Bumps given a rest at Daytona

February 17, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Carl Edwards wasn't exactly sure where the no-bump zones were on the Daytona International Speedway tri-oval when he slid up the track in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. yesterday in the first race of the Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races.

"It was in the middle of [Turn] 2 one time, and I was like, `He's coming, but I think we're in one of those zones,'" said Edwards, who finished the race in second place between winner Elliott Sadler and third-place finisher Earnhardt. "Then, bam, and I thought, `No, we must be out of it.'"

Edwards laughed and so did Earnhardt, seated beside him for the post-race interview.

"He wasn't paying attention," Earnhardt said. "I'd just passed [the no-bump zone]."

"Very astute observation," Edwards said.

After a long day at the speedway, in which a rain delay pushed the start of the twin races back 1 hour and 22 minutes, Sadler was able to become the first driver to win in a newly designed Ford Fusion, and Jeff Gordon was able to win the second in his familiar No. 24 Chevrolet.

Both drivers won under the green-white-checker finish after accidents brought out a caution flag in each race with two laps to go.

But when it came to bump-drafting, drivers, for the most part, were laughing instead of whining about the move that is the dangerous stock car version of bumper cars.

Bump-drafting is the practice of a trailing driver banging his front bumper into the rear bumper of the car in front of him. If done right, that action creates a dynamic that gives both cars a big enough jolt that enables them to pass a car beside them. Done wrong -- with too much force in the wrong place -- and it can result in a major wreck.

After 2005 Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart said Sunday after the all-star "shootout" on national television that drivers were fixing "to kill somebody" if the bump-drafting was allowed to continue unabated, NASCAR stepped in.

Yesterday, during the pre-race drivers meeting, NASCAR president Mike Helton laid down the law.

"It's not about bump-drafting as much as it is about what has evolved from bump-drafting into very aggressive driving," he said, and identified three areas of the track that officials would watch for undesirable moves: the tri-oval from the beginning of the grass to the end of the grass that separates pit road from the front stretch, going into Turn 1 and through Turn 2, where the superstretch grandstand begins, and at the end of the backstretch near the chicane at Turn 4 where the grandstand begins.

Those areas were marked with orange tape on the track walls and orange dots on the racing surface. Helton said aggressive incidents could also involve side-by-side contact.

"What we're doing today is getting into that gray area that we don't want to get into and you don't want us to get into," he said. "But we've reached a point where we feel like we need to. This is it. This is the warning."

The minimum penalty, Helton said, would be a pass-through penalty, requiring a driver to come down pit road, thus losing ground on the track. He added, however, it could be "much more severe." He also said that once the call is made, there will be no recourse.

"We can argue all you want to when you come in after the race is over with, but it's too bad," he said. "It is what it is."

There were no penalties handed out yesterday. Gordon said Helton laying down the law had a noticeable impact on the races.

"By having those no-bump zones, or whatever you want to call them, we saw a heck of a lot less crashes than we could have seen," said last year's 500 winner. "It was so much calmer. We didn't have someone just driving in the corner into the back of you. You're still going to see accidents ... but it's going to be a lot better racing."

However, driver Jamie McMurray, who finished third in the second twin in his No. 26 Ford, agreed with Earnhardt and others that the kind of race it was -- long vs. sprint -- had more to do with the lack of bump-drafting than the new rules, but agreed the issue needed to be addressed.

"Every time we come back here, it becomes worse," McMurray said. "I thought the no-bump zones were unnecessary in a race like this, but the orange dots on the racetrack are very noticeable and I think it's a big help."

Earnhardt, however, continued to wonder what the big surprise was over the improved behavior of his fellow drivers.

"It goes back to what type of race the shootout is ... a sprint for [$200,000] ... or a race like today, where you're going to take care of your car," he said. "The 500 will be the same way.

"I mean the mentality was different. The shootout is a night race. Hell, we all came from night racing; banging Saturday night, a lot of money, a little bit of time to get it. A lot of hungry drivers ain't been on the racetrack all winter."

Edwards couldn't resist a smile. "That sounds like a country song right there," he said. "That's good."

Earnhardt shrugged.

"You never know," he said.

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