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With no more potholes, Sunday’s Daytona 500 looks promising

Last year’s sorry, pothole-delayed Daytona 500 seemed to set a tone that carried forward throughout most of last year’s racing season. Attendance was down. Television ratings were down. And even though Kevin Harvick led the points most of the season, it somehow seemed a foregone conclusion that once the Chase for the Sprint Cup began it would once again be the Jimmie Johnson show. Unfortunately, it was. It got so bad that the most common cry was for “anyone but Jimmie.”

The 2011 season is looking much better. For the first time since 1979 the Daytona 500 will be run on a brand new surface, which should lead to one of the fastest and most exciting season openers in several years. The $20 million, five-month repaving project required 50,000 tons of asphalt for the 2.5 mile track. Driver response from the test session and last weekend’s “Bud Shootout” has been very positive.
In addition to no more potholes, the track’s well-known bumps are no more. The surface is very smooth, with plenty of grip — not a lot of concern about the track’s “groove.” The drivers can go wherever they find an opening. The only thing is they better have a drafting partner. Two cars working together is more important than ever.
If last Saturday night’s Bud Shootout is any indicator we can expect to see cars routinely turning laps at and over 200 mph. Drafting appears a bit different. From last Saturday night’s race it seems that two cars working together is the fastest way around the track.
Rather than the long freight train packs we are used to seeing in the restrictor plate races, Saturday night’s race was a whole lot of two car teams duking it out. That was until the final lap, then it was the typical last lap scramble as each two-car group made their move to get to the front.
The television broadcast crews did a great job of setting up the last lap scramble. They monitored the teams’ radio channels and alerted the viewers to Jamie McMurray’s radio transmission to his drafting partner Kurt Busch saying, “On the backstretch of the last lap, let’s go for the lead.” Sure enough Kurt Busch darted out of line on the backstretch of the last lap heading for an opening. McMurray pushed him into the lead as cars were scrambling every which way looking for an opening.
Denny Hamlin appeared to actually cross the finish line ahead of Busch, but unfortunately he went below the yellow line making his pass for the lead. It appeared he was forced below the yellow line to avoid a crash in the last lap scramble. No matter, he advanced his position by going below the yellow line and NASCAR said no.
They have made some positive changes to the cars for the new season. Aesthetically, that awful splitter or cowcatcher or whatever is gone from the front of the cars. It looks cleaner and more like cars we see on the road. It is also less fragile than the previous front end, as we witnessed last Saturday night after seeing a couple of spinouts that left the car little worse for wear.
The front grill is more like the grill on the actual brand of car the race car is supposed to represent. They have flattened off and reinforced the rear and front bumpers to help make bump drafting the way to go. The drivers just have to stay squared up with the car they are drafting. Otherwise they will spin out their drafting partner as we saw Saturday.
NASCAR has made some positive improvements. Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Mark Martin are looking to rebound in 2011. The “anybody but Jimmie” movement continues; Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing are gearing up to give Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson a run for their money. Come on, Sunday.
You may reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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