Lessons learned, but drivers still adapting to new cars as Daytona nears
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla – On Sunday, Mark Martin will fire up the engine of his Gen-6 car to chase after the checkered flag for the 29th time in the Daytona 500.
The old man has seen it all. So, he wasn't surprised the new car had an old-school feel about it, especially in the draft.
Martin, 59, didn't mix it up much in the draft after crashing in practice and the Sprint Unlimited. However, he's had enough seat time to know that bump drafting will again factor into race strategy and Thursday's twin qualifying duels.
“I guess I've got 20 laps of drafting so far out of this whole thing and I'm two cars down,” Martin said. “We're still going to try to learn Thursday, so I'm not so much worried about where we start.”
For all the hype surrounding the Gen-6, it handled only marginally better than the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) in the Sprint Unlimited and during qualifying.
Danica Patrick won the pole, in part, because she generated more speed at the bottom of the track — an unlikely race-day scenario without a tag-team partner.
“I just needed to get a couple more guys on my bumper,” defending 500 champion Matt Kenseth said. “One time we had a good enough line to do it and they got three-wide behind me and stalled the line out and we just couldn't go anywhere after that.”
Kevin Harvick, winner of the Sprint Unlimited, said the exhibition was different than last year's race, in part, because most everyone couldn't predict the closing speed of the Gen-6. Also, it was a challenge finding a comfort zone on the racetrack even with only 19 cars.
“Even before the CoT, we were pushing each other down the straightaways and stuff,” Harvick said. “I think you can still do that. Everybody's just got to kind of learn how we have to do it differently now.”
Like the CoT, the Gen-6 performed better on the top of the racetrack mostly because it couldn't gather any momentum in the middle without a tow. A few drivers created passing lanes in the middle once they resolved their handling issues.
Unlike the CoT, drivers discovered the side draft is likely to play a significant role during the 150-mile qualifying races. However, there is far more uncertainty when all 43 cars are on the track for the first time in the 200-lap Sprint Cup season opener.
“It seems to me that we are back to where we were with the old car '06 era, somewhere in there, with how the cars drafted,” five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “Tony (Stewart) and I started working together like the old days and really made up some ground.”
It was like the pre-CoT days when drivers could rush through the middle to make up time and positions. But it was difficult to find a way out when a car's momentum stalled.
The drivers were tentative for much of the Sprint Unlimited. They didn't take many chances as they raced two-wide and were hesitant to pass at the bottom of the track.
“You need to get it three-wide to make some moves,” said Joey Logano, driving the No. 22 Ford for Penske Racing. “About toward the end of that run, everyone's tires were wearing a bit and I think guys got bored and wanted to start making things happen.”
While many drivers learned something about the Gen-6, they agree the expected race-day temperature in the low 80s will significantly impact the race. For the most part, the weekend practice sessions, Sprint Unlimited and qualifying were staged in unseasonably cold temperatures.
“If it warms up during the daytime, handling is going to be a big, big issue,” three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon said. “That is going to be important and so we will look at the weather.”