DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR promised to put the racing back into the drivers' hands and that philosophy was in full effect during Wednesday's practice.
Drivers are predicting one wild ride for Thursday's Gatorade 150-mile qualifiers, particularly if the practice sessions were any indicator.
Two multicar wrecks forced Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, David Reutimann, Clint Bowyer, Derrick Cope and Mike Bliss to backup cars. Denny Hamlin was involved in the second incident but sustained just minor damage to the No. 11 Toyota.
"Why do you think I parked my car so early," said Regan Smith, who was 13th fastest in the morning practice but elected to run just eight laps in the afternoon.
Certainly, the uneven conditions of the track -- particularly coming out of Turn 4 -- have contributed to the instability of the ride. Martin Truex Jr., who turned in the 11th-fastest lap Thursday afternoon, referred to the craters as "Volkswagens."
"Have you ever gone skiing and you hit moguls the size of Volkswagens? That's what it feels like," Truex said. "This is the roughest it's ever been. You can bounce the front end off the race track which keeps the car from turning."
Hamlin believes the combination of the current car package -- including suspension, aerodynamics and engine -- has changed both the feel of the cars and the dynamic on the racetrack. Behind the wheel there is a more volatile feel than in recent years.
"With the speeds that we're running, the cars are less stable than what they have been in years past," Hamlin said. "Even when cars were getting close to each other, the car out front doesn't have the grip that (it) used to have. I think they've changed some stuff with the rear shocks and added some rebound.
"That takes grip away from the rear end and obviously it kind of makes our cars a little more on the edge, but if they wanted to put this back in the drivers' hands then this is what you're going to see. You're going to see more of a spread-out type race and you're going to see the good cars running up front."
Johnson, who was 17th on the speed chart after running just six laps in his primary car, will race his Bud Shootout car on Thursday. It's the same car that powered him to second place in the July Daytona race last year.
Johnson cited "blending" as the main cause of the melees. Generally, cars ride around the yellow line until gathering enough speed to merge into the pack.
"Guys have different theories on where they want to blend on the race track," Johnson said. "Some people stay on the bottom. Others think they blend on the top. And either way there is a draft of 18 to 20 cars coming and we're like a snake weaving through these cars and cars coming in and off at different speeds.
"I don't believe that's what caused this wreck, but there were a lot of other crazy moments because of that. We really just need to pick one spot and have that be it. But I think the bottom, so that a slow car does not have to cross the outside lane. If all the slow cars would stay on the bottom until they are up to speed and also, they need to fall in at the tail end of the pack."
Hamlin spoke with Johnson about the blending issue following their incident. He doesn't believe there is any way for NASCAR to "address" or "fix" the problems caused by blending into traffic. With the additional horsepower the cars have gained through the larger restrictor plates, Hamlin says the cars should be able to "get up to speed" in a lap which should lessen the problem.
"When you're running 200 (miles per hour) and the car has to leave pit road and somehow figure out how to get in that pack, but yet not lose the draft without kind of causing a stir is tough," Hamlin said. "The rule is to stay right on the yellow line until you get passed by the pack or you blend into the pack running the same speed as what they're running.
"Sometimes some people feel like they're more out of the way by going high and kind of do that. Then you'll have someone else that kind of follows by the rules and is low so the pack has to split them right through the middle and that's when you kind of see the mix-ups that you've seen over the last couple days. I think that's probably a little bit of it, just not everyone playing completely by the rules."
Patience, my son
Kelly Bires stopped by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s stall in the Sprint Cup garage before making his way over to visit his JR Motorsports teammates.
The 25-year-old Wisconsin native, who was signed to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet last year, has known for a while that there was a good chance he'd be watching the Nationwide season opener from the sidelines.
Although there was the possibility of running a third car for Bires at JRM or elsewhere, nothing concrete materialized in time for Speedweeks. But with the opportunity Bires has been given, he's perfectly fine with that.
"The 88 is my team, those are my guys and I support them," Bires said. "I'd rather wait and go to California with a top 10 car and really run well rather than jump into something at the last minute."
Bires has competed in the Nationwide Series for the last three years. However, he only ran one full season in 2008 in the No. 47 JTG Racing Ford and finished 13th in the points standings. Still, Bires isn't concerned that missing a race will ruin his hopes of running for a championship in 2010.
"We've talked about different strategies," Bires said. "The team had a rough couple of races at the start of last season and could have been in the championship at the end had Kyle Busch not been so strong.
"It's too early to predict what will happen but at the end of the day this is a much better deal than I had last year and that's a good thing."