New style of drafting tests bumpers' mettle

Harvick still taking heat after Thursday's crash

many drivers deride trend

Daytona 500

February 20, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Drafting, the art of using the air pocket behind a car in front of you to increase speed for a pass, always has been part of the game in the Daytona 500.

But drafting used to be about a clean, no-touch pass. Now, it's about a bump - or as Joe Nemechek said Friday, "a slam."

Nothing is clean or gentle about what drivers will do today to win the 47th annual Daytona 500.

"Since NASCAR has taken our power [by limiting air flow to the engine with a metal plate], when you have two cars behind you, what you see being done is slam drafting," Nemechek said.

"If you go out to the garage and look at the bracing in the front and back of these cars, you'll see incredibly strong metal. The bumpers are built stronger than anything we've seen so far. And when we finish the 500, they'll still be all mangled and beat up."

There were only two subjects of real interest here Friday:

A debate to be answered in today's race: Are Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, or Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers stronger?

Bump drafting, the process of one car hitting another hard enough to pass, was being discussed by almost everyone.

The reason was an accident created when Kevin Harvick slammed into Jimmie Johnson's rear bumper in the middle of the second turn Thursday. That move resulted in a seven-car accident - at the front of the field of the second 150-mile qualifying race.

Among the wrecked were Johnson, Nemechek, Mark Martin and Harvick. Nemechek and Harvick will be in backup cars today.

Harvick continues to be reviled by most.

Almost no one forgives him for hitting Johnson, even if, as Harvick contended, he wasn't bump drafting but hit the other car only because Johnson slowed in the second turn.

"Does the car in front of you slow down when you roll up on him for a bump draft?" said Martin, repeating the question. "Yes, but not enough for me to hit him."

NASCAR issued no fines, ruling the crash "a racing incident," but did have Harvick and Johnson sit down together to ease the animosity.

Immediately after the race, Johnson said, "I hope [car owner Richard] Childress either fires him or does something about him, or that NASCAR does something about him because this is ridiculous - absolutely ridiculous."

On Friday, Johnson had cooled off.

"It's amazing the difference a day makes," he said. "The timing of the draft just didn't work out. ... You've got to be careful when you're behind the other cars - you've got to be careful to not do that [hit the car in front]."

Others are still unhappy, not only with Harvick, but also with the use of bump drafting in general.

"The biggest difference on the track is that 10, 15, 20 years ago, people raced each other clean," said Kyle Petty, whose No. 45 Dodge will start 33rd. "If you talked to Richard Petty or Bobby Allison about racing at Daytona and stuff, the one word they always brought up was respect. They respected each other. They respected each other's ability. They respected each other's equipment. They respected the speed they were running.

"From an old guy's perspective, you don't have that here. I don't think you have the respect of each other, the equipment or the space that's yours on the racetrack. That's not yours anymore. That can be anybody's space. All they've got to do is knock you out of the way."

But with power down, racecars here need help making a pass, and Ricky Rudd, who will start 11th today in the Wood Brothers' No. 21 Ford, said the aggravation builds.

"You get stuck beside somebody, and it's not just a case of saying, `I'm going give this guy a rap and let him know I'm back here,' " Rudd said. "It's, `I need to get on the go.' You're kind of sitting there, waving your hand for the guy behind you to come and give you a shove so you can get by."

Rudd, like Nemechek, spoke of the force of the hitting that is going on.

"It's not a nudge," he said. "When cars come up behind you, you better hope you've got your headrest close to the back of your helmet, because it'll jolt you pretty hard. It's like if you're sitting still at a stop light and somebody hits you at about 4 miles an hour in the back. I mean, your helmet smacks the back of your seat when they hit you."

The slam can propel the car that's being hit 20 to 30 feet up the racetrack.

"If it's just the two of you and you bump the guy forward in front of you, you're going to lose power," Nemechek said. "You need another car or two behind you to maintain the momentum. If you're by yourself, you'll remain stuck right where you are, or even lose power."

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