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Alabama Heat Is Causing A Rash Of Concerns

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 5 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks racing with Hendrick crew chiefs during Friday's practice at Talladega. No doubt the subject of heat played a part in the conversation. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

The heat is on and that likely means tandems are off for the Sprint Cup cars at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend.

Or, perhaps not.

Summer does not officially begin for another month. But with high temperatures approaching 90 degrees in north central Alabama this weekend, NASCAR drivers and teams are having to deal with the effects of big heat right now.

And, with NASCAR officials moving to cut the cooling capabilities of the Cup cars this year at restrictor plate tracks, the type of pairs racing which has dominated the series at Daytona and Talladega – the kind of racing NASCAR is attempting to eradicate with its moves – two-by-two racing could be radically diminished this weekend.

During practice on Friday, drivers attempted to pair up, but could only do so for very short amounts of time before heat gauges flashed red in the aft cars.

Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing said, “I don’t think you can stay together at all. We’re running 230, 240

Jimmie Johnson tried to keep cool at Talladega Friday (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

(water temperature) just pack drafting and then once you get pushed from behind or you have somebody close to you, it kind of moves you forward a little bit to the car that’s in front of you. You’re already 245, 250. That’s already border line for our engines.”

Drivers did run in two-car drafts at Daytona with the new engine specs in the season-opening Cup event. At least for a while. But, Busch said, that was not Talladega in May.

“With the temperatures being as hot as they are,” he said, “the ambient track temp being way up from what it was in Daytona, it’s just a lot harder to keep your car cool enough and not let it get heat soaked that you have an amount of time that you can push. You’re just kind of limited on what you can do based off water temp.”

In making its moves to strip the cars of their cooling abilities, the hope by NASCAR was that that would facilitate a return to the kind of big-pack racing which fans so enjoyed at Daytona and Talladega.

But Jeff Gordon of Hendrick Motorsports said that the cars are running so hot at Talladega this weekend that big-pack racing may also be jeopardized.

“We all know how big of an issue it was to keep the engines cool or the water temp cool there,” he said, referring to Daytona. “It’s going to be a major issue here. I think that is the first thing that we are going to be working on. Really not even pushing, just being in a regular draft. Just trying to see in these temperatures how we are going to be able to manage the water and oil temperature. I think it is going to be a real challenge.”

Gordon said he would not be surprised to see NASCAR make a rules adjustment at some point before Sunday’s race. An adjustment which would allow improved cooling.

If not, he said, the entertainment value of the Aaron’s 499 could suffer because the threat of over-heating engines could force drivers to be less aggressive.

“I think there is a fine line between preventing the pushing and not being able to race hard at all,” Gordon said.

Carl Edwards of Roush Fenway Racing also said the heat is making the racing surface at the 2.66-mile, high-banked Talladega oval slick and that, too, could serve to break up the tandems.

“From my seat in the 99 the cars are moving around a lot and going real fast and they feel a little nervous when you match them bumper-to-bumper right now,” Edwards said.

Then there is Tony Stewart. Stewart loves the heat. Loves driving in it. The slicked-up track surface is his kind of surface. The former dirt-track legend loves it when cars go sideways in addition to forward.

“I’m not worried about it,” the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet driver said. “The hotter it is, the better I like it. I’m not worried about temperature right now to be honest, as far as inside the car.”

But Stewart also knows that his engine may not like the heat as much as he does.

“I’m more worried about the motor than I am me right now,” Stewart said.

But drivers also said that it takes a couple of laps for the engines of the cars doing the pushing in the tandems to build heat. And, well, racers during races cannot be deterred from racing. Especially when it’s go-time.

Busch said, “You can probably take them to 260, 265 on water temperature before you start pushing water, but we don’t want to jeopardize that and push water too early in the race and run ourselves out of water. Our limit is about 240 until two (laps) to go.”

No relief for the engines was granted by NASCAR over night and the cars headed to inspection on Saturday in the same configuration that they did on Friday.

Bottom line: Looks for lots of car to be spouting little geysers of water and steam from the right rear portions of their hoods this weekend, and look for limited amounts of tandem racing – especially late in the race.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 5 2012
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