With the new rules package put in place by NASCAR prior to the Daytona 500, speeds have picked up and the guys behind the wheel have been forced to adjust the way they drive. A larger restrictor plate, a taller whicker down the back of the car and a new rear shock package have changed how the cars handle in the draft around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.
Already a handling sensitive track, the new rules package – plus NASCAR’s ‘hands-off’ approach to bump-drafting – have produced many a hairy moment this speedweeks. Two wrecks in practice for the Budweiser Shootout, an incident on the last lap of that exhibition race, six cars going to back-ups after incidents in practice have many reexamining how they are pushing through the draft.
“It is an art form to do it right and it’s very tough to do it right, but I really believe that the rules change that we’ve had before coming here to Daytona has affected how sensitive the cars are when you do bump draft,” Denny Hamlin said.
One of the best in the draft, Hamlin has drawn some criticism from other drivers for his aggressiveness. After a close call in Saturday’s practice, Dale Earnhardt Jr. radioed his crew complaining about the bump he received from the No. 11. Hamlin shrugged the criticism off and credited the incident to an aggressive move by Earnhardt and the poor handling of the cars due to the changes.
“They are not nearly as stable,” Hamlin added. “The front car is not nearly as stable as what it used to be. You can’t hit it nearly as hard as what you used to be able to or push as hard. I remember we always used to be able to push draft to some extent in the tri-oval. Now it’s not at all. You can’t even get close to a guy without him getting nearly turned around backwards. I think it’s just anytime you race with speeds the cars are not stuck to the race track as good as what they were when they were slower. It’s going to take everyone a while and I think that’s why you’re seeing some wrecks that you’re seeing. Everyone is learning what the limits are and how hard you can push it.”
For Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Newman, that limit is holding it wide open around the 2.5-mile speedway. An outspoken critic of NASCAR’s plate-track policy in the past, Newman explained drivers are now forced to lift because of the larger restrictor plate implemented this year.
“The bigger plate is just more speed and with more speed means handling is more important,” Newman said. “It is harder to hold it wide open. This is a track where it seems like you are on that edge at least part of the run for trying to hold it wide open. I don’t think it really changes the outcome, it just changes the way you race a little bit.”
While the drivers have been making changes behind the wheel, the crew chiefs that set up the cars have also been forced to adapt to the new rules and their consequences. For the drivers and the media the larger restrictor plate has garnered the majority of the attention, however veteran Darian Grubb, crew chief for Tony Stewart, explained the biggest change has been the new shock package.
“It’s more than people think, I believe,” Grubb said of the importance of the new shock package. “We’ve done a lot of seven-post testing with going back and forth between the two iterations. It’s a very large change and I think it’s the biggest thing the drivers don’t even realized changed, because they’ve dealt with the same package for years and now it’s a big step in a non-handling direction, but a more-control direction.”
While Red Bull Racing’s Jimmy Elledge agrees the shocks have been the biggest change the crew chiefs are forced to deal with, he doesn’t necessarily see where it has made a huge impact on the set up.
“I haven’t honestly seen, one way or another, where it was a big, big deal,” Elledge said. “They’re adjustable, so you can adjust the bleed curb on them however you want to so you can kind of open the jets up on them and almost match the curb we had last year. I haven’t seen it to be a real big deal. I think it was a step in the right direction than what we’ve had in years past.”
Elledge went on to explain this new package allows the shock to have more low speed control, but there is adjustability in it to take that out. For Elledge, the shock package is not causing loose race cars.
“You’re seeing them drive worse because they have a lot more horsepower and with that comes the amount of downforce you have at the rate you’re entering the corner, the tire degradation dictates where you’re not able to just run flat out around here anymore.”
Working with a new driver this year, Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion agrees with Elledge the new rules have not altered the set up of the car greatly. Daytona has always been a track that requires a well handling car and teams prepare for that during the off-season.
“We show up with something called a baseline setup,” Manion said. “The newer rules package isn’t all too, too different, so you show up with a baseline not knowing what to expect. I’d say the tires may be as big of a change as the cambered end plates, larger restrictor plate and the whicker.
“You show up, make a run and see what you’ve got,” he added. “The cars seem to have a little less grip, but the tire seems to be safe – so far. We have seen a few issues. As far as setup it hasn’t changed all too much from what we’ve had here in the past. You’re just in the fine-tune stages. Handling is definitely going to be a key. I think you saw that in the Shootout and you’ll see that in the (Gatorade Duels). To have a good handling race car for a full fuel run is definitely going to be important.”
So, the drivers are adjusting how they wheel their cars around the 2.5-mile speedway and some, but not all, of the crew chiefs have altered their set ups for Sunday’s race. It is interesting to see how three crew chiefs feel different aspects of the rules package (shocks, more horsepower and tires) are the most important and influential factor in determining their set up for the race. That truly shows the variety of opinions and talents in the garage, and while this car may look and race at times like a generic spec car, there is more adjustability and play than many let on.