Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Zest Ford, signs the wall in Victory Lane after qualifying for the pole position in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway on July 6, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
(July 5, 2012 – Source: Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America)
(PhatzRadio / USA Today) — DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 unfolds as the season’s first two restrictor-plate races have, the winner will be determined as much by moves that aren’t made rather than those that are.
“These plate races are funny,” Kenseth said. “Sometimes you have it figured out, and it just doesn’t work out for whatever reason. I’m not sure why.”
RESULTS: Coke Zero 400 lineup
The mystery begins anew at Daytona with Kenseth leading the field to green Saturday on the 2.5-mile oval. The points leader captured the eighth pole position of his career Friday with a 192.386-mph lap, followed by Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Biffle and Jeff Gordon. (Tony Stewart’s No. 2 qualifying time was disallowed after a cooling-hose issue found during inspection.)
Kenseth is trying to become the first driver to sweep both Sprint Cup races in a season at Daytona since Bobby Allison in 1982. The circumstances surrounding his second Daytona 500 victory in February still spark speculation about the best strategy for winning at the speedway whose finicky draft often turns race outcomes into a 200-mph lottery.
The finish still haunts Biffle for two reasons. His inability to pass Kenseth with a push from Earnhardt led to cries he laid down for his teammate.
And there was the ignominy of squandering a chance at winning NASCAR’s biggest race without an inexplicable reason for how he had erred.
“I’ve studied it,” Biffle said. “We looked at the data. I was 100% throttle the whole time and zero brake pressure. It just wouldn’t go.”
The reason apparently was one of racing’s counterintuitive maxims: Slowing down to go fast.
Biffle’s No. 16 Ford didn’t get enough separation from the rear bumper of Kenseth’s No. 17 to maximize the push from Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet.
“I needed to slow down and get five car lengths off (Kenseth) and re-accelerate back to him,” Biffle said. “I was afraid of getting (spun) by (Earnhardt) when I tried to slow down. So many things are going through your mind: Emotions, what to do, don’t make a mistake. I kept thinking any minute we’re going to get to the back bumper of (Kenseth). It never happened.”
There was some solace a few months later at Talladega Superspeedway when the tables were turned on Kenseth at the other track where cars often run clumped together because of restrictor plates that choke down horsepower and prevent breakaways.
After leading a race-high 73 laps, Kenseth couldn’t stay connected with Biffle on a final restart and watched helplessly as his teammate faded in his rear-view mirror while the train of winner Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch whipped past.
Again, the key was to slow down as the lead of a two-car tandem — even though in this case there was nothing but clear track ahead of Kenseth.
“It’s up to the lead guy to keep the second-place guy attached, and you do have to drag the brake and make sure he’s on there pretty solid,” Kenseth said. “Earlier in the race, Greg pushed me and would almost spin me out in the middle of the straightaway. He could push me so hard, and I wasn’t dragging any brakes. So when it got to the end, we were solidly attached getting into Turn 1, so I guess I didn’t pay enough attention because I thought he was hooked on so hard that I wouldn’t be able to get off if I didn’t want to.
“I still don’t know exactly how we came apart there, why he couldn’t push as hard as he did earlier in the race. Some of that is hard to figure out because you’re trying to manage everything in front of you and behind you.”
Said Biffle: “It looks easier than it is in the car. Matt had to let off the gas pedal leading the race, and that’s not your instinct. When his car pulls away, there’s no way to get back to him.”
Complicating matters is trying to find the right drafting partner. Since NASCAR-mandated changes to the cooling systems helped abolish the two-car tandems of 2009 to 2011, drivers no longer pick dance partners for 500-mile waltzes at a time at Daytona and Talladega.
But having someone willing to help bump-draft to the front is critical to winning, and the tandems (which can’t be sustained for more than a few miles before risking engine overheating) still formed in the final two laps at Daytona and Talladega.
Earnhardt, who is seeking his first restrictor-plate win in eight years, said it’s a delicate balance between being cooperative and cutthroat.
“If your teammate happens to be the guy you’re working with, that’s the best-case scenario,” Earnhardt said. “If that is not going to materialize, you need really be as selfish as you can be. Just be the biggest jerk you can be out there, and that is the way it’s got to be if you want to get to victory lane. You ain’t going to do it by expecting favors, you just have to go out there and take it from people.
“And if you can get to victory lane, you don’t have to worry about having somebody tell you that was stupid. It is tough. I don’t think of myself as a jerk, but you kind of have to be one if you want to win at the end of these races.”
Because the cars are so equal, Biffle says as many as 40 of the 43 drivers starting at Daytona have a chance to win.
That means Saturday’s outcome could be just as unpredictably frustrating for 42 of them as it was for Biffle in February.
“In 100 races, that situation probably won’t happen again exactly like that,” he said. “You just never know.”