Drivers nudge new soft bumpers


TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) – A love tap here, a slight nudge there. With speeds nearing 195 mph, few dared to test NASCAR’s soft new bumpers on Friday with a full-forced slam.

That’s exactly what NASCAR was hoping for when it ordered teams to relax their front bumpers for Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. The rule was a reaction to dangerous bump drafting earlier this season at Daytona, when defending series champion Tony Stewart warned someone was going to die if the practice wasn’t reigned in.

Now, a tiny bit of contact might cripple a car and drivers didn’t want to risk it during Friday’s two practice sessions.

“I have to admit, I was a little timid with it up there,” said Jimmie Johnson, the Daytona 500 winner. “I knew it was there and it was softer, but I am really trying not to bump draft.

“I’ve gotten myself into more trouble at plate tracks than I care to, so I’m just going to keep my bumper to myself.”

Bump drafting – the art of one driver slamming into the rear bumper of the car in front of him to push it along – was out of control during February’s racing at Daytona. When Stewart and others complained that it had gotten too dangerous after an exhibition race, NASCAR president Mike Helton sternly warned drivers to tone it down.

Then he sent additional officials to different perches around the track to police it. Stewart, Kyle Busch were both caught and penalized for aggressive driving.

So NASCAR tried something different for this restrictor-plate race, ordering teams to remove the steel plates from their front bumpers to “soften” them. Now, excessive contact could crumple the car nose and ruin the aerodynamics or cause the car to overheat.

“I’ve been out there and gotten hit in the back with a bump draft that you would have thought you hit the wall it was so hard,” Michael Waltrip said. “And that’s not going to be possible anymore.”

Only it’s not clear how much contact will be too much, and defending race winner Jeff Gordon said drivers didn’t want to find out during practice.

“I felt guys being really careful – I had one guy barely touch me, and I barely touched someone once,” Gordon said. “I didn’t see or feel guys pushing the limit too much.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., a five-time Talladega winner who has mastered the art of bump drafting, wasn’t one of them.

“I used mine,” he said after practice. “It worked just fine.”

But Earnhardt can get away with the practice because he knows how to properly do it. Rather than slam into the car in front of you, the right way to do it involves pulling back just a bit before getting to the next car – then give it a gentle nudge to move it along.

“I think you’ll still be able to bump draft effectively, and I still think it’ll be an effective way to advance your position and that of the guy in front of you as well,” Earnhardt said. “If you do it right, the person on the receiving end is appreciative of the help. People just don’t like getting the fire knocked out of them all the time.”

Yet that’s what had happened, especially with the younger crop of drivers who lacked experience at plate races and had not mastered the bumping practice. During this race last April, the slamming started a multicar accident that stopped racing for 49 minutes to clean up the debris.

“It was pretty out of control,” Gordon said of the past few plate races. “If you are bump drafting and basically treating it like bumper cars at 195 mph with a pack of 30 or 40 cars, I just don’t think that’s very smart.”

Yeley gets another superspeedway pole

For a guy who cut his racing teeth on the Midwest’s short tracks, J.J. Yeley really loves the big ovals.

On Friday, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver added the NASCAR Busch Series pole for the Aaron’s 312 at Talladega Superspeedway to the one he earned in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway – the first of his Busch career.

Yeley, fourth in the Busch season points, turned a fast lap of 184.751 mph in his Gibbs Chevrolet. That was considerably quicker than runner-up Clint Bowyer’s 184.002 in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.

Denny Hamlin, Yeley’s JGR teammate in both series, was third at 183.931, followed by rookie Danny O’Quinn Jr. at 183.829, Brian Vickers at 183.766, rookie Aaron Fike at 183.540 and Carl Edwards at 183.385.

Series points leader Kevin Harvick, who will try to win his third straight Busch race Saturday, qualified 19th at 182.696.

Yeley posted his speed early in the long qualifying session and he expected Hamlin, who went later on a cooler track to beat him. But Hamlin came up short.

“I don’t know what it is, but we seem to lose a tenth or two every time we qualify,” the disappointed Hamlin said. “I don’t know what else to do. Yeley’s still two-tenths (of a second) faster than us.”