Pemberton said. "But you have to be very careful, because the cure can be way worse than the disease."
Pemberton said he thought the two-car drafting was "OK when it first came on board" in the eyes of NASCAR nation.
"And then, I think, the novelty of that wore off somewhat with some fans," he said. "... We do understand the likelihood of (two-car drafts) gaining popularity is not there."
Some had hoped the new EFI cars being tested at Talladega on Thursday would help to break up the "lovebug racing" – a group that included Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III.
Chitwood recently told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that fans were tired of the two-car drafts and they could expect changes for Daytona Speedweeks. Like Pemberton, Chitwood also called tandem racing "a novelty that has worn off" and cited a Daytona study that showed an increase in fans dissatisfied with the racing at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
But the EFI cars alone certainly didn't change anything. Instead, the two-car drafts looked just as strong as they did with cars powered by engines with carburetors.
Pairings like the combination of Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard ran lap after lap on Thursday without having to switch (which would occur if the pusher started overheating). Other tandems discovered the same.
"The whole deal with the two-car draft comes down to aero," Menard said. "These COT cars punch a huge hole in the air, and until you make the cars slipperier and get a lot less drag in the cars, you're going to continue to see this.
"It has nothing to do with motors, as far as I understand it."
But Pemberton said Thursday's test was "not necessarily" a sign of how the Daytona 500 would go. He noted some teams brought the old (smaller) restrictor plate to the Talladega test and were not running the newly mandated pop-off valve that requires even less water pressure to activate than before (the idea of the pop-off valve being that cars would overheat if they lost water, so it would force drivers to "swap" more often).
Pemberton also said NASCAR was looking at the cooling systems for next year and was considering making a change to something "much different" than is currently used at plate tracks.
So there's hope yet that pack racing could return and two-car drafts could go away. Unfortunately, there's only so much NASCAR can do to break them up.
The two-car drafts were created when drivers realized the grip level at newly repaved Daytona and Talladega would allow them to push a partner for virtually as long as they wanted and break away from the pack.
Now, Pemberton said, every driver knows the technique.
"Once you learn something," he said, "you can't unlearn it."
A couple other things you should know:
• The cars are still using restrictor plates, even though there's no carburetor. The restrictor plate is used to restrict air flow to the engine, so NASCAR believes it's still the best way to slow the cars down. And lower speeds remains a priority for officials, since Cup cars could perhaps approach 230 mph with unrestricted engines at Talladega.
• At Thursday's test, teams used a restrictor plate the same size as the one used at Talladega in the spring race (7/8 inch holes) – which is not the same plate that will be used this weekend. The top speeds remained virtually the same, however.
• Some of the cars practiced a simulated pit stop (getting in and out of their pit boxes). The reason is the power curve on the EFI engines is still a work in progress. At lower RPMs, the engine can have a tendency to skip (it has some problems starting up, for example).
• Teams can no longer grease their bumpers, but drivers are still able to pull halfway out behind another car and get clean air on their nose while racing on the straightaways. The proposition becomes riskier when a pushing car tries to get air in the corner, because there's an increased chance of inadvertently spinning the drafting partner.