Certain personality traits are necessary to be a successful race-car driver.
Among them, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said: “You’re single-minded, you’re selfish and you’re a jerk.”
Those characteristics haven’t always served drivers well at Daytona International Speedway, where NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500 is set for Sunday. But now that an era in which “tandem” racing prevailed has ended, drivers can look out for themselves, and only themselves.
The happy demise of the tandem racing was apparent again Thursday night in the two Can-Am Duel qualifying races, won by Earnhardt and Kyle Busch. Earnhardt passed Denny Hamlin with five laps remaining to win the first race, a move he might not have been able to pull off in the past.
Earnhardt invoked the ill-fated, two-year tandem era that went away after the 2011 season when NASCAR changed its aerodynamic package to make cars less stable and unable to push draft each other at Daytona and Talladega, Ala., the circuit’s restrictor-plate superspeedways.
“We got rid of the tandem,” Earnhardt said of a reason why he was able to get past Hamlin. “When you had to tandem draft, you basically had to team up. Imagine going to a wrestling event and it was just all tag-team matches. That wouldn’t be any fun.
“The idea of driving a race car, at every other race track we go to, you’re single-minded, you’re selfish and you’re a jerk. You’re a jerk on restarts, you’re a jerk every time you’re battling for position, you’re not doing anybody any favors out there, you’re not trying to help anybody. That’s racing. That’s the way it’s always been, right?
“When we started this tandem stuff … it felt so unnatural to run second by having to draft a guy that was going to win the race. That was the oddest thing to wrap my brain around. Man, we’re going to run a race today and I might have to settle for second intentionally.”
Busch won the second qualifying race as a five-car wreck broke out behind him on the final lap. Among those in the accident was Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth.
“You definitely have a better opportunity when you’re able to have cars behind you that are willing to do whatever you’re going to do in order to make a move for the lead,” Busch said. “There towards the end of the race I wasn’t sure if Matt was protecting me or if he was trying to get the lead. But there was a lot of back and forth, gaps opened up in order to get a run on the guy in front of you.”
The bottom line? Get to the front and stay there.
“Everybody knows how important getting the lead is at this race,” Earnhardt said.
▪ Among the changes in the cockpit this season is a digital dashboard, replacing the dials and gauges that drivers read to see how much fuel is left, or water and oil pressure, among other crucial readouts. The digital dash is easier to read and eventually will be made available to fans.
“I think it’s great,” driver Landon Cassill said. “It opens up the door for a lot of cool things, getting lap times and the way we can customize the pages to whatever I need, whatever I need it to say, whatever I want it to look like. Right now, we’re still getting, for the most part, the same information we were getting, so I think as time goes on it will be interesting to see how NASCAR opens up the tools on what kind of information we’re able to get.”
▪ Five drivers – Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, AJ Allmendinger, Kenseth and Brian Scott – will have to use backup cars in Sunday’s 500 after wrecks during Thursday’s Duel races. Kenseth, who had the second-fastest qualifying time last Sunday, will be replaced on the outside front row by Busch. Truex, Allmendinger and Johnson were caught up with Kenseth in a last-lap wreck in the second qualifying race. Scott wrecked while crossing the start-finish line.