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Atlanta Is Side Drafting Heaven

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 6 2010
Jamie McMurray was in position to side draft Kevin Harvick at Daytona last month. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jamie McMurray was in position to side draft Kevin Harvick at Daytona last month. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Hampton, Ga. – There’s a lot of speculation about how the return of a blade spoiler in place of a rear wing will affect racing in the Sprint Cup. Ryan Newman believes the result will be more side-by-side racing and more passing due to side drafting.

Fans may get a preview of just how blade spoilers affect side drafting in Saturday’s race for the Camping World Truck Series at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. The track is heaven for side drafting due to its long, sweeping corners, which gives the drivers of the trucks equipped with a blade spoiler plenty of opportunity.

“You see a lot of close races here because there’s a lot of track,” said Ron Hornaday Jr., the defending truck series champion and a former winner at AMS. “If you come off the corner at Turn 4 and one guy is high and the other guy is low, a lot of who gets to the finish line first depends on what the other guy does. There’s a lot of track here.”

Just what is side drafting? Tony Stewart, who declines to make any predictions about how the Sprint Cup competition will be affected by a return to blade spoilers, has a good explanation for the way a trailing driver tries to disturb the aerodynamics of a driver up ahead in order to get past.

“When you see geese flying in the winter in a V-formation,” said Stewart, “That’s what side-drafting is. When you’re off by 45 degrees (and trailing), the guy in front is pulling you faster and he’s going slower. The tricky part is at some point it starts working the other way around. You have to know when to get on him and when to get off him.”

Side drafting is part art form and part sheer aggression. It arrived in the 1990’s when cars became so aero dependent and drivers had to either embrace close quarters racing on the intermediate speedways and superspeedways – or risk losing to Dale Earnhardt Sr. “It all started with him,” said Hornaday Jr. “That’s where it began.”

The best method is to pull alongside a rival’s rear quarterpanel on the outside, where there’s more room for the trailing driver to change his line, i.e. decide when to get close and when to pull off. “When you’re side-by-side you’re both blocking the air and it gives a better chance for the guys behind you,” said Hornaday Jr. “When you’re just to the (rear) quarter panel, it’s easier to get to some clean air and move on.”

Even with the rear wings, which are more efficient when it comes to using the air than a blade spoiler, side-drafting has become a standard practice. It’s one of the first things any rookie driver has to study, said Max Papis, who is entering his second year of driving Toyotas for Germain Racing in both the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series.

The aerodynamic wake of the trailing car, said Papis, is the key to getting an opponent’s vehicle out of kilter. Papis believes the spoiler on the trucks creates more side-drafting than the rear wing on the Sprint Cup cars. “You can really do more in a truck,” said Papis. “The good guys like Hornaday will come in on your right rear and then move out and make you loose in the corner. These are all the tricks young guys like me don’t know yet.”

“When somebody takes the air off you here, they’re meaning to do it,” said Hornaday, who wryly added that he hoped Papis has learned something from him in the truck series.

Side-drafting has to be applied sparingly at a track like AMS, where the sweeping corners help produce some of the fastest speeds in NASCAR due to the 1.54-mile track’s configuration and the lack of restrictor plates. The object may be to slow an opponent by loosening up the handling in the back, but that’s easier for some drivers to control than others.

Whether getting side drafted results in a positon lost or a trip into the wall “depends on the driver,” said Hornaday.

Sprint Cup driver Clint Bowyer said spinning and hitting the wall is all part of the game with side drafting. He’s looking forward to the return of the blade spoiler in the Sprint Cup.

“You see and remember the spoiler days,” said Bowyer. “You would get loose under somebody, they would suck you around and you crash and a caution comes out and bunches us all back up and we’re all back racing hard. Now that the double-file restarts are in effect, I think it’s just going to be more important and bring more of that racing back to the fans and that’s what it’s all about.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 6 2010
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