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ThatsRacin.com


This year’s winner won’t be going solo

THATSRACIN.COM OPINION

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Sunday’s big race is officially called the Daytona 500, but it’s shaping up a lot like a high-school prom.

Every driver’s greatest fear? Being the only guy without a partner when The Great American Race launches Sunday.

It’s all about couples this year. So you think you can dance? You can only do that with a partner.

If you go solo to this one, forget it. In the latest incarnation of the Daytona 500, two cars basically glued together nose to tail can go up to 20 mph faster than a car on its own.

So in the preliminary twin Gatorade Duels at Daytona on Thursday, we saw one pairing after another. Some were pre-arranged – teammates who had already talked about working together. Some were brief marriages of convenience – two drivers, in nearly the same spot on the track, knowing that if they hooked up together for a few laps they could help each other out.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Bill Elliott, who made the Daytona field at age 55 Thursday. “Just like a bunch of kids playing leapfrog.”

These two-car tandems are possible because the Daytona International Speedway underwent a monstrous repaving in the offseason (remember, the 2010 Daytona 500 was delayed by an embarrassing pothole).

The new surface is so smooth that driver Tony Stewart recently said he could drive around the 2.5-mile track at race speed with a full cup of coffee and not spill a drop. The grip is so great that cars can now literally push each other around the track.

“With the old surface, you couldn’t do that,” said Jeff Burton, who won the second race Thursday. “That’s because you couldn’t have somebody touching you. You would have spun out. There just wasn’t enough grip.”

But you have to have a date.

“The only thing that matters is having a partner,” driver Martin Truex Jr. said.

If you want to get literary about it, Thornton Wilder once wrote in the play “Our Town” that “people are meant to go through life two by two. ’Tain’t natural to be lonesome.”

And so it is at Daytona 2011. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was lonesome for awhile Thursday, and it cost him.

“I was odd man out, without a partner,” Earnhardt said. That bit of time when he had no one to dance with ensured that he wouldn’t finish anywhere close to the lead.

A new lingo has cropped up: A driver who’s good on the back half of a two-car tandem is characterized as a good “pusher.” And then there’s the tricky “swap,” which has to happen occasionally because the driver in the second position will see his car start to overheat if he stays there permanently.

So that’s the trickiest dance step at this prom. Drivers must try to make the swap with their partner without losing time to the other two-car tandems that are moving just as fast as they are.

“We’re all over one another and it’s crazy,” said Michael Waltrip, who qualified Thursday for his 25th straight Daytona 500. “From the driver’s seat, I don’t know if it’s ever been any wilder.”

What’s most fascinating are the partnerships. Sometimes they are teammates, but sometimes they aren’t. Brad Keselowski – the well-known younger brother who has had an on-and-off relationship with older brother Brian – helped push his brother into the Daytona 500 in the second of the Gatorade Duels Thursday. It was a nice “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” moment.

Is this sort of racing ideal? No. I wish that a driver on his own could also pass people – that would offer more variety.

“It’s a tough kind of racing because you can’t do anything by yourself,” driver David Reutimann said.

But this is undeniably interesting, and it’s a lot better than single-file racing. When you go to this prom, you better have a date. And if you lose yours midway through the dance, you better not sulk. You’ve got about five seconds to find another.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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