Car of Tomorrow In Review: Daytona 500

by C.J. Radune on February 21, 2008 @ 09:52:53 PDT

 


The Car of Tomorrow officially became the Car of Today at Daytona International Speedway last weekend. The teams will now use the new car at every race track the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits. The car was designed to increase driver safety, reduce costs and enhance competition. With no serious incidents at Daytona, the car's safety record is good thus far. Only time will tell if costs will be reduced. So that leaves one question: Were the new cars more competitive?

Daytona 500 Comparison

The 2007 Daytona 500 featured one of the most exciting finishes of the season. Not only was the margin of victory 0.02 seconds, but there was also a melee that ensued causing Richard Childress Racing driver Clint Bowyer to slide across the finish line upside down and on fire. How could you inject any more excitement? 

Before restrictor plates were introduced to races at the Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, the cars would inevitably spread out around the track due to their performance and handling capabilities. The 2008 edition of the Daytona 500 harkened back to those days. A larger restrictor plate was used this year that increased closing speeds in the draft and put a larger premium on engine performance and handling. NASCAR made the change to the wider plate because the new car was less aerodynamic and naturally slower than the sleeker cars of last season; there was room to introduce more power without compromising safety.

Table: 2006 - 2008 Daytona 500 Race Facts

Year
Average Speed (mph)
Margin of Victory
Time of Race
Lead Changes
Cautions
2006
142.667
Under Caution
3hr 33min
32
10
2007
149.335
0.020
3hr 22min
13
6
2008
152.672
0.092
3hr 16min
42
7

The numbers imply that the new car was actually faster. The speed increase makes sense given that the engines were able to produce more horsepower due to the larger restrictor plates. Faster speeds at other tracks probably won't happen since peak horsepower hasn't really changed and restrictor plates are unique to Daytona and Talladega. The reduction in cautions and the number of laps under caution also contributed to the overall increase in average speed. For the past two years, the first caution flag waived on Lap 18; in 2008, the first caution didn't arrive until Lap 81. Additionally, cars were strung out around the course until the last 20 laps and any accidents were two- or three-car affairs, not the 10-to-15-car pile ups we've seen in the past. 

2008 Daytona 500 Review

Speedweeks at Daytona, as well as preseason testing, raised expectations for a wild Daytona 500. In draft testing, the cars appeared unstable and seemed to move around much more than before. Fans at home could see the drivers' hands moving the steering wheels back and forth as they worked to keep control. Also in testing, cars at the back of the draft tended to fall away and not be able to keep up.

These problems were solved by the time the green flag waived. Adjustments to the front splitters and suspensions gave the cars much better handling characteristics, but dips in the turns still posed some serious issues for drivers. Additionally, cars were able to drop to the back of the pack and still keep in touch with the leaders. At one point in the race there were three distinct single-file packs of cars, but when someone would attempt a pass, the trailing pack caught up. Running side-by-side significantly slowed the pack even more than the more aerodynamic cars of seasons past. Competition, therefore, existed on the track and not just in the secrecy of garages or wind tunnels.

The race started off slowly from the fan's perspective. Even the first caution was only for debris on the racetrack. By the mid-way point, the field was strung out and the dominant cars were predictable - Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. As the end of the race neared, different pit strategies became a factor. Track position became important due to the strength of JGR's cars, but tire wear was also a concern for the new car. Different pit strategies saw some cars changing all four tires, others changing only two and a few staying out and changing none. All of these strategies converged in the last 20 laps as the pack of lead lap cars all came together and fought it out for their desired position going into the last lap. 

Anyone who was disinterested through the race should have been off his seat by the end. Some cars were able to change lanes almost instantly. Others had trouble choosing the proper lane and were hung out to dry by their drafting partners. Still, others tried to combat the superior handling cars by chopping across their path, even causing accidents. It appeared as though all the drivers were confident bumping and pushing one another in the new car, and some teams had figured out how to make the new car handle well and be easy on tire wear. 

Fantasy Outlook

Over the remaining races of the season, we will see more teams getting a handle on the new car. From the first race we can see that HMS, JGR and Penske Racing continue to be strong. Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates have made great strides as well. The competition is narrowing and will only get closer as the year goes on. The 42 lead changes at Daytona show that competition has increased. Earnhardt and Stewart traded the lead, lap after lap, and many others had opportunities to get out front, too.

Teams will need to work more with Goodyear on tire wear. There were too many tire blisters and failures at Daytona; this is a problem that was predicted. The new car has a higher center of gravity that causes the car to roll more, wearing out the right front tires. Teams will need to work on their suspension settings, and Goodyear will have to analyze the tire compound to prevent further issues. Knowing this issue, JGR immediately pops to mind as being ahead of the curve. Gibbs has loaned shock specialist Ronny Crooks to be a communal resource for Toyota teams in the aerodynamics department. Crooks will bring all the setup information he can from other teams to find a solution to the tire issue, and the Gibbs cars should immediately benefit.

Looking forward, fantasy owners should continue to see Gibbs as strong contenders. The other teams that look strong in the near term are Penske, Ganassi Racing, RCR and Roush Fenway Racing. Hendrick should in all likelihood rebound from its troubles. These teams were strong at Daytona, have strong engine packages and talented drivers. Count on the same characters to be near the top at the California Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They were the teams that had success in the COT, and they should continue to have success in the Car of Today.

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About C.J. Radune

Radune has been a KFFL contributor since January 2008.

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