Speedway dance lessons

by Monte Dutton

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — What is clearly understood at Daytona International Speedway is that no one understands it clearly. The Daytona 500 shapes up as an indecipherable quandary wrapped up in a riddle.

Each time NAS- CAR changes rules, particularly at Daytona and Talladega, more changes than the rules. Some changes are completely unexpected. The latest changes, which also involve the installation of new pavement at the track, have NASCAR’s best drivers pondering just what they are going to do and smartest mechanics feverishly analyzing what just happened.

After test sessions in December and January, drivers spoke of the track’s $20 million surface as if it were a present under a tree on Christmas morning. A common claim was that the Daytona 500 was going to be “just like Talladega.” If that’s true, Talladega Superspeedway is really going to have to change.

The racing in the Budweiser Shootout was, in fact, like absolutely nothing that preceded it. Talladega has been described as dangerous, thrilling, nuts, off the wall (literally) and even random in nature, but what transpired at Daytona on Friday night was weird. If the Budweiser Shootout had been featured on the menu at Waffle House, it would have been ordered scattered and smothered.

The cars only seem to race in groups of twos.

Not two-by-two, down through the pack. Two here, two there, two everywhere. If a drivers loses his partner, his car falls into what might as well be an abyss. If he pulls in front of two cars, they run over him. If he tries to pull in behind, they leave him. Until he finds a partner of his very own, he might as well be coasting to a stop on the Highway to Hell.

In the Shootout, the various and sundry duos dynamic, guided by the various and sundry captains courageous, drafted at more than 206 mph.

Alone in qualifying on Sunday, the fastest car, driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr., was 20 mph slower.

“It’s all about getting locked on,” said the second fastest qualifier, Jeff Gordon. “When you’re the lead car, you feel as if you’re constantly being pushed. You feel a little tap. If you’re not getting that tap, I mean, you drop 5 mph instantly.

“We always thought, in drafting, four cars were better than two cars, and eight cars were better than four. That’s over. Three cars would actually go faster than two if you could get them together, but you can’t do it because the second car becomes the middle of a sandwich and it gets out of control.”

Sort of like a heavy coat of mayonnaise…squirting out.

“Trust me,” said Gordon. “You’ve got to have a partner.”

NASCAR officials seem to have been caught as unawares as anyone. Now it appears likely that rules are going to change again — they already limited the carburetor restrictor plates once — meaning that in the Gatorade Duel qualifying races on Thursday, new mysteries will crop up.

Some say “let ‘em race,” or, more likely, “have at it.”

Unfortunately, everyone seems still to be learning how.

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the. ‘© 2011 King Features Syndicate

Speed — in twos — is the new name of the game for the upcoming Daytona 500 at the newly repaved Daytona International Speedway. (John Clark/NASCAR This Week photo)