DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR is making gains toward breaking up the two-car tandem racing that has taken over at Daytona and Talladega, but the fix sent speeds soaring over 200 mph Friday in a test session.
Kurt Busch posted the fastest lap of the day at 206.058 mph, but was being pushed around Daytona International Speedway in a two-car tandem by Regan Smith. Kyle Busch was clocked at 205.813 while pack racing.
NASCAR has traditionally shied away from the 200 mph mark, and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said he approached series officials about the speeds because he was certain the cars would be slowed. He said he was surprised when NASCAR indicated it was comfortable over 200 mph.
"It's embedded in our minds we can't go out there over 200 mph in race conditions," he said. "Somehow it's become accepted and I think that's a good thing. It's very comfortable. It's extremely comfortable."
But it's unclear what the racing will actually look like when the season opens with the Daytona 500 — NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl — on Feb. 26.
Fans are clear that they want pack racing at Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR's two biggest and fastest tracks. Drivers figured out about three years ago that hooking up in two-car tandems was the fastest way around the track, and the style evolved so quickly, NASCAR couldn't stop it.
The end result was a two-car hookup in which the trailing driver was pushing the lead car around the track. Only one spotter worked for both cars, as the pushing driver was unable to see anything ahead. Overheating issues forced the cars to swap positions every few laps, and that maneuver added an element of danger because separating slowed the two cars dramatically.
NASCAR Chairman Brian France vowed to move away from the two-car tandems in November, and a series of aerodynamic rules changes have done just that.
NASCAR also banned driver-to-driver communications over their scanners.
It's all part of a continuous process, that could go all the way up to race day. NASCAR has changed specifications during each of the first two days of testing, and officials summoned the drivers to a Friday meeting during the lunch break to strongly urge them to pack race during the afternoon session. Based on the data gleaned from the two drafting sessions, NASCAR made yet another series of technical changes that will be applied Saturday in the final day of testing.
Last year, NASCAR made changes during actual Speedweeks in an effort to break up the tandems. More changes were made before the other three restrictor-plate races on the schedule, too.
Earlier Friday, NASCAR President Mike Helton indicated speeds will likely be much different when teams return for the Daytona 500.
"(Speed) is one of those things that we have to kind of monitor," Helton said. "It is a test, so we may be a little bit more lenient at a test than we would be on race weekend. But we'll see how everything settles out and what kind of rules package we come back with ... 204 is OK for a test. It's OK for now.
"But we'll have to take back everything we learn and then make a decision after that."
But Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said after the drafting sessions that the final product will likely be right around the 200 mph mark.
"We'll still be over 200 mph. We'd like to stay as close to that mark as we can," said Darby, adding that NASCAR's confidence of keeping cars from going airborne at those speed has improved through wind tunnel testing.
"If we were to put a target mark, it would be right around 200, which the drivers like, the excitement level of 200 mph is always present for the fans."
The drivers seemed comfortable over 200 mph, and most were thankful to run in packs again. Gordon said it was "just reminds me of the good 'ol days."
But, most of the drivers admitted the two-car tandem will never go away completely.
"Everybody was really having a good time, and trying to get everything they could out of it before we went back to pushing around each other," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to a win at Talladega last year.
"Maybe, just maybe, you don't have to be in a two-car tandem to stay with the lead pack. The two-car tandem is probably the preferred way to go as far as speed. But maybe you don't have to do it for 500 miles. Maybe you can just kind of save your car, save the tail and the nose of your car and yourself.
"That might be the way to go just to get through the race, and be there at the end. But that tandem stuff is what is going to win the race."