DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Thursday’s Budweiser Duel qualifying races have taught us that being out front is likely the best place to be going into Sunday’s Daytona 500. In each of the three races contested since Saturday, all the drivers out front have all avoided the big crash and each of them leading at the time of the white flag went on to win the race.
So is this the working model to win the Daytona 500?
The new Generation Six Cup Series cars are incredibly unstable in the draft. Since debuting in January at preseason testing, not one event or practice session has passed without a multicar melee. It was believed that Thursday’s races would help teams start to center in on how to drive these cars but appearances indicate that there’s still a lot to be learned.
The drivers are essentially having to relearn the intricacies of drafting at Daytona. The cars have undergone several changes over recent seasons and this new car presents a radically different set of challenges. When NASCAR first eliminated tandem drafting in the Sprint Cup Series last season, it allowed the teams to resume to side-by-side racing.
The new car has a radically different aero package than the Car of Tomorrow and many drivers are finding it tough to hold on in traffic. Whole teams aren’t real sure what is the cause of this instability, they all seem genuinely optimistic that the racing will improve once they figure it out.
In the meanwhile, the big one is looming larger than it ever has before and it’s just a matter of how long it takes and how many cars are involved. No amount of learning will ever remove the big crash from restrictor plate racing.
As such, the real test for these drivers is going to come when there’s 43 cars running in one large pack and what happens when one driver decides to step out and run the bottom line. The racing on Thursday was dominated by long single-file runs with the lead pack content to stay that way until the final five laps.
When a single car jumped to the bottom to attempt to get a run on the leader, he was left out by himself, and shuffled back of the single-file line. Juan Pablo Montoya and Michael Waltrip each suggested that the bottom line would be the preferred passing lane during the Daytona 500 but agreed that it won't be until more drivers are willing to take a chance and form a second line.
So what's going to happen at the end of the Daytona 500 when there are only four or five cars in that lead pack, running single-file?
The general consensus in the garage is that it is just a matter of time before drivers learn how to push each other again and when that time comes, the advantage on the final lap will shift from the leader to the drivers behind him (or her.)
Will it be a repeat of last year’s Daytona 500 where Dale Earnhardt Jr. jumped out from behind Greg Biffle and was unable to chase down Matt Kenseth without a push? Or will more than two cars make the jump coming out of turns two or four?
Those are the questions we hoped to have answered in the Thursday’s Gatorade Duels but it instead it left us with even more questions that won’t be answered until Sunday’s running of the Daytona 500.