Sprint Cup drivers will have a new restrictor plate and a new maximum temperature at which they can run their engines at Talladega this weekend, but whether that impacts the two-car tandem draft remains to be seen.
While NASCAR officials have not said so publicly, they appear to want to see less of the two-car hookups that were prevalent in restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega earlier this year.
The sanctioning body is increasing the size of the holes in the restrictor plate from 56/64ths of an inch in diameter to 57/64ths, which will add about 7-10 horsepower and 2-3 mph.
It also will lower the pressure of the radiator valve by eight pounds, which could mean that the maximum water temperature before engines overheat could be reduced from 245-255 degrees to 225-235-degrees.
NASCAR also won’t allow teams to polish the rear bumpers of their cars during the race, making it more difficult for a driver pushing another car to slide across the rear bumper to peek the right front of his car out in order to get air through the grille and cool the engine.
“I don’t know how Talladega is going to play out,” said series points leader Carl Edwards. “We’ve been talking about it a little bit, but I think it’s going to be tougher. There’s going to be more of a chance for mistakes, more of a chance for having wrecks and engine trouble.
“It’s just going to be more difficult because you’ll have to swap the lead more and there will just be more guys trying to match their bumpers up and getting frustrated.”
The two-car draft has taken center stage at restrictor-plate races in the last year.
The swapping, which keeps the car pushing from overheating, could lead to more accidents because drivers focus more on what's going on ahead of them when they aren’t concerned about swapping, Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon said.
“When you are also having to concern yourself with swapping to keep yourself from overheating, … you break the momentum, which is 8 to 10 miles per hour, so it's a huge speed drop when you do the swap,” Gordon said.
“You're trying to do it quickly, get back connected, then not to mention the cars that have momentum that are coming, it's as if you lost 20 miles an hour because they're traveling 10 miles an hour faster than you at the time, then you lose speed, and it really shakes things up and causes some safety issues there.”
Because the cars are so much faster in a two-car draft drivers don’t see that going away. On the last couple of laps, they believe everyone will be in two-car drafts.
“We do whatever we have to do to make our cars run as fast as they can go and our cars run faster with two cars connected than they do in a pack or in a 10-car line, and so that’s just what we’ve concentrated on with the cooling and how to get the cars connected,” said Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick. “I think what you’ll see is probably the same tandem racing that you’ve seen with a lot more switching, so it’s probably going to draw a lot more cars closer together.
“There’s just going to be a lot more congestion when you do the switching and things like that.”
NASCAR has only two options to eliminate the two-car drafts – implement a rule prohibiting drivers from pushing or changing the cars so the noses and bumpers don’t line up. The first option would put the focus and pressure on NASCAR officials to determine who is push-drafting. The other option would be expensive to have new cars and templates made for Talladega and Daytona.
“With the grip level we have on the tires and everything and the track just being resurfaced, it gives us the opportunity to push,” said Kyle Busch. “Unless they misalign the noses where we can't push, I don't see it changing."
Talladega has always been considered a wild card in the Chase because of the racing, which had been more in three-wide, multi-car packs until the last year when the two-car draft came into favor.
The potential for big wrecks might be slightly less with the two-car draft, but drivers have not perfected the technique yet to the point where they avoid spinning each other out. That is complicated by the fact that the driver doing the pushing cannot see anything except the decklid of the car in front of him.
“If you polled every driver in the garage, over 95 percent of them would tell you that they don’t think Talladega should be in the Chase,” said Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski. “I think there’s a lot of people that feel that way because of how that race plays out. It certainly takes skill to win there and I don’t ever want to take away from anyone who’s won there, myself included.
“But that same skill that might get you a win the next day very easily gets you a 40th. … It can be very frustrating and a lot of people, a lot of drivers, don’t feel good about that style of racing determining a champion.”