Preparations for the 2012 season began in earnest this week as teams took to the track at the Daytona International Speedway for Preseason Thunder. Speeds reached in excess of 200 mph despite a new set of restrictor plate regulations, with new Phoenix Racing signing Kurt Busch topping the time sheets with a fastest lap of 206.058 mph on Friday, although fastest times on Saturday were considerably slower.
“It’s been a lot of fun to work with a small group of guys and thrash on just getting the car to the hauler to get the hauler down here on time,” Busch said.
“Everybody on the team is just walking on cloud nine right now with excitement, with the way that we’ve been running so far on track.”
The new regulations for 2012 are designed to make it more difficult for cars to link up in two-car tandems, which became a trend at Talladega and Daytona last year. NASCAR hopes that as a result we will see a return to the traditional style of pack racing, with no single car able to break away from the peloton. They include the outlawing of driver-to-driver communications, smaller radiators, and smaller spoilers.
Joe Gibbs driver Joey Logano was indifferent to the new regulations.
“Either way’s fine for me, but I personally like the two-car draft a lot, I have fun with it; it’s kind of cool to communicate with someone,” Logano said.
“But a lot of people don’t like it. So we’ll go back to the other way, or whatever.”
The general consensus remains however that tandem drafting will decide the race in the closing laps around the 2.5 mile oval – incidentally, Busch's quickest time was set in a tandem with his 2010 tandem partner, Furniture Row Racing's Regan Smith.
“The two-car tandem is definitely the way to go, as far as speed,” Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. commented.
“You’re not going to be able to out-run that. That tandem stuff is what’s gonna win the race.”
Earnhardt added that he believes the new regulations, particularly the outlawing of intra-car communications, will have little overall effect on the spectacle.
“You know, pretty much everybody is working with teammates anyways. When we first started tandem drafting, you might end up working with somebody outside of your company, but then everybody sort of got a little strict on who they were going to work with. So I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”
Despite having collided with new Michael Waltrip Racing team-mate Clint Bowyer while practising tandem drafting without a radio on Thursday, veteran Mark Martin agreed with Earnhardt.
“We’re practicing tandems, you’re gonna have to do it – you’re just gonna have to,” Martin said.
“It’s gonna be really, really hard, but people are gonna figure it out and have a huge advantage to be able to do it so we wanted to get a taste of it. And what did we get, two laps and I turned him around?”
“Everybody’s trying to pick this [tandem drafting] up,” added Bowyer.
“You can do it and that’s the problem … it’s an advantage so you’re gonna have to do it. The cars move around a bit more than they did and when we made that switch it just pulled the air and turned me around.
“It’s going to be interesting to see. I don’t know what the fix is, and I know they’re trying. They either have to make it so you can’t do it at all, somehow, or get it back to where you can at least make laps and not wreck each other.”
The only major crash occurred on the Saturday, when Earnhardt was hooked into the path of Jeff Burton after slight contact with Juan Pablo Montoya. It was Burton's second accident of the test, having had slight contact with the wall following a puncture on Friday, and left him to rue his bad luck.
“I don’t know what happened, but maybe we’re getting it out of the way now,” reflected the Richard Childress driver.
“Other than the obvious, we’ve had a really good test … My car was really stable. My car drove really good and felt good. I was a little surprised. With the spoiler, I thought it might not feel that way.”