Thursday, July 3, 2008
Masters of the draft will have clear advantage at draft-happy Daytona
By Mark Ashenfelter ESPN.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- While most eyes will focus on Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and other masters of the draft -- Nationwide Series restrictor-plate stalwart Mike Wallace included -- there will be plenty of intrigue further back in the pack Friday night.
That's where younger drivers such as Marcos Ambrose and Kelly Bires likely will spend the first part of the Winn-Dixie 250 at Daytona International Speedway as they learn the many nuances of drafting at the 2.5-mile track. While some drivers make it look easy from the outset, others grow more proficient over time, and there are plenty of drivers with lots left to learn.
Ambrose will put his JTG Racing Ford at the front of the field from the outset if it's capable, but he knows there's more than one way to find success at Daytona.
"If you get up front, you want to stay there," Ambrose said. "Otherwise, we'll play it smart. Our cars are good enough to get through traffic in the final segment. The biggest challenge at Daytona is to stay out of trouble until then.
"If you get a good drafting partner, you can get up through traffic pretty quick. If you pick the wrong partner, you can go straight to the back. You spend most of the race trying to figure out who to draft with, who not to draft with. When it's time, you go."
Ambrose and Bires are teammates and have a lot in common at a place like Daytona, where none of their previous racing experience can prepare them for dealing with the draft. Ambrose is a road racer by nature and Bires came up racing short tracks in the Midwest, but no matter what a driver's background is, Daytona is simply a different animal.
Bires knows what needs to be done. The key is getting things to play out the way he's envisioned them.
"Daytona is about being in the right line, it's about being patient," Bires said. "Sometimes you're in one line and you feel like everyone is going by you, but the next time you come around and your line is moving, so sometimes you get a huge run and you want to pull out and pass someone. But sometimes you've just got to stay there and you'd be better off.
"It is a lot of making decisions and you don't get very much space and time to make those decisions, so you rely on a good spotter helping you out and a lot of it is instincts. There's so much patience involved."
Ambrose knows that really can't be taught.
"Restrictor-plate racing is all about timing," Ambrose said. "You have to know when to go, know when to fall back. We'll figure a lot of it out as we go."
Drivers like Earnhardt, Harvick and Busch make that look easy. All three have won Nationwide races at Daytona, with Busch winning here last July and finishing second to Tony Stewart here in February.
Stewart's not entered Friday, as Denny Hamlin will be in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 entry, with Busch back in the No. 18. Stewart and Busch worked together here in February and it won't be surprising if the two cars do the same again this time, though the drivers aren't the same.
"It doesn't matter who wins as long as we are on the same team," Busch said. "I'd sure like to win, but if the team wins, that's what is most important. We worked well together at Daytona. Any time you have two cars out there with guys who get along as well as Tony, Denny and I do, then we are going to be tough for other teams to run against. Anything we can do to get JGR a win will be great for everyone, whether it's Denny or I who ends up in Victory Lane."
While Busch, 23, is a youngster himself, he's already got plenty of experience at Daytona. Winning at the track with Hendrick Motorsports and finishing second with JGR, he knows what needs to be done and how he can accomplish it given the circumstances.
"The best place to be is out front most of the time, but not always. If you're on a restart, you know it's not the best place to be," Busch said. "But if it's a long, green-flag run to the finish, then you try to get to the front and stay there.
"It all depends on the situation. When you have a car as strong as I had there last July, then it's pretty easy to get out front and stay there. We ran well at Daytona in February, but if we want to win, we are going to have to beat Denny and the 20 car."
While the top teams and drivers at Daytona are good no matter what, Harvick knows there's a difference in what it takes to be successful here in July compared to February.
"The track gets hot and slick during the races in July and the handling characteristics become exaggerated a lot more," Harvick said. "We are shooting for a good-handling race car."
No matter how the race plays out, Harvick expects to be worn out afterward -- but not in the way you might expect.
"For me, it's way more mental than physical. You're worn out by the end of the race," Harvick said. "You spend a lot of time looking in the mirrors anticipating the other guy's next move."
And if a veteran like Harvick is worn out, imagine what a driver like Bires is going through.
"You're telling yourself, 'No, no, no,' more than anything," Bires said of working the draft. "You want to do it. You've got a run and its like, 'I can easily pass these guys,' and the next thing you know you're 15 spots back when you get through the end of the corner. Some people are better at it than others, but I think we're pretty good."
But even the best don't completely control their fate at a track prone to sparking multicar accidents in an instant.
"At all of these restrictor-plate races you can get involved in something not of your doing just by being in the wrong spot, so we're going to race smart," Bires said. "When it gets down to about 20 to go, then we're going to go hard."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.