MARTIN: Bayne’s Triumph Concludes Strange 2011 Speedweeks

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The drivers and teams all fled Daytona on Sunday night, flying in their private aircraft back to the real world.

After spending two weeks in Daytona, the team transporters loaded up and hit the road for the long drive back to the team shops in North Carolina before a quick turnover of cars and equipment and then off to an even longer drive to Phoenix Int’l Raceway for this weekend’s race.

The rest of NASCAR’s traveling circus escaped town on Monday tired, weary and somewhat confused from what they had seen and experienced during Speedweeks.

Needless to say, what a crazy two weeks it has been.

It’s doubtful that anyone would have picked Trevor Bayne to win the race when the circus began Feb. 10, but it became obvious in last Thursday’s first Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying race that the then-19-year-old driver had the talent and patience to run up front in the Daytona 500. And while Bayne’s victory makes a great story, this “two-by-two-by-two” style of “Ark Racing” produced some spectacular racing on the newly repaved Daytona Int’l Speedway, but how was it received by the fans?

Noah should have been the grand marshal of the Daytona 500 because if a driver didn’t go “two-by-two-by-two” he had no chance of becoming a contender.

NASCAR has successfully brainwashed the fans that come to Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway — the two tracks that require restrictor plates on the race cars to keep the speeds from soaring past 200 miles per hour — that great racing has to be long freight trains of cars all grouped together in large packs.

This year, that didn’t happen and while the new shape of the cars and the great pavement on the race track produced some thrilling, who-is-going-to-win-it racing, there were plenty of fans and even more media cynics who were confused by the action.

It’s hard to argue that Sunday’s Daytona 500 didn’t produce some spectacular results. There were a race-record 74 lead changes among 22 drivers. Ryan Newman led the most laps when his Chevrolet was in front nine times for 37 laps. There was a storybook winner as a driver who turned 20 one day before the race became the youngest Daytona 500 winner in history.

But this frantic and unfamiliar style of racing also produced a Daytona 500 record 16 caution periods for 60 laps. That’s because no driver could get to the front without a second car pushing from behind. And that second car had to have the nose on the front end up against the rear of the leading car, jacking it up to the point where the contact between the two rubbed the paint and decals off the front nose of the race car.

This wasn’t bump drafting — the dangerous form of racing that had become prevalent at Daytona and Talladega the past five years or so; this was push drafting where the two cars alternated pushing the pair around the track.

When it was done properly, it allowed two cars to drive away from the field, which made this year’s Daytona 500 appear more scattered with cars fanning out in little two-car packs around the track. It also caused NASCAR to make a series of rules changes to the opening of the front grilles as engine temperatures soared and speeds reached 206 miles per hour in the Budweiser Shootout Feb. 12.

NASCAR officials could live with two-car packs hitting 200 mph, but anything faster was unacceptable, so the grille opening was adjusted to limit the air in hopes of getting two-car packs to unlock. A pressure relief valve was also lowered to have water from a hot engine start to escape at a lower temperature. Then, the restrictor-plate was trimmed by another 1/64th of an inch to lower the speeds.

But when warmer weather arrived for the weekend, NASCAR increased the grille opening to keep engines from overheating, adding yet another rule change.

While some of us have grown tired of the type of racing produced at the “normal” race tracks, after two weeks of the craziness at Daytona, it will be a welcome relief.

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