If Brad Keselowski proves prophetic and Saturday's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway plays out much like the Daytona 500, then Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be very happy.
Earnhardt is already happy in one respect: Changes NASCAR made prior to the 2012 season to eliminate, or at least diminish, the amount of tandem drafting seen at restrictor-plate speedways in recent years has seemed to have the desired effect. And that's the way it should be, according to Earnhardt.
"I think things have gotten a lot better with the rules they made for this particular season. We're racing more, we're not tandem drafting all the time so your race really is in your own hands, and what you do with it and what you make of [it] is really up to you and you alone for most of the event," said Earnhardt, who finished second in the Daytona 500.
-- DALE EARNHARDT JR.
"That's the way I've always thought racing should be. Racing has always been that way. We never had racing where you were so dependent on another car until we have the repaves at Daytona and Talladega and tandem racing came around. It was OK to watch, and I think some of the drivers probably enjoyed it, but for me it was just the opposite of a driver's instincts. Everything you ever learned about racing, it was kind of the complete opposite of that as far as how you approached an event. I didn't like it much."
Changes to cooling system NASCAR implemented included reducing the size of the radiators to a two-gallon capacity; the radiator inlet being moved up, closer into the front-center bumper area; a smaller cooling system overflow tank with a capacity of a half-gallon; and changing the location of the grille openings.
In addition, NASCAR required softer springs; a smaller rear spoiler; and a baseline restrictor-plate size of 29/32ths of an inch, or 1/64th of an inch larger than the plate used for the 2011 Daytona 500.
"The rules worked really good for us," said Kenseth, the 2012 Daytona 500 winner. "Our cars have been fast and we have been able to pass. They get hot when you get back in the pack but if we can keep them toward the front and we have enough speed we seem to be OK. I am going back hoping it will be the same."
Kenseth has been champing at the bit ever since Talladega. He thinks he let one slip away at the Alabama superspeedway.
"I looked forward to going to Talladega more so than any plate race I have ever looked forward to in my career with as good as we ran at Daytona [in February] and how fast our cars were," Kenseth said. "I feel the same way about Daytona [this time around] and I am looking forward to getting down there."
The draft hasn't completely disappeared, and it cost Kenseth at Talladega. He led a race-high 73 laps but lost the lead on a green-white-checkered restart when Greg Biffle, who pushed Kenseth clear of the field in Turns 1 and 2, left a gap on the backstretch, an opening that allowed eventual winner Keselowski to take the lead. Kenseth settled for third.
"At Talladega, I felt we had by far the fastest car in the race and dominated the race as much as you can but I felt like I messed that up at the end when Greg and I got together and somehow got separated," Kenseth said. "I have been kind of agonizing over that since Talladega with that green-white-checkered and how I lost the race for my guys. I am looking forward to getting some redemption."
Although Keselowski needed help from Kyle Busch to take the lead, he was able to pull away by himself.
"Restrictor-plate racing is the same as it always has been. It's a love-hate relationship," Biffle said. "It is a lot of fun at times but a lot of times it is pretty intense and other times you end up in a big wreck. It is one of the three. It is usually never boring but it is what it is."
A big wreck in the Daytona 500 took out a competitive Keselowski, who doesn't expect the Coke Zero 400 to play out much differently than the 500, save for maybe the weather.
"I would expect a carbon copy of the Daytona 500. The hotter temps certainly require a little more cooling in the engines, so I think that will negate the effect of the bigger pop-off valve," he said. "So, I would say I would expect the same thing as the Daytona 500 and the same group of guys will probably be fast, the same group of guys that were not fast will probably struggle."
After a weekend in Kentucky with temperature approaching 100 degrees and on-track conditions well surpassing triple digits, the forecast for Daytona is a bit more forgiving, with highs expected in the upper 80s and lows in the mid 70s. The Daytona 500 was run in day-time temps in the low 70s and night temps in the upper 60s.
Kevin Harvick says the difference in temperatures from February to July adds a bit of intrigue as far as the rules changes are concerned.
"I think with the smaller spoilers and everything that we started the year with at Daytona and with a pretty big increase in temperature, I'm a little bit curious as to how the handling of the car will be," Harvick said. "I think you will see a very similar race to what you saw at the beginning of the year. They are always exciting on the speedways."
Less draft, more craft. That's perfect for Earnhardt, who's done some of his best work on restrictor plates.
"Hopefully, we will keep going in the right direction to get it to where it's you against 42 other guys," he said. "That's the way it's been this year so far."
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