2011 Daytona 500: Tandem drafting, rule changes could be dominant story lines

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 11:53 PM

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. - Rusty Wallace wasn't expecting to see cars roaring around Daytona International Speedway at speeds exceeding 200 mph this month. And it didn't take long for the 1989 Winston Cup champion to decide he didn't like it.

"It was really alarming because once they really got hooked up [in the draft], the cars went 206 miles per hour," said Wallace, now an outspoken analyst for ESPN and one of the most respected voices in the garage. "That's too fast, in my opinion, for these cars."

Wallace wasn't the only one concerned. NASCAR officials this week slowed the cars 5 to 10 mph by shrinking the holes in the restrictor plate, cutting the amount of air flowing into the carburetor and, as a result, reducing horsepower and top-end speed. It was yet another adjustment in an offseason that's already seen NASCAR simplify its points system, tweak its playoff format and implement other changes that might cause the sport's casual fans to do a double-take.

And Wallace, who won 55 races in NASCAR's top series, has an opinion about all of it.

With speeds reined in, Wallace anticipates the dominant story line Sunday to be how drivers handle the latest fad sweeping stock-car racing: Tandem drafting. Drivers discovered during Saturday's Budweiser Shootout the fastest way around Daytona's repaved surface track is to pick a partner, pair off nose-to-tail, then use the resulting aerodynamic "push" to slingshot past other cars.

"I personally don't like the way it looks," Wallace said. "We're not accustomed to that."

NASCAR prefers fender-to-fender action, too. So it mandated lower water pressure in the cooling system and a smaller opening in the front grille, which limits clean air to the radiator and causes engines to run hot. But instead of abolishing the drafting, drivers found a way around it. During Thursday's qualifying races, drivers simply swapped spots every three to five laps.

But Wallace sees a potential issue - and he pointed to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s wreck on Wednesday to prove his point. The "pusher" can't see what's happening in front of the "pushee," and as a result, can be caught off guard if the lead car slows unexpectedly.

"It's like coming up on a stop sign and slamming on the brakes because an old lady is walking out in front of you," Wallace said. "You get hit in the [rear] end. That's what happened."

Wallace chuckled and smiled when asked for his thoughts on the new points system, because for the first time since his rookie season 31 years ago, the 54-year-old said he won't need a calculator to figure out the standings. But that doesn't mean he thinks it's perfect.

"My whole career, I've never, ever understood why we had so many numbers," he said. "Why couldn't it just be one or two, like almost all the other forms of racing? We just dealt with it. But now, it's so simple. You can figure the math in your mind really easier."

The winner will receive 43 points, and each subsequent position will descend a single point all the way down to one for last place. The first-place car also will receive a three-point bonus, while a bonus point will go to any driver who leads a lap and another bonus point to the driver who leads the most laps. That means 48 will be the greatest number of points a driver can earn.

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