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Cup Drivers Enjoying Their Freedom In Daytona

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2010
Because of new rules, the racing has been wilder, but also better, during Speedweeks 2010. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

With a new set of rules, and a new attitude, NASCAR has turned the drivers loose at Speedweeks 2010. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Daytona Beach, Fla. – NASCAR official Robin Pemberton’s ominous “Boys, have at it’’ announcement a few weeks ago gave media and race fans visions of flying race cars this week at Daytona.

With the well-publicized slump in TV ratings and visibly empty seats at most of its racetracks, NASCAR has come to the obvious conclusion that it needs to spice things up to regain people’s interest.

One way to do that is put the racing back in the hands of the drivers and spend less time making restrictive rules.

The biggest step in that process so far was Pemberton’s announcement that restrictions on bump drafting at Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks where that tactic is most used, have been eliminated.

In 2006, two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup championTony Stewart sounded the alarm that somebody could be badly injured or killed if NASCAR didn’t crack down on the wild bump drafting in the turns at the big tracks.

Two days later, NASCAR announced “no zones,’’ areas in the turns where overzealous bump drafting would be penalized.

It worked. Drivers began minding their manners and bump drafting – the art of slamming into the rear of the car in front of you to gain momentum for both cars – was generally put in check.

Boring.

So NASCAR made some changes over the winter.

Another big one is opening up the carburetor restrictor plates that are used at Daytona and Talladega to reduce horsepower and keep the big stock cars under 200 mph in the interest of driver and spectator safety.

The openings here this week are the biggest in nearly two decades of plate racing, giving the drivers more horsepower and, even more important, better throttle response to react to tight situations.

Stewart, the guy who complained the most when things got crazy a few years ago, shrugged off the latest changes.

“It’s nice to be able to push that guy in front of you and help carry that momentum a little bit,’’ Stewart said Friday during a series of rainy day press conferences at the speedway. “But I haven’t seen that get out of control. There is nothing that sends up a warning flag that says, `Hey, we have to re-look at this.’ I think it has been pretty tame.’’

There have been some multi-car crashes in practice for both the Budweiser Shootout last week and this week prior to the Gatorade Duals. But the races themselves were pretty quiet.

Juan Pablo Montoya, like Stewart a strong contender heading into Sunday’s race, said, “I think the new restrictor makes racing a lot better. You get more of a run. You always get more of a chance, but more of a chance is more of a wreck.’’

Carl Edwards had another viewpoint, although he strongly supported the changes.

“There will be guys that just go at it, but there always are,’’ Edwards said. “It hurts when you hit the fence, (and) not just physically. That’s not the way anyone wants to start their season.

“I saw a lot of people in that qualifying race that I was in that were exercising good judgment. I mean, driving right to the edge. It looked like disaster was going to happen and then, all of a sudden, everything would work out and somebody would give and somebody would take.’’

Edwards expects more of the same on Sunday – for most of the race.

“You just feel like you’re a little more free, and I think that’s good,’’ he noted. “It feel a little better to race like that, to me. I think what you’ll see on the racetrack won’t be a lot different until the last lap and then all hell will probably break loose. But I think it’s a good move overall.’’

Three-time 500 winner Jeff Gordon said the current cars are a handful to drive.

“The bigger plate definitely carries a lot of speed off into the corner,’’ he said. “We’re still seeing a lot of bump-drafting  and you’ve really got to use the tools that NASCAR is giving us to make the cars handle good, too.

“That means the drivers have got to drive the heck out of them … The fans are in for a treat with the 500.’’

Boys, have at it.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2010
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