NASCAR makes changes to reduce speeds at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR waved a yellow caution flag Sunday, taking steps to slow cars down a day after speeds topped 206 mph at Daytona International Speedway.

Officials might not be done, either.

The sport’s governing body made two technical changes in hopes of limiting two-car hookups and high speeds before the season-opening Daytona 500.

NASCAR told teams to add pressure-release valves to cooling systems and reduce the size of grill openings. The changes should limit the time two cars can run bumper to bumper around the 2½-mile superspeedway. Drivers likely will need to break those formations to avoid overheating engines.

The moves are expected to reduce speeds from those reached during Saturday night’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout.

“The world’s not broken. We just want to tweak it a little bit,” Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said.

The 75-lap Shootout featured a dramatically different style of racing as drivers hooked up in pairs because it was the fastest way around NASCAR’s most famous track. It was fast — Michael Waltrip topped 206 mph — and a stark contrast from the previous tight pack racing that fans have embraced at Daytona.

“It’s not necessarily an intention to break those up,” Darby said. “That’s a new tool that the competitors have in their pocket that’s pretty doggone exciting. They can pass at will. They have the ability to have some control over what’s going on around them. So those aren’t bad things. This puts a duration limit on those.”

And should slow everyone down.

NASCAR has made huge strides in safety since Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona a decade ago. Still, the sport has seen breathtaking crashes in recent years at Daytona and Talladega, the fastest tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, and has worked to eliminate cars taking flight.

“What we know is we can have good races at 100 mph and 200 mph and everything in between,” Darby said. “I think we can all agree, from both the competitors and NASCAR, that 206 is probably a little bit to the extreme side. So we’ll see what we can do to cushion that some.”

Teams headed home Sunday night and planned to spend Monday and Tuesday working on ways to best handle the changes.

“The speed’s the problem for everybody,” said Jimmy Makar, vice president of Joe Gibbs Racing. “We’re all a little nervous about the speed. We don’t need to be running that fast for sure. Some of that speed comes from the fact that you can sit there behind guys and draft two by two and get that big run. The guys that ran out front weren’t running those lap times. They were reasonable lap times. The ones two or three sets back were able to come hard.”

Teams developed the strategy during testing at Daytona in December and January, realizing that the new pavement created an ideal situation for bumper-to-bumper, two-car drafts that could hook up and outrun any other formation.

Several drivers worked it to perfection in the Shootout, which Kurt Busch won in a close finish.

“Maybe I’m in a little bit of denial, but I keep thinking there’s no way we could do that for the whole race,” four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said. “I didn’t think we could do it for the whole race (Saturday) night. We proved we could. I’m like, ‘How can we do it for 500 miles?'”

Teams proved they could do it for lengthy runs. But it remains to be seen how the changes will affect the draft.

“You’re going to have to figure out how to get some air to cool the car down, poke our nose out, back off a little bit,” Gordon said. “So as long as those bumpers line up and the airflow over the cars is the way it is, I don’t think you’re going to stop it.

“The game has changed. That’s all I can say. You can’t take knowledge and throw it away. Once you have it, you have it, you maintain it, you apply it. No matter what changes from now, if anything, to Sunday we’re still going to have that knowledge. We’ll try to use it to our advantage.”

Cars will return to the track Wednesday, and if practice speeds top 200 mph again, NASCAR could reduce the size of restrictor plates. That would allow less air into the engine, reduce horsepower and speed.

NASCAR officials could have change restrictor plates Sunday, but since that’s the easiest way to slow cars down, they wanted to keep that as a potential later tweak before Thursday’s qualifying races for the Daytona 500.

“That’s always there,” Darby said. “If drivers never pushed each other, we’d be putting bigger plates on the cars. We may not have to change the plate. That’s what we’ve got to watch on Wednesday. That’s the simplest change we could make.”