NASCAR's Saturday night Budweiser Shootout was the beginning of a whole new ballgame at Daytona.
The combination of high grip, big restrictor plates and the body profile of the Car of Tomorrow helped to introduce drivers to a familiar place where unfamiliar tactics are the new norm.
“It’s completely different plate racing than we’ve ever had, and I hope that it was exciting to watch,” said Jamie McMurray after his second place finish.
It was exciting to say the least.
Over the past couple of years restrictor plate racing has run the gamut from a Talladega race where drivers ran single file for fear of retribution from NASCAR to the free-for-all races of the past season.
This is something different.
It’s already getting suggestions for a name. Saturday night, it was called everything from “Dragonfly Racing” to Darrell Waltrip’s oft used “Co-opitition.”
Call it whatever you want, it’s the new metric for winning a race at Daytona. You find a partner to dance with, and hope you can break up with him as the last song ends.
The two car tango was the only number at the ball on Saturday, and it is probably a good indicator of the 150-mile qualifyers on Thursday and the Daytona 500 next Sunday afternoon.
“There’s an art to it, whether it’s a big 40-car pack or it’s a two-car tandem,” said Denny Hamlin, who lost the race after dipping below the double yellow out-of-bounds line coming to the finish line.
“It was three-wide at the line for a win and I see the Daytona 500 being no different,” he said.
But it’s not just the style; it’s the speed that makes this racing so unique.
In the Shootout, two car drafts were routinely turning laps beyond 204 mph, and the right partners in the right situation were beyond 206.
The numbers dazzle the fans, but it’s the comfort factor behind those numbers for the guys behind the wheel.
Ryan Newman pointed out that the raw speed in the cars really doesn’t feel any different.
“199.5 versus 206.5 I don’t know that you could feel it, and I’ve always said the most important thing is we keep the race cars on the racetrack.”
The line that nobody wants to cross is the one that divides flying around the racetrack from flying through the air.
“If the cars get airborne at 140 we’d better not cross 139, so I don’t know what that number is. I don’t know if there is a true number out there, but if we were doing 212 and the cars were safe and we could keep them on the ground, then that’s fine with me.”
For a sport that is seemingly searching for something to heighten the excitement factor, this racing will do the trick.
The Daytona 500 is still an unknown. With 43 cars on the track instead of 24 Saturday night, there may be just more of the same thing if Shootout winner Kurt Busch has a working crystal ball.
“If there's 40 cars out there, you're going to have 20 two-car packs.”
Greg Biffle sees the addition of more cars complicating the elegant simplicity of finding one partner and sticking with him.
“I really think we’d have more fun if there was 20-25 of us together, but it’s more fun when the pack is bigger than just pushing two cars around the whole time, but the 500 is gonna be different. There will be a lot more cars out there, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”
No matter what, Daytona is still Daytona. The two-car tango has just added a new white knuckle element.
Michael Waltrip has won the Daytona 500 twice. He’s seen it.
“You do it lap after lap after lap and it gets a little bit hairy. If you remember correctly it’s always been hairy here.”
Saturday night was just for the money, next Sunday is a shot at history. It’s about to get a lot hairier.