Jerry Markland

NASCAR Preseason Thunder: Big pack testing begins at Daytona

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Jimmie Johnson was wise to play it safe

In retrospect it was a strategy more teams should have adopted, considering an 12-car wreck marred Friday's afternoon session of practice at Daytona International Speedway.

But as often the case in the NASCAR garage, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were thinking ahead and could see what was on the horizon.

And what they saw, they didn't like.

Because of the small fleet of cars they had in their arsenal due to the changeover to the Gen 6 model, along with a limited number of parts and the Daytona 500 being a little more than a month away, the No. 48 team wisely decided to play it safe.

"Generally speaking, we just don't have any cars," Johnson said Friday at Daytona. "This is our only speedway car for the 48 car. ...We just don't have the inventory. I mean we have four deck lids for our cars that are legal and they are on the four Hendrick cars that are here now. We're playing a big game of catch up right now."

It was a decision that made perfect sense when you weigh the risks of jockeying around in a large pack at Daytona compared to running around by yourself. It's a big picture outlook, and it's a game plan that has served Johnson and Knaus quite well over the years.

Now, as most of the sport's top teams pack up to leave Daytona prematurely and head home to fix their wounded race cars, you'll excuse Johnson and Knaus if they start to smirk. This is because instead of having to pull fenders and bang out dents out like their competitors, the two can continue to prepare for next month's Daytona 500 - as well as the season ahead.

"For us, it makes no sense to go out there and draft because you aren't going to learn anything," Johnson said, somewhat prophetically, earlier in the day. "You're just taking a chance of ruining your best race car."

As such, there will be no scrambling for the championship-winning pair that has rewritten the NASCAR record book.

The first checkered flag of 2013 hasn't even waved and the 48 team has already scored a victory.

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Ambrose attributes shape of new car for accident

Marcos Ambrose was the other driver at the epicenter of Friday’s major accident that began when the Tasmanian moved across the bumper of Dale Earnhardt Jr., sending his No. 9 Ford Fusion into the wall and into oncoming traffic.

When the accident ended, 10 cars had been caught up, causing most of the teams to pack up and head home to Charlotte due to lack of resources and spare parts for the new Generation Six race car.

Earnhardt attributed the accident to his Chevrolet SS not lining up with the Ford the way it would have under previous cars, a notion that Ambrose agreed with.

“I guess I just got caught on the edge of his bumper there,” Ambrose said. “The shape of the nose and the tires just spun me out. It was hardly even a bump. It was just enough at the wrong angle, wrong time and I just went for a spin.”

The Car of Tomorrow featured splitters and bumpers that lined up, allowing for two cars to link up like pieces of a puzzle. That combined with the grip level of the newly-paved Daytona and Talladega track surfaces allowed for cars to stay linked up all the way around the track.

In an effort to eliminate the two-car draft, NASCAR decreased the size of the grille opening last season and altered the capacity of the radiator pressure relief valves that made the cars overheat if they remained in tandem for more than four-to-five laps.

The result was a very unstable pack that allowed for very little maneuverability and some of the most dramatic crashes in NASCAR history, including one that involved 25 cars at Talladega last October. Following the accident on Friday, Ambrose thinks drafting will look slightly different when Speedweeks begins in Daytona.

Well, certainly we used to get greedy with the old cars,” Ambrose said. “It was very easy to bump draft. You really had a good square surface to push from. You could get across on an angle and still get away with it. So I guess we are used to that. I didn't think anything of it.

I got a couple shots from (Earnhardt) down the backstretch and we carried some steam. Just the third shot just spun me out. So I definitely think it's a consequence of the new shape, and like a downforce, the car’s very light and it doesn’t take much.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "Our time is now"

With the NASCAR season rapidly approaching, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made it clear what his expectations are for himself and his race team in 2013.

"We have an opportunity," Earnhardt Jr. sad Friday at Daytona International Speedway. "Our time is now, we have a chance."

In large part, Earnhardt Jr.'s mindset can be traced back to last season where he was one of the most consistent drivers on the circuit. And that consistency, which netted him one win, 10 top fives and 17 top 10s during the regular season, had many thinking that Earnhardt Jr. would be a contender for the title during the Chase.

However, a series of concussions, which took him out of the car for two weeks, derailed any chance Earnhardt Jr. may have had. And instead, he ended the year 12th overall.

"It was a disappointment not to finish as well as we had hoped in the Chase and go for that championship," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We felt like we were a strong enough team at parts of the year to definitely do that."

But now fully recovered, and citing a strong team behind him along with the excellent rapport he shares with crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr. is determined to fulfill last season's promise and finally win that elusive first Cup title.

"We definitely got some unfinished business," he said. "And we feel like we can put forth the same effort and get the same results this year.

"If we can just find some more pieces and keep improving, keep working and not get complacent about certain things, we can be one of those teams that are sitting there at Homestead with a shot at it. I really believe that."

Not only is Earnhardt Jr. happy with where his team is at, he's also happy with the direction NASCAR is headed. In particular, he likes the changes the sport has undergone in the last few years - specifically the development of the new car and the implementation of double-file restarts. And all this has him energized about what the future holds.

"I feel like this sport is in a good, healthy place and we have a good opportunity to grow," Earnhardt Jr. said. "With this car we have a chance to do something great and really make a big impact. ...I think the racing is as exciting as it's been in a long time."

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Earnhardt and Ambrose trigger massive accident

A multi-car accident marred the first hour of preseason draft practice on Friday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway.

More than 10 cars were involved in the accident that began when Marcos Ambrose shifted down the track and clipped the front bumper of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolet. This caused the No. 9 Ford to get into the wall, sideways, and collected at least eight other drivers including defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards.

This effectively ends the drafting portion of preseason testing as several teams, including those of Keselowski, Gordon, Kahne, Amborse and Aric Almirola are heading home to Charlotte due to a lack of resources and parts to continue testing.

Earnhardt Jr. said this was the first time his new Chevrolet SS had pushed the Ford Fusion and thinks the conflicting designs of their Gen-Six cars contributed to the cause of the accident. Earnhardt also drafted with Chevrolets and the new Toyota and said those combinations lined-up well.

"I thought Marcos was backing up to me coming out of turn two," Earnhardt told Speed’s Bob Dillner after the accident. "I was trying to push him a little bit and had a hard time getting our bumpers lined up. There’s a roll bar on the front end of my car and that’s the first time I’ve pushed a Ford.

"His car is sitting up on my roll bar and I was wheelbarrowing him around a little bit and we ended up getting turned. I was hoping I didn’t start it – don’t know if I did."

| Read More: Marcos Ambrose says accident was caused by shape of new cars. |

The accident completely caught Keselowski off guard.

"I didn’t see anything," Keselowski said. "I saw cars smoking in front of me. I ran into the back of Almirola and someone ran into the back of me. It’s just the way this deal is. It’s unfortunate but sometimes you have to wreck them to learn."

Keselowski thinks restrictor plate racing is "rewinding" back to where it was in the early part of the last decade. He believes that drivers have to adjust to the old style of pack racing and accidents like this are just a part of the learning process.

"The sport advanced to where we had the two car tandem about three or four years ago and there were things you could do that you couldn’t do in the past without wrecking," Keselowski said. "But now the package has been changed back to where it was as in the early 2000s and fans are going to enjoy it a little better.

"But as drivers we have to rewind back to how we used to drive the cars. This is how you do it. You learn and make mistakes and that’s just part of it. I might be the guy that makes the mistake next time so I’m not going to be mad about it.

"But let’s be honest, it’s January and we have another month and a half to build these cars, right?"

Michael Waltrip Racing drivers Mark Martin, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer each missed the wreck but have also decided to leave Daytona. They don’t want to risk tearing up their cars and only planned to draft for the next two days. But with so many teams heading home, drafting really isn’t an option.

A video of the accident can be found below.


Complete list of those involved in the crash:

Jamie McMurray

Brad Keselowski

Kasey Kahne

Marcos Ambrose

Kyle Busch

Joey Logano

Jeff Gordon

Aric Almirola

Regan Smith

Carl Edwards

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Biffle explains what it takes to win plate races

Greg Biffle explained what it takes to win restrictor plate races during a media session on Friday morning. Biffle won the 2003 summer Daytona race and finished third in last season’s Daytona 500. While a little bit of luck is certainly a factor, Biffle thinks there’s more to winning at Daytona and Talladega.

“I wouldn’t say it comes down to luck,” Biffle said. “At the end of these things, people are pushing and shoving and someone gets sideways and comes out of the gas and your lane slows down, guys get broke up at the end. It is just so hard to predict what is going to happen.”

Biffle says that drivers continually think about when they should make their move towards the front, all the while at turning laps at over 200 mph.

“When is the right time to pass?” Biffle hypothetically asked. “In the final restart of (last year’s Daytona 500) I debated whether to try to pass Matt (Kenseth) at that point but I felt like I wanted to wait to the white flag to make my move… You don’t want to make your move too soon. Then Tony (Stewart) and those guys got a big run and broke us apart. We were split up and coming down the backstretch to the white. You just never know. You can look back at that and think that you should have gone around him then, but you just don’t know what is going to happen.”

Even so, the draft changes from year-to-year with altering rule packages and the new Generation Six race car. The car is 160 pounds lighter, has less downforce and a slightly smaller spoiler. Biffle expects this combination to change pack racing even more.

“A lot of us are skeptical of how the car will drive,” Biffle said. “With the weather being warm it will make it closer to the track conditions that we will see for the 500. Normally you are testing in 50 degree weather. It will be nice that it is a little warmer. I think we want to see how the car drives around other cars. I think we know what to expect but there may be something we are missing.”

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Gordon and Bowyer spend New Year's Eve together

As Clint Bowyer did earlier in the day, Jeff Gordon avoided specifics Thursday when asked about the duo's New Year's Eve encounter aboard P. Diddy's $72 million yacht.

"We talked," Gordon said at Daytona International Speedway where he is taking part in a NASCAR test session.

What Gordon is most curious about is how he, Bowyer and Kevin Harvick all ended up on the music mogul's yacht in the Caribbean Sea at what he referred to as the "party of the year."

"The question is how he got on the yacht," Gordon said. "That needs to be the real question. ... We were just hanging out, having a good time, and on walks Bowyer and Harvick and a couple other folks."

Then, the four-time champ quickly tried to divert the line of questioning by saying he had a "great New Year's (Eve)."

The way Gordon sees it, the conservation between him and Bowyer should stay between the two of them and no one else. As for any lingering uncertainty as to whether Bowyer is still seeking revenge on him after he deliberately wrecked Bowyer last year at Phoenix, Gordon didn't have an answer for that, either.

For now, Gordon is focused solely on fine-tuning his Chevrolet in preparation for next month's Daytona 500. And after one day of testing, the four-time champ is happy with the speed he has shown thus far and is looking forward to seeing how his car handles in traffic.

"It was a fun day to see this new body style out there; it looks great and drives good," Gordon said. "It's an exciting way to get the season started."

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Clint Bowyer still not talking about Jeff Gordon

Clint Bowyer can’t seem to get away from his NASCAR rival Jeff Gordon.

One week after their dramatic confrontation at Phoenix, the two finished first and second in the season-ending race at Homestead. And now, most recently, the two perennial contenders found themselves sharing a yacht in the Bahamas during a New Year’s Eve party hosted by hip-hop artist Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

Bowyer is still wondering how he ended up on a yacht headed towards Saint Barthélemy, a French Island in the East Bahamas in the first place. However, he didn’t seem particularly interested in how Gordon ended up there either.

“It was the damndest boat you’ve ever seen in your life,” Bowyer said. “I’m from Kansas. We don’t have big boats in Kansas. We don’t have very big bodies of water. So, I think he was on that same boat. But there were a lot of other people on there and there was a big time being had.

"I’m pretty sure he was on there. It was pretty late.”

When pressed for an answer about whether he and Gordon interacted that night, Bowyer couldn’t resist answering with a degree of sarcasm.

“Yes, we held hands and walked on the boat, discussed the past year and enjoyed ourselves throughout the whole vacation,” Bowyer said while laughing. “That was the one person that I definitely wanted to vacation with. Yes, I couldn’t wait to get there for that very reason.”

While the trip to Saint Bart wasn’t exactly the Love Boat for Bowyer and Gordon, the long-awaited rematch didn’t materialize that night, leading to even more questions about their relationship heading into the new year.

“Who cares?” Bowyer asked. “Really, who cares? Apparently you guys do way more than we do. I can promise you that. I missed that deer that I was talking about in Texas though, if that makes you feel any better. That was more important on my off-season list than figuring out where I was going to vacation and who I was going to vacation with.”

Bowyer would rather just talk about the momentum he established last season, winning three times and securing second place in the Sprint Cup standings – a career best.

“We’ve just got to continue to improve and that was the one thing that I felt like (crew chief) Brian Pattie and everybody did all season long,” Bowyer said. “I felt like we picked up our program up in a big way during the Chase and elevated our game – me in the race car, us working together, our chemistry and Brian calling races. Just everything was really coming together and working well.

“I see that same thing starting out the new year.”

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