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Thursday, February 17, 2011
Spotters the unsung heroes at Daytona

By David Newton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The best view at Daytona International Speedway is without a doubt from the spotters' tower atop the grandstands on the frontstretch. Up here you get a nice breeze blowing from the ocean and can see every aspect of this 2.5-mile concrete oasis.

It is quite honestly breathtaking.

It also is crazy.

From here, as one spotter said before the start of Thursday's first qualifying race, "there are more deals being made here than in Las Vegas." It really was ante-up time as the field circled under caution waiting for a green-white-checkered finish in the first race.

At one point winner Kurt Busch was going to partner with Matt Kenseth for the final two laps. Then he was going to pair up with Regan Smith, the driver he worked with for almost the entire 60 laps.

 Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya (42), Kevin Harvick (29), Ryan Newman (39) and Tony Stewart (14) paired up to gain speed during the first qualifying race.

Then he wasn't sure.

Ultimately, Busch made the right choice and went with Smith, who pushed him to the victory with his spotter paving the way.

"It's almost like you've got a deck of cards, like you're playing Texas hold 'em," said Busch, in position to become the first driver to win the Budweiser Shootout, a qualifying duel and the Daytona 500 in the same week.

"I have my two cards. You look around and see who's betting with who. Really, it has a lot to do with a split-second decision. Are you in or are you going out with a certain group?"

And the spotter is high above everyone coordinating this. For Busch, the credit goes to Chris Osborne.

"Chris is doing one helluva job," said Steve Addington, Busch's crew chief. "He did it every week last year. He just stepped up to the plate here with all that's going on down here this week. Hats off to him."

Hats off to everyone on this metal platform the spotters call home, particularly this week. They're doing their jobs differently than anyone's ever seen at Daytona, orchestrating the "flip" that has replaced "slam-drafting" as the catchphrase of the hour.

"It's probably the only thing keeping us from wrecking all over the place," Clint Bowyer said after pushing Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton to the win in the second race. "Spotters are really important here, but probably more important now than ever."

If you haven't been paying attention, the flip is necessary in a two-car draft to keep the motor of the pushing car from overheating. It happened every three to five laps for the most part on Thursday after NASCAR made changes following Saturday's Shootout in which some cars stayed together for more than 20 laps because they could maintain higher engine temperatures. There were a few exceptions, such as Trevor Bayne, who pushed Jeff Gordon for most of the second race.

Do the swap incorrectly and you'll have a spinout as Ryan Newman found out on the second lap of the first race.

Within seconds of Newman's car sliding through the infield grass, spotters were warning the pusher not to get on the left rear of the lead car because it creates an aerodynamic nightmare.

"Probably the worst thing I ever did as a driver was I went on the roof to see what they did," said Brian Vickers, who watched the Shootout from the roof. "I wish I had never gone up there.

"[My spotter Chris Lambert] told me not to go up there. I was, 'Oh, my God! You're clearing me on the backstretch? I can't even see which car it is.' Now they earn their money even more."

Some teams have discovered one spotter for two drivers is the way to go. Brett Griffin (Burton) and Kevin Hamlin (Bowyer) spent most of the second duel passing off the drivers between them.

Burton and Bowyer were able to communicate with each other this way as well, making it a three-person conversation instead of two.

"We found it was more efficient to have one person talking to multiple people versus two people talking to their drivers," Griffin said. "The main thing we're doing in that situation is not making a move with the front car until the back car was clear."

It's particularly critical to the driver pushing because he can't see anything but the rear spoiler of the lead car.

"The key to the race is having an efficient swap and getting right back in that tandem position without losing a lot of positions," Griffin said.

It's probably the only thing keeping us from wrecking all over the place. Spotters are really important here, but probably more important now than ever.

-- Clint Bowyer

That's because the cars swapping go 15 to 20 mph slower than the tandem closing. If you can make the swap without losing more than three or four car lengths, well done.

Griffin prefers to have his drivers swap in Turn 3. He's not sure why, but it seems to work better.

That's not always an option, as was evident Thursday. When a car began to overheat you'd hear the driver or spotter call for an immediate flip.

Early in the first race five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was asked when he wanted to make a switch. Johnson radioed, "Let's do it this time to be safe."

Johnson spent most of the day working with AJ Allmendinger. At times he became frustrated with the way Allmendinger went too low on the swap or failed to brake to allow him to catch up.

Then the spotter became the go-between with Allmendinger's spotter, who was standing next to him for convenience.

"I'll tell him," Johnson's spotter, Earl Barban, radioed his driver.

Pit stops also became a negotiating process as spotters coordinated two-car stops instead of solo ones so the tandem would continue to work together after the stop.

"Some serious politicking up there," Smith said.

And it was more serious than ever before the final restart. Clayton Hughes came back to Smith with several scenarios before settling on the one that won the race for Busch.

"Here's what Kurt wants to do," Hughes said as Smith prepared for the restart.

What Busch wanted was for Smith to give him enough of a gap to move ahead and allow Smith -- whose car was a stronger pusher than pushee -- to push him past Kevin Harvick and Kenseth for the lead. It worked to perfection.

Smith's only regret is he couldn't get past Busch, whom most spotters considered a sitting duck as the leader.

Burton was in a much better position as the leader because his partner, Bowyer, was his teammate, and Bowyer figured it wasn't worth the risk of trying to pass him and allowing the tandem of Michael Waltrip and Kyle Busch to pass them.

It still was wild.

And Sunday will be even wilder with all 43 cars on the track.

"I love restrictor-plate racing," Griffin said. "I wish we did this every week. This definitely is a different experience. Talking to two drivers at once was cool. I'd do that every week. That was awesome."

The view was pretty good as well.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.