Dale Jr: Buckle up! Here’s what to look for in the Daytona 500

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EDITOR’S NOTE: NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., a two-time Daytona 500 champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer, drove the Next Gen car during a two-day test at Daytona in January. He shares his thoughts about the challenges drivers could face in Sunday’s Daytona 500 with the new car.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Think about this. You’ve been a brain surgeon for years, and right before surgery, somebody walks in and hands you new instruments that you’ve never used and you must use them in the next operation. That would be a little unsettling. 

That, in a way, is what NASCAR Cup drivers face in racing the Next Gen car in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Drivers are in a completely different car that reacts differently in the draft than what they’ve run for years. They have to be willing to go to class and take notes as they run. Some drivers will be real stubborn and try to keep forcing the same sort of effects and techniques that don’t really apply anymore. 

The way I would handle this and figure out the side draft would be like putting your foot in the water. You go a little in and then a little more. Just like the draft. You try a little of the side draft. As it works, you try a little more to understand what the car and the air will do. You are going to be learning about this car all the way through the 500, into the Talladega race in the spring, and Daytona later in the year. You’re going to be learning all year.

One thing that has stood out so far is that it looks like the Fords tandem draft very well. They can push in the corners. They can push in the straightaways. I don’t know that the Toyota or the Chevrolet drivers are that comfortable with the way their bumpers work to do that.

You don’t want to go into this race feeling like you have a handicap. The tandem for the Chevrolets, when we were trying to do it at the January test at Daytona, was quite uncomfortable. The lead car was getting steered around very easily like a forklift. The bumpers just don’t match and tries to turn and tries to upset the car in front while the Ford nose is very flat. The tail pieces are very flat, and they can actually push in the corner.

If you are a Ford guy, you’ve got to be happy about that advantage. Those are the type of things that will give you some heartache and cause you to lose a little sleep at night if you are in a different car.

NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona
Fords have been strong this week at Daytona. Joey Logano (22) led Chris Buescher (17), Michael McDowell (34) and Harrison Burton (21) late in their qualifying race Thursday. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Another thing to watch is how much drag these cars have. I noticed that in the test. I came off the gas pedal just a little bit to wait on what was happening around me and almost nearly lost the draft. With that much drag, it is like you are fighting a headwind all the time.

For the guy at the very tail end of the line, they are almost in panic mode for fear of losing the draft. It seems like, especially when the Fords are in front, they can push in tandem. They can drop these guys off the back of the draft, and they see that. They got out of their cars after the Duels and said to each other: “Hey did you see that happening? Let’s try to do that in the race. Let’s try to make that a race amongst ourselves.”

What we’re seeing reminds me kind of the package we ran in 2004, ’05 and ’06 when you could have separation. You can have guys that are lost off the back of the draft. In ’04 when I won it, Tony Stewart and I were by ourselves for a good chunk of the end of the race. Those guys never got a chance to get back to us under caution or anything, so they never got a chance to race us for the win. That’s a real possibility this year.

With that possible, getting on and off pit road is going to be critical because of how draggy the car is. If you get off pit road and you give up 50 yards or 100 yards to a pack of cars, you most likely aren’t going to be with those cars anymore. Getting on to pit road, getting off pit road, the pit stop itself under green flag conditions are probably more critical than it has been in the past. 

Something else I would do before Sunday’s 500 would be to talk to my spotter after seeing Joey Logano’s crash in the Duels and hearing Logano say that the run behind him was quicker than he thought. I’d talk to my spotter about the air bubble between cars. Previously, the air bubble slowed your progress before you burst through to get the car’s rear bumper while running nose-to-tail. Now, it’s easier to get through the air bubble and that makes the runs quicker.

I would tell my spotter: “Hey, it’s a new ballgame. We’ve got to be on our toes. The runs are coming out of thin air, and that bubble that I depended on to sort of give me a little time to process the runs coming is no longer there.”

NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona
What the spotter sees and how quickly they convey that to drivers will be a key in Sunday’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Another thing to watch is the rack-and-pinion steering, which is new with this car. Now, you don’t turn the wheel much at all in the corners. 

I was talking to William Byron at the Daytona test in January, and I asked William: “When you get into situations in that race and you’ve got to make a move on the steering wheel, how are you going to learn that you need almost half as much?”

With your muscle memory and years of experience, your instant reaction is going to be to turn the wheel way more. That’s going to get you in big trouble because you’re going to do too much with the steering wheel and run into another car or spin yourself out. 

He said he felt that same concern and anxiety, but he’s tested the car enough and he’s got himself in enough situations where he’s starting to develop muscle memory and how to use the rack-and-pinion steering in bad situations. 

Look at a lot of these other guys that have not been in a bad situation yet. There’s a couple of guys that haven’t tested this car much. They haven’t gotten sideways. They haven’t  been in a situation with this car and this steering rack. They’re going to be in that situation for the very first time at some point this weekend, and I think that’s when we’re going to see big problems and that would keep me up at night on Saturday.

So what will the race be like? 

If you’ve ever been to a haunted house or haunted trail with your friends, when you all start out everybody is like, “You go first. I ain’t going.” Everybody is taking baby steps waiting on something to jump out and scare the hell out of you. As you go through the house or the trail, your pace picks up a little bit. You start to enjoy it even as you’re getting the hell scared out of you. 

I think that’s the way the drivers will be in the race. As the race goes on, the comfort level rises, their confidence rises and this car, which feels foreign to them, it is all going to start making sense. Then the driver and the car kind of become one.

So buckle up and enjoy what these drivers are about to do in Sunday’s race. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated his second Daytona 500 win in 2014. Who will be celebrating after this year’s Daytona 500? (Photo by Jim Fluharty/NASCAR Illustrated/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)