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Daytona opener should be a doozy

1/19/2012 - NASCAR

OK. Let's see how many technical terms I can come up with that were used at the Daytona testing session:

Restrictor-plate opening, rear spoiler size, shark-fin placements, radiator dimensions, pressure-relief valves, 9,100 to 9,500 rpm, fuel injection, grille openings, radio-channel limitations.

That's nine, and I'm sure I am leaving a few out. I had to stop before my eyes glazed over and I needed three Goody's powders just to relieve my pounding headache. It rates just above listening to Bill Gates discuss software coding.

Every January test at Daytona has a few rules tweaks. This is more like Dr. Frankenstein trying to reanimate dead tissue.

It's all done with the hopes of eliminating two dreaded words: tandem racing. So after all this tinkering (and probably more to come) from the best minds in the business, and three days of testing, what was learned?

It can't be done. Not entirely. Not without banning it, and that's easier said than done. Even if they did, NASCAR officials fear it would ruin the Daytona 500.

That's the problem. NASCAR is coming off the most remarkable championship finish in the sport's history.

The excitement from Tony Stewart's edging Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup crown was a huge momentum boost for NASCAR, likely bringing interest from fresh eyeballs curious to see what this stuff is all about.

NASCAR wants to capitalize on that final-race drama of 2011 and keep things rolling to start 2012, so beginning the season with the biggest event of the year is better than ever.

Or is it? Rolling out a dud at Daytona would kill the momentum gained off a thrilling Chase in 2011. That's why this test, more than most January tests, was so important. NASCAR has to get this right and take full advantage of the opportunity.

And surveys show that two-by-two racing is not the way to do it. Most fans don't like it. But it's like the drunken uncle who shows up every Christmas: He's not going away, so you have to make the best of it. The same is true for tandem racing.

"You're still going to have to win the race with it," Jeff Gordon said at the test session. "Whether it's for a lap, a half a lap or three laps, when you can pick up 10 to 15 miles per hour, then you're going to do it."

So everyone involved will accept a compromise and try to live with a rules package that limits pairs racing and increases pack racing at Daytona and Talladega. Some of the changes NASCAR made include smaller radiators, downsized front grille openings, trimmed rear spoilers, softened springs, adjustments to the restrictor-plate opening and no driver-to-driver radio communications.

Oh, the irony. For years, many NASCAR officials and even a lot of fans hated pack racing at the plate tracks and wanted to eliminate it. Now they can't wait to get back to it. The scourge has become the cure to the pairs-racing plague.

"I think that small doses of the two-car push are OK," said NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton. "It's a tool."

I give the NASCAR brain trust a lot of credit. It's doing everything it can and being transparent about the process.

"I don't envy NASCAR's position," Edwards said last week. "But I think they are doing the right thing by going through all these motions and trying to figure this out."

Cup competition director John Darby and Pemberton spoke to reporters every day of the test session last week. NASCAR president Mike Helton also spoke to the media.

"The outcome, the proof in the pudding, will be the Daytona 500," Helton said. "But we've not seen anything that we dislike."

The truth is no one knows for sure what we'll see.

"You just can't simulate it in testing," Darby said. "We learn all we can and apply it the best we can, but having 43 cars on the track for 500 miles is entirely different."

There are concerns that NASCAR is making changes that could make restrictor-plate racing inherently more dangerous.

Speeds are up over 200 mph again. NASCAR officials say they're OK with it because of the smoothness of the pavement at Daytona and the safety advancements in the cars. But logic tells us more speed means more risk.

Racing in packs, although more fun to watch for many fans, also means more chances of a multicar wreck when most of the field is running at 200 mph only inches apart.

And the smaller radiators (an effort to make the cars to overheat more quickly while running in pairs) means engines are at risk as well. NASCAR officials have worked closely with the teams to try to find a comfort zone.

"Maintaining a safe engine temperature for 500 miles is going to be a big job," said Dodge Motorsports engineer Howard Comstock. "When you run by yourself, you can get plenty air to the radiator and you'll be OK.

"If you want to go fast in the two-car tandem, it's going to be a challenge. Drivers have to really watch what their engines are doing for 500 miles, or you're going to risk a major engine failure."

One thing is virtually certain: The final laps of the Daytona 500 will be racing Armageddon. That's nothing new, but this time drivers will look for a tandem partner possibly for the first time all day, and go for broke trying to escape the pack.

Don't miss the last 10 laps. Excitement, danger, Russian roulette: That's a guarantee.

So no matter what the changes are and how they affect the race overall, NASCAR may get what it wants and needs in the end to keep the fan interest rolling.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.