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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Remember when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the favorite almost every time he drove through the gate at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway?
Remember when his nation of fans looked forward to restrictor-plate races like kids do Christmas?
We might be headed back to that.
And strangely enough, Earnhardt played a role in making that clear.
Midway through Friday afternoon's test at Daytona, NASCAR's most popular driver gave Marcos Ambrose a nudge. Nothing big. Ambrose barely felt it.
But because the nose of Earnhardt's Chevrolet didn't match up with the bumper of Ambrose's Ford as it did with the old car, as it did with Mark Martin's Toyota earlier, Ambrose spun back into the field and collected 10 other cars.
Yep, an old-fashioned "big one."
In a test.
But it proved what many suspected but weren't completely sure of before -- that two-car dancing, what many have grown to hate, likely is a thing of the past.
That's a good thing.
No, that's a great thing.
What makes it great, at least for racing at Daytona and Talladega, is it puts racing back in the control of the drivers. Because the new "Gen 6" cars are so unstable pushing, because they slip and slide around more than the COT, the likelihood of seeing an unknown take the checkered in the Daytona 500 next month -- the way Trevor Bayne did in 2011 -- increases.
That increases the likelihood that a master drafter who seemingly could see air before the COT arrived will win in the new car.
In other words, Earnhardt.
"I'm not setting it up to say I'm going to run better because of this package, but the racing is going to be different," Earnhardt said. "It's definitely a move back to the way the cars used to be."
Let me remind you of how they used to be. Earnhardt won twice at Daytona between 2001 and 2004 and had a string of nine top-10s in 11 races. When the COT was introduced in 2007, his string of six straight top-10s turned into a string of five finishes of 13th or worse in seven races.
Earnhardt was even more dominant at Talladega before the COT, winning five times and finishing first or second for seven straight years. He has had only five top-10s in the past 12 Dega races.
"It's going to take a lot more care and concentration and just knowing what's at stake," Earnhardt said of this new car.
Translated, a return to the way it was: Better racing.
"Yeah, the racing will be better because we don't look like we'll be able to tandem [race]," Earnhardt said. "The cars are down 50 percent on downforce on the back and real tail-happy.
"Guys are having a lot of snap moments on the track where they're getting loose. With that in mind, you're definitely not going to be pushing anybody through the corner."
|The aero package on the new "Gen 6" Sprint Cup car favors pack racing over pairs racing.|
With that in mind, those who were experts in letting the air push the car ahead of them, experts at using the side draft and other means to move to the front, will have an advantage.
Again, that sounds like Earnhardt.
Unfortunately, nine drivers lost the rest of Friday afternoon's session and all of Saturday's test to prove this. Because parts and pieces have taken longer to get to teams than hoped, many don't have backups built.
Two of Earnhardt's three Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, were among those who got an early ticket home.
But before Gordon left, he admitted that the racing should be better with the new car, which already has gotten raves for its looks -- a return to the day when the showroom car looked like the car on the track.
"As a driver, I like it better," Gordon said. "I think it's better racing. & You're going to have to drive the cars, be careful putting yourself in certain positions. Cars are going to have to handle a little better than they have in the past. Those are all very positive things."
Reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski, also involved in the crash, might have provided the best spin.
"The sport is rewinding," he said. "That is the important thing to say. The sport advanced to the two-car tandem three or four years ago, and there were certain things you could do then that you couldn't do in the past without wrecking.
"Now the rules package is back to where we were in the early 2000s, when the fans enjoyed the racing better. We as drivers have to rewind to how we used to drive those cars."
Carl Edwards, the only driver involved in the crash who does have a backup car, believes the latest change is an advantage for him. He likes the slipping and sliding because he believes it gives him an edge.
To him, unstable is a good thing.
"You don't want the cars to be so simple to drive that it's just a conveyor belt of cars running around waiting on a tire to blow," said Edwards, trying to rebound from a disastrous 2012 season in which he missed the Chase. "I don't know if there'll be more wrecks, but I predict the end of the [Daytona 500] will be amazingly chaotic.
"I think it will be pretty insane."
I predict Earnhardt will be there with a chance to win the way he seemed to be almost all the time before the COT but only a few times the past few years -- and then only when he had a good dancing partner.
I predict this new car will give him an even better chance to win the title his Hall of Fame father won seven times.
As Earnhardt said before Friday's crash, "Our time is now."
The sport just had to go back in time to get there.
|Less downforce on the new car puts more responsibility on the drivers -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. included.|