The new NASCAR season kicks off with Daytona playing host to one of motorsport’s true classics this weekend.
The Daytona 500 has a long and storied history with the first running held in 1959 and won by Lee Petty. The Florida venue has long been a focal point motorsport with the beach originally used for land speed record testing. Since the Daytona International Speedway was built in ’59 stock car racing has been at the heart of its use.
This year’s edition of “The Great American Race” looks set to be one of the most compelling in many years with numerous question marks hanging over the event. This year the main question marks centre on the speeds in qualifying and the new track surface.
Throughout Speedweek and the qualifying races speeds in excess of 200mph have become the norm due to drivers being able to work in tandem flat out all for lap after lap. When this is combined with the new track surface, following last year’s pothole fiasco at turn two, the increase in grip from the smooth new surface has guaranteed rising speeds. NASCAR has tried to manage this increase in speeds by changing the regulations on numerous engine parts but tomorrow’s race looks set to be run at a much faster pace than has been the norm in recent years.
Since 1988 NASCAR has imposed the use of restrictor plates on Super Speedways such as Daytona and Talladega. This has seen the power output limited on the high speed ovals to keep safety in check and limit the potential for cars to become airborne. This led to speeds decreasing from Bill Elliot’s 1987 pole position record of 210mph to the more pedestrian speeds of recent years of around 188mph.
Recent changes to the cars though have meant that while drivers are unable to reach speeds in excess of 190mph while lapping solo they can easily exceed 200mph when working with another car. Changes to the front and rear of the car have allowed drivers to “couple” with a willing partner and increase speeds to over 205mph as the race through the pack to the front of the field.
The Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duels were dominated by the sight of cars grouped together, nose to tail, coming from the back of a group to the front in the blink of an eye. When this is combined with the new track surface it is possible for three groups of drivers racing alongside one another through the 31 degree banking. With so many cars in close proximity crashes are all but inevitable and this year “the big one” could take out any number of leading contenders.
The Daytona 500 is one of the most unpredictable races of any year; there have been nine different winners in the last nine years, and this year the threat of a big crash will make this one of the most nerve wrecking races for fans and racers alike. The advent of two-car racing may be seen as many as a last ditch attempt by NASCAR to reclaim its lost fans but it seems that the new style of racing has been a hit with fans. If the 500 can live up to expectations it will be interesting to see how many continue to watch when the series moves onto places like Las Vegas in the coming weeks.
This year’s race will be the tenth anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The legendary driver left an indelible mark on the sport of stock car racing and while Dale Jr. has failed to live up to expectations he will once more be the centre of attention during the race. For year’s restrictor plate races were his bread and butter, taking seven wins at Daytona and Talladega, but he has not reached victory lane since June 2008. Racing for the mighty Hendrick team it is hard to discount him but the 2004 500 winner will need to have luck on his side for a sentimental victory.
Kevin Harvick will start the race as the favourite. Racing for Earnhardt’s old team, Richard Childress Racing, Harvick has become the undisputed king of restrictor plate racing in recent years and after winning three times with a plate last season, including the Bud Shootout, it is clear that the man that replaced Dale Sr. Could take the chequered on Sunday.
The great thing about this year’s Daytona 500 is that literally anything could happen. In recent year’s plate races have consistently been unpredictable with the risk of a huge crash looming large. With drivers racing in tandem teams this year that risk grows even larger. When the crash comes there is little that can be done to avoid the scene of the accident.
As a result experience will be crucial to the outcome of the 61st Daytona 500 so expect the likes of Tony Steward, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to contend for victory…and sparks to fly as the race nears its conclusion.