Saturday, July 05, 2008

A short rant and a long preview

I hope everyone had a great Independence Day. It is a day in which we remember that our nation was born in freedom and that we still enjoy that freedom to this day. We know that no society which is dependent on a government in order to exist can be free, and we celebrate that we are allowed to take personal responsibility, and to be individuals without depending on our government. Independence Day is a day of celebrating freedom, of the ability to do what we wish as long as we don't interfere with the freedom of others. Theoretically of course.

We can tell our politicians, whose very existence depends on our dependence on the government, to go jump in a lake, but we can't make them do it.

Political statement aside, Independence Day is our midsummer holiday, and we always find something fun to do; watch the local fireworks display, listen to a free live concert in the park, or patriotic music being played by the local orchestra, cook-outs with friends and family, an extended fishing trip, the list of things to do on the Fourth of July holiday is long.

For many years, the holiday has meant, for race fans, the Firecracker 400. As sponsorship became necessary to cover the costs of running a NASCAR event, the name has changed, but it will always remain, in our minds, the Firecracker 400, whether the sponsor is Pepsi or Coca-Cola.

Since the early 1980's, the Firecracker 400 has been run with restrictor-plates on the engines, as speeds on the 2.5 mile superspeedway at Daytona began to reach heights that presented danger to life and limb. The racing itself suffered as the restricted horsepower did not allow the cars to catch the lead car by themselves, and it did away with the ability to slingshot around a car in front. It also created the dangerous situation of cars racing near 200mph mere inches apart, and the terrifying "big one" that results from the slightest slip-up or mechanical failure.

Still, there are positives to that sort of racing, as we have been able to see just how skilled the NASCAR drivers really are, driving with precision to prevent those big accidents. We see the importance of co-operation as drivers team up to become drafting partners, to gain an advantage to make their way to the front. And, to be fair, the restrictor-plate racing at both Daytona and Talladega has become better as the teams have used years of experience to make their cars more competitive.

With the introduction of the new Sprint Cup car, we have also seen the return of the slingshot pass, which has brought some excitement back to racing at the Superspeedways. That is, one car can accelerate in the draft of another and pass the lead car by breaking out of the draft while it is accelerating.

We never know what to expect at a restrictor plate race these days as the mechanical characteristics of the cars are always changing as the teams try to make the best they can of the "flying brick," a reference to the handling attributes of the new car. The most recent restrictor-plate race at Talladega was not only one of the most exciting races of this type, but one of the most exciting all season, for example.

We won't see the kind of racing we saw at Talladega. Daytona is narrower and has an older, bumpier, and more slippery surface than the Alabama track. But that doesn't mean it won't be exciting.

There should be plenty of excitement near the beginning of the race, as many teams didn't really get a chance to check out their set-ups, due to the brevity of the first practice session and cancellation of the second, because of rain. This means that some teams will be entering the race with little idea of what they have for the competition, which can always lead to some excitement on the track.

We know that, at Daytona, a driver can start in the back of the field and make his way quickly to the front, and just as quickly to the back. We also know that there will not be one car break away from the pack with the lead, as we have seen at the intermediate class tracks. A car running by itself at Daytona is never a fast car.

In a way, the first 140 laps resemble a Formula 1 Gran Prix, in the matter that each team uses that time to plan and adjust to make their driver the one who leads the last lap, which is the most important one. It doesn't really matter who leads the rest of the laps. In fact, the leader at the beginning of lap 160 isn't necessarily the leader at the end of that lap.

The race should be fairly tame until the last twenty laps, the time at which individual drivers get aggressive, and partnerships begin to dissolve. By the last ten laps, there are very few partnerships left, as "give and take" becomes "take and take."

We will once again forego any attempt to predict the winner of Saturday night's Firecracker (Coke Zero) 400. Every time we have tried to do that on this blog, it looks like our favorite driver is about to win only to make a bad move to the inside on the last lap, or cut a tire, or get rained out while in the lead or having the best car in which to take the lead. But we be celebrating our freedom and enjoying the race.

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