The words ‘tandem drafting’ will almost certainly elicit one response or another among those who followed the NASCAR Cup Series a few years ago. There was a time when two cars could run in tight nose-to-tail formation and gain significant speed for a short time at the venues then known as ‘plate tracks’. As a result, drivers found partners early on in races held at the Daytona International Speedway and the Talladega Super Speedway and rode right in front of or right behind that buddy for most of the day.
The racing in those two-by-two formations looked a bit odd but it also created a great deal of passing throughout the pack as two cars would lock up and gain speed for a short time then have to separate or switch positions so the rear car could cool its engine. In the meantime, two other cars who were locked together would blow by until they had to disengage. This unusual method of pairs racing would carry on throughout most of the green flag laps on the big tracks with the thought process, of course, being to have your tandem hooked together at just the right time to beat everyone else to the finish line.
Some followers of the sport enjoyed that unique form of competition while others found it too strange looking to watch. But like it or not, the style of racing employed on the super speedways just about a decade ago may be about to make a comeback with the arrival of the Next Gen car.
Ultimately, NASCAR began to issue penalties back then for the practice then eventually brought about rule and aerodynamic changes that made such driving less beneficial.
A few drivers and teams experimented with the tandem technique during last week’s test session held at the Daytona International Speedway. And that form of racing wasn’t ruled out as a possible strategy for when the Daytona 500 takes the green flag on February 20th.
Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. both raced in the Cup Series back when tandem drafting was the key to success and both offered their thoughts on the possibility of its return during a NASCAR Media availability following the recent Next Gen test session.
“When you hit the air, when you get clean air on the car, it’s pretty abrupt,” Logano said when asked about pulling out of line to pass in the Next gen car. “You’re not going to do it on your own. You’re not going to get a big run and side draft somebody. You know, we used to see cars leap frog, or I call it leap frogging, when you’ve got cars single-file up against the wall and you kind of build a hole and shoot down in the corner and jump down to gain a spot or maybe two spots if you’re lucky. That’s going to be harder to do, I think you can do it but I think it’s going to take the right scenario.”
The driver of the Team Penske No. 22 Ford Mustang went on to explain how that ‘right scenario’ might involve tandem racing. And he added that there could be some perils involved with that strategy.
“On the flipside of that, the push draft or tandem draft- whatever you want to call it- you can’t do it for a long period of time but the benefits of it seemed to be heightened a little bit,” the 2018 Cup champion explained. “You can really start trucking when you get them hooked up. On the flipside of that, the bumpers are round on these things and you can get off-center. Austin Cindric said yesterday that it’s like two marbles pushing against each other. It’s two round surfaces so tell me which pushes better- two dice or two marbles?”
Drivers will have to keep one eye on the track and the other on their gauges while also keeping a tight grip on the steering wheel if they plan to push another car around the track in tight formation.
“You’re going to probably see it more,” Logano declared. “But like I said, I don’t think you’re going to be able to do it for a long period of time for a few reasons. One, the cars get hot quick but also those round bumpers make it pretty sketchy. You’re going to do it for a little bit but that guy’s going to get a little squirrely in front of you and move around at the minimum. You’re white knuckling the whole time, you’re hanging on tight and steering a lot just trying to go straight with just two of us out there so imagine if you had 40 cars out there. That round bumper piece is pretty challenging for us to deal with.”
Stenhouse, however, is not yet ready to proclaim the return of the tandem draft. He also considers that the brand of car being used might make a difference because each manufacturer seems to employ its own strategy on race day at the big speedways. And, the former winner of races at Daytona and Talladega acknowledges that the sanctioning body might ultimately have the final say in the matter.
“I’m not sure,” Stenhouse replied when asked the tandem would make a comeback. “Obviously, the Fords have been always really good at it. When I was in that camp I felt like they definitely were easier to do that. With this newer car they seem to be able to do it better than others. We haven’t had that discussion with NASCAR and they don’t really like that in the other series that we have and they police it. Our cars kind of policed each other with the way the grilles were, on the Cup side anyway.
The driver of the JTG-Daugherty Racing No. 47 Chevrolet Camaro agrees that using the tandem approach could pay off.
“I don’t know, it’s definitely faster to get hooked up and push as much as you can,” he pointed out. “It will be interesting to see what comes of that since we’ve been down here testing and you see people doing it more often. I don’t know which way I’d rather lean, tandem was fun back in the day because there was a lot of passing and a lot of big runs and you didn’t have that massive group that we’re used to on the speedways, but I guess time will tell exactly what will happen.”
According to Logano, the use of the tandem draft is all about risk vs. reward.
“The bumpers are round and they definitely upset the cars but the benefit of it is pretty high. The risk verses reward piece, when you’re out there, you’ve got to think about it a lot. They’re unstable when you get pushed but they go a lot faster.”
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
Respond to this piece on Twitter –> @RichardAllenIDR
or on Facebook –> InsideCircleTrack/Facebook