DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — By returning the competitive aspect to Thursday’s Budweiser Daytona Duels it has brought back the familiar concept of the top 15 cars in each of the two 150-mile qualifying races advancing into the Daytona 500.
Gone are the top 35 cars from last year’s entrant points guaranteed a starting position which rendered the qualifying races meaningless other than determining the order of the grid.
The only thing that is keeping Thursday’s races from having the old-time feel of the past is the low entry list for this year’s 55th Daytona 500. With 45 cars entered for 43 starting positions only two drivers will be sent home after Thursday’s races.
There were two practice sessions on Wednesday as the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams returned to the track after a two-day break. Kasey Kahne’s Chevrolet was the fastest in the final practice session with a lap at 197.737 miles per hour in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports entry. Greg Biffle’s Ford was second quick at 197.702 mph followed by Hendrick Motorsports’ driver Jeff Gordon’s Chevrolet at 197.628 mph.
Daytona 500 pole winner Danica Patrick was fourth at 197.555 mph in the GoDaddy Chevrolet with Carl Edwards rounding out the top five at 197.507 mph in a Roush Fenway Ford.
A better indicator than the fast lap was the best 10-lap consecutive average. Patrick was the best in that category with a 10-lap average of 195.775 mph. Edwards was next at 195.241 mph followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr’s 194.033 mph 10-lap average. Gordon’s 10-lap average was fourth at 193.517 mph with Josh Wise a surprising fifth at 192.182 mph for a 10-lap run.
Patrick will start on the pole of the first 150-mile Duel with Gordon leading the field in the second race to the green flag. The Budweiser Daytona Duels begin at 2 p.m. Eastern Time.
The speeds were up on Wednesday because cars were running in the draft as opposed to last weekend when teams set the cars up for single-car qualification runs.
That changed the dynamic of Wednesday’s practice session.
Earnhardt’s Chevrolet blew an engine in the first practices session but he was able to get his car back on track in time for the second practice. He finished the second practice with the 17th fastest lap at 195.588 mph.
“We broke a motor, it’s as simple as that,” Earnhardt said. “They’ll figure out what happen. I’m sure there is some logical explanation as to what happened, but, we’ll just put a new one in and start at the back of the Qualifier tomorrow and race up through there.
“I’m not worried. It’s just part of racing. Everything is good. We were just making some single car runs by ourselves. Everything seemed like it was working. Just trying to find a little more speed, and we found a few things that seemed to help the car. We’ll try to get out in this next practice, and see what else we can learn, but everything should be fine.”
Ryan Newman’s Chevrolet also crashed in the first practice session but he was able to get back out for practice No. 2. He was 26th fastest out of 27 cars that participated in that practice.
“My car came around,” Newman said. “I don’t know if it was the air off of Carl’s (Edwards) car or what. My car just came around. You can see the back end getting light there. I think it’s just an aero situation, but that was news to me. Carl (Edwards) came over and said ‘hey man’… I said ‘I don’t even know what to tell you yet’. It was unfortunate for our Quicken Loans Chevrolet, but that is why we had practice. That was my first experience, but I guess my car just got light in the back going into the corner.
“I think it’s totally fixable, it’s just a matter of time and getting practice and everything else. Matt (Borland, crew chief) and the guys are assessing the situation.”
After the incident Edwards came over and conferred with Newman about what happened on the track.
“I didn’t know what happened and he honestly admitted that he didn’t know what happened,” Newman said. “Just all of a sudden my car was going across his nose. He did say that he tried to come up and put the air brakes on me. I think in doing so it just made my car that loose. I hadn’t been loose the entire time. It was just something new and a different characteristic of this car I guess.”
Teams and drivers are still trying to figure out how the new car reacts with various aerodynamic conditions on the track. But that is what practice is for.
“I haven’t seen it be that big of a difference,” said Toyota driver Denny Hamlin. “I think the biggest thing is that these cars just have less downforce in the rear, which is going to make for the back of the cars not sticking as well. So, the side draft seems bigger because the overall downforce in the rear is less. I think that passing is so hard with this short spoiler — which is good, don’t change that — is that people are using every inch of the side draft now. Before the old generation five car punched such a huge hole in the air, I mean, Ray Charles could see the pocket of air that formed from that car. I think that this car, you really have to be in the slip stream and be strategic with finding that air that everyone is using every inch of the side draft and it’s making the inside car be less stable because of it.”
Some drivers have blamed the places of the mirrors as creating a “blind spot” for the drivers in the new car but Hamlin has a different idea.
“The biggest thing that I’ve seen is the sides of the cars, the back quarter panels are obviously flared out more,” Hamlin said. “So, what we’ve had to do is move our mirrors accordingly to see more of the left side or right side. And, by doing that it changes your depth perception of the inside car whether he’s there or not. So, really, I think it’s all a learning process and really none of the wrecks in Speedweeks so far have been the cars fault. It’s just really the guys behind the wheel — me included — that are just learning. And it just takes time to get it right.
“That’s why we can’t go and practice without wrecking.”