On Sunday, fans were treated to the most exciting racing all season, and one of the most thrilling races at Talladega Superspeedway in recent memory. The race saw a record 88 lead changes among 29 different leaders and for most of the race, cars ran two- and three-wide, adding to the excitement.
Even the smaller teams were able to mix it up with the leaders. Michael Waltrip, driving for Prism Motorsports, led some laps the old-fashioned way, as did Bobby Labonte of TRG Motorsports and Regan Smith of Furniture Row Racing. The new rules package – a larger restrictor plate and new spoiler – was largely responsible for the action, and has received positive reviews.
With so much exciting racing, thrilling action, and such a close finish, there’s no reason to complain, right? Wrong.
During Sunday’s race, two cars tucked in nose-to-tail could run faster than a long string of cars, and they could build up a pretty substantial lead – sometimes as much as a third of the straightaway. Granted, they couldn’t stay out front like this for long. In about a lap, they would be swallowed up by the string of cars. Still, when I saw two cars hook up and power out that far ahead, I wasn’t pleased. I knew this would come into play on the last lap of the race, especially if there was a green-white-checkered finish.
Prof Pi, of Fastrack RC  explains:
There’s a very distinctly larger area of low speed wake behind the race car with the spoiler compared to the race car with the wing. The result is that the two cars can actually touch and stay in contact which reduces the overall drag of the two car duet, considerably, by perhaps as much as 30%. … Power consumption increases with the cube of speed (speed x speed x speed) so the observed difference of two cars together at 195 mph vs. one car or a string of cars at 180 mph should have required (7.415/5.832) 27% more power to go that much faster, but actually what happens is that the two cars linked together…have 27% less drag as shown in these studies.
Adding to this is the fact that Talladega was recently repaved, allowing the cars to stay nose-to-tail longer, according to Prof Pi.
But, when the cars are lined up nose-to-tail, the trailing car gets very little air, which causes the engine temp to rise. Once that happens, the trailing driver has to pull out of line or risk overheating the engine until it expires.
When the trailing driver pulls out, he is slowed by the wall of air that hits the nose of his car. (Before, very little air was hitting his nose.) When he pulls out, he leaves a low pressure area behind the lead car, which increases the drag force on the front of the lead car, slowing it down. That allows the string of cars to eventually swallow up the two cars.
Although the drivers can only run nose to tail for a little while, the time it takes for the engine temperatures to climb is long enough to allow the cars to build a substantial lead. So, if timed right – particularly on the last lap of the race – it becomes a two-car battle for the win.
In Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 Kevin Harvick executed this move to perfection. He pushed Jamie McMurray until the two had built up about a 10-car-length lead. Then, he ducked inside him and used his momentum to beat McMurray to the line by. 0.011 seconds.
It was an exciting finish; I’m not disagreeing with that. It was exciting racing; I’m not disagreeing with that. But, I would have much rather seen four or five cars battle for the win instead of two. But as I saw Harvick and McMurray pull away from the rest of the pack, I knew one of them would win. And for me, that took a little bit of the excitement away.
It’s not the fact that two cars get an advantage that bothers me. It’s that they get such a huge advantage and it takes a little while for them to come back to the rest of the pack, which ultimately decided this race, and is sure to decide the next few races until NASCAR does something about it. And with Daytona International Speedway to be repaved before the 2011 Daytona 500, we’re sure to see more two-car breakaways there.
Sunday’s race was a far cry from boring. And the finish was pretty thrilling – more than any other race this season. Still, the races could be much more exciting with more cars contending for the win at the end. And, as long as two cars can break so far away, that’s not likely to happen.