Tactics and Turmoil on Turn 3

April 1, 2011

Map of Turn 3 at Daytona

Dale Earnhardt Sr.used to call it “Chicken Bone Alley”: the narrow strip of asphalt at the end of the back straight of the Daytona International Speedway that leads to the thirty-one-degree banking in Turn 3. The name was inspired by the propensity of fans in nearby cheap bleacher seats to throw fried-chicken bones over the fence and onto the track.

Turn 3 is where Daytona 500s are now often decided on the final lap, as drivers fight for position. For years, drivers used a tactic known as the last lap “slingshot” pass, where a trailing driver passed the leader simply by using aerodynamics. He pulled his car close behind the leader, whose car, driving at maximum power, blocked the flow of air, creating a partial vacuum draft behind that sucked the trailing car, driving at less than full power, forward at the same speed. The trailing car then could veer around and punch to maximum power, gaining a burst of momentum.

In 1979, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed their cars into the outside wall while disputing the lead entering
Turn 3 after Yarborough’s “slingshot” bid. The two drivers got into a fistfight on the grassy apron, where they were joined by Allison’s brother, Bobby. The live coverage of this impromptu boxing match by CBS Sports resulted in high ratings and was the genesis of live TV coverage by other networks of the entire Sprint Cup schedule.

Earnhardt, himself, famously cut a tire on metal debris entering Turn 3 while leading on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 1990. The incident happened in the middle of a nineteen-year losing streak in NASCAR’s crown jewel race—mostly the result of bad luck. During the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt was killed in a crash at the neighboring Turn 4.

Over the past few years, drivers have been using a new maneuver, the “bump draft,” a team tactic a little like something out of roller derby: At the end of the back straight, when the cars are traveling about 200 miles an hour, a driver bumps the car ahead of him, giving it a sudden burst of speed through the high-banked turn and an insurmountable lead.

This year, the “tandem draft” emerged. It was made possible by the recent repaving of the Daytona track, making it so smooth that two cars can race around the track joined at the front and rear bumpers. The combined engine power allows them to move about ten miles an hour faster than one car. Under the new strategy, competing tandems remain joined until they near the finish line. Then trailing drivers pull out to pass using the venerable “slingshot” maneuver.