NASCAR & Auto Racing

Legendary slingshot passes back at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. did it.

So did Tony Stewart.

During the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, both race-winner Earnhardt and runner-up Stewart drew oohs and aahs and had spectators standing each time they pulled out of a freight train-like draft of stock cars, dropped low on the banked 2.5-mile oval and shot past the cars ahead of them.

It's called a slingshot and the legendary racing move has been notable by its only occasional appearance in recent years at Daytona, the place where it was born.

Early NASCAR star Junior Johnson is generally credited with inventing the move in 1960 – the second year that the Daytona 500 was run.

Driving a 1959 Chevrolet, Johnson figured out a way to compete with the more powerful and aerodynamic Fords and Chrysler products entered in that year's race. He discovered the slingshot in practice that year and used it effectively to draft by other cars on the way to winning his only Daytona 500.

It became a common practice on the big Daytona track, particularly late in the race. Among the drivers who fell victim to the slingshot was Charlie Glotzbach, another early NASCAR star, who was quoted in 1969 as saying, "There's no defense I know of for the slingshot."

The dreaded "aero push" made the slingshot little more than a fond memory in recent years, thanks to the slick cars being used in what is now the Sprint Cup series.

Drivers would pull up behind another car and, as they closed in, the air flowing off the back would give a hard push to the nose of the trailing vehicle, taking downforce off the front tires and usually forcing the driver in the car behind to back off.

That, combined with the horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates used to keep the cars under 200 mph in the interest of safety at Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR's biggest and fastest ovals, worked against the use of the slingshot.

If the trailing driver persisted and tried to dart around the car or cars ahead, he usually wound up sliding all the way to the rear of the draft – a big penalty to pay.

But, thanks to NASCAR's new, bigger, bulkier Car of Tomorrow, set to compete in its first full season in Cup after a 16-race warmup last year – along with a slightly less restrictive plate – it appears the slingshot is back. Just in time for Sunday's 50th running of the 500.

"You could do a little more of it," said former driver and current team owner Richard Childress, who said he enjoyed the show Saturday night. "The side draft is a little harder with this car, where the air is at on it, but I think you can get a little more of a slingshot. You can get a bigger push."

After the Shootout, Stewart agreed that the slingshot has reappeared.

"Yeah, but I think the difference in it is that you have to have a lot more help from behind than you had to have back then," the two-time Cup champion said. "Back then, you could just have two cars and the guy could slingshot from behind."

Stewart said the feel of the cars in the Shootout draft reminded him of the aerodynamics package used briefly in 2001, when NASCAR allowed the teams to put a wicker, a thin strip of metal, on the top of the roof and another on the top of the rear spoiler.

Those strips helped make a bigger hole in the air, generated downforce and allowed cars to close on the competitors in front of them in a hurry.

"We were able to pull up a lot easier with those than we are with these, but it's like once these cars get a run, it's hard to break the momentum," Stewart explained. "When guys do that push and that run, it's a lot bigger disparity in miles per hour than we had with the old cars here.

"There were runs (Saturday) that I saw coming and I didn't dare pull out in front of it. Some of those runs, you just had to let them go; there was just no way to defend against it."

Sound familiar?

For years, drivers looking ahead to the finish of the Daytona race, hoped they would be second, or even third, going into the final lap. Then, more recently, the place to be was out front.

Don't be surprised on Sunday if all the leaders are jockeying for second place at the start of the last lap.

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