Bump drafting? What bump drafting?
All that the NASCAR spotters placed around Daytona International Speedway to monitor bump drafting would see Thursday were two qualifying races that were uneventful. Although not for the two winners who prevailed after green-white-checkered finishes -- the re-enthused Elliott Sadler and Jeff Gordon. And certainly not for four drivers who are now in Sunday's 48th Daytona 500: Kevin Lepage, Robby Gordon, Mike Wallace and Kirk Shelmerdine.
There was none of the controversial technique of bump drafting, which has rear-ended all other story lines aside since Sunday's bumper-car show in the Bud Shootout. It caused Tony Stewart to say "we're going to kill someone . . . with what we're doing right here," which caused NASCAR Nextel Cup officials to enact rules changes to police it.
"By having those no-bump zones or whatever we want to call them, I think we saw a heck of a lot less crashes, big crashes, than what we could have seen," said Jeff Gordon, who won the second of the qualifying races. "I think the racing was still good out there, but yet it was so much calmer."
At superspeedways like Daytona, NASCAR mandates that cars are equipped with horsepower-sapping restrictor plates, and one of the methods drivers use to gain position is bump drafting -- bumping into the car in front of them, which gives both cars a boost. But bumping has given way to smashing on straightaways or banging into the back of someone during turns. During one of last year's twin qualifying races at Daytona, Kevin Harvick was maligned by several drivers after his bump of Jimmie Johnson in a turn caused a major wreck.
NASCAR President Mike Helton delivered a lengthy speech at the drivers' meeting Thursday, and the sanctioning body painted orange markers on the historic high-banked, 2 1/2 -mile track to designate where moderate bump drafting is allowed and where it is forbidden (the turns and the tri-oval).
The first of the two 60-lap races -- part of a qualifying process unique to the Daytona 500 -- was rain-delayed about an hour, and the action didn't pick up much when the green flag dropped. There was very little noticeable banging and bumping, with Sadler and Gordon staying up front for most of their victories.
Sadler, who started third in the first race, took the lead on lap 29 after the field pitted under caution and earned a first victory for the new Ford Fusion despite a green-white-checkered caused by Chad Chaffin's accident on lap 60. Sadler won a qualifier two years ago in the best season of his career -- he earned a spot in the inaugural Chase for the Championship and finished ninth in points. Last year, he missed the 10-car Chase (13th), and Thursday's win signaled a mood change brought about by new crew chief Tommy Baldwin.
"We were shut out last year, and Tommy came on board and it gave us a new outlook," said the 30-year-old Sadler, speaking with a little more bite in his familiar Virginia drawl. "I just think we have a new attitude. We feel like we're going to war together. I feel like I'm the quarterback of this race team. It's time for me to act like it."
The 34-year-old Jeff Gordon, entering the season with new crew chief Steve Letarte, appears poised to defend his Daytona 500 title. The three-time Daytona champ and four-time series winner had already secured a spot on the front row after having the second-best qualifying lap Sunday to pole-winner Jeff Burton (those were the only two spots in the field that were set before Thursday's races). After starting first, Gordon regained the lead from Kyle Busch on lap 29 on a pit stop and kept it easily through a green-white-checkered finish necessitated by an accident involving David Stremme, Travis Kvapil and J.J. Yeley.
The day's major drama was watching who would make the race and what part of Daytona's confusing qualifying method they used to clinch a spot. The top 35 in owners points from last year were guaranteed spots in the 43-car field. Of the remaining eight spots, four would go to the top two finishers in each qualifying race and the next three were awarded according to Sunday's qualifying lap speeds, with Terry Labonte earning the 43rd spot because he is a past champion.
Bill Elliott, Kvapil and Hermie Sadler clinched spots because they had the three best qualifying times among the 17 hopeful drivers. In the first race, Lepage (16th) and Elliott (17th) had the best finishes among the nonqualifiers. Elliott's finish allowed a different driver to clinch a spot based on his qualifying time, and that driver was Robby Gordon. In the second race, Robby Gordon finished 10th and Mike Wallace was 12th. Gordon's high finish opened up a spot for the next-best qualifying lap, which belonged to Shelmerdine.