DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Sometimes it pays to be a lightweight.
That doesn’t mean, however, that a 40-pound weight advantage will help Danica Patrick significantly at Daytona International Speedway.
Yes, a lighter car is generally viewed as a better car. And, yes, the total weight of Patrick plus her race car is 40 pounds lighter than it is for almost every other driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Why? Because, for practical purposes, the NASCAR rule book assumes that every driver weighs at least 140 pounds.
By rule, a Sprint Cup car must weigh 3,300 pounds. Where the weight of the driver is concerned, for every 10-pound increment below 180 pounds, 10 pounds of weight must be added to the car. So if a driver weighs between 170 and 179 pounds, the car must weigh 3,310 pounds to compensate.
For a driver who weighs between 160 and 169 pounds, 20 pounds are added; for a driver who weighs 150 to 159 pounds, the car must weigh 3,330 pounds; and, finally, for a driver between 140 and 149 pounds, the weight of the car must be increased to 3,340 pounds.
The Sprint Cup rule book does not address weights lower than 140 pounds. As a consequence, the combined weight of Patrick and her No. 10 Chevrolet SS represents a 40-pound advantage over almost every other driver/car combination in the field.
Why almost? Because Mark Martin, a 40-time winner in Cup racing, is listed at 125 pounds on Michael Waltrip Racing’s web site.
The question of a weight advantage has never been raised in Martin’s case. It became an issue when Patrick, who is listed at 100 pounds, won the pole for the Daytona 500.
The truth is, however, that Daytona is a track where a lighter car/driver combination is of negligible benefit.
“Talent being equal, I’ll take the less weight every day,” said Andy Petree, former Cup crew chief and car owner and current ESPN analyst. “It’s always an advantage. Now, how much? How much can you say and measure is difficult.
“I think at Daytona, you couldn’t measure it, (because) it would be so small. It would make very, very little difference, especially qualifying.”
The bottom line is that lighter weight hastens acceleration, but during qualifying and racing at restrictor-plate superspeedways, acceleration isn’t the issue.
“Qualifying here is about terminal velocity,” Petree said. “It’s not about acceleration, because the car really doesn’t accelerate while you’re qualifying. It accelerates up to speed, and really what limits the speed is aerodynamics over horsepower.
“That’s really what it is. The weight comes into play when you’re accelerating, like at a Charlotte or Martinsville. Her car might get up to speed a little quicker, but once it gets there, it’s not going to be any faster. I don’t see that being an advantage (in the Daytona 500).”
Because the driver sits on the left side of the car, Petree believes the weight difference might have a measurable effect at a road course, which features right-hand as well as left-hand corners.
The weight that’s added to the car to compensate for a lighter driver can also help lower the center of gravity, another potential benefit.
But driver Matt Kenseth doesn’t think the weight advantage is a significant issue.
“I don’t think it’s a huge deal,” Kenseth said, then added facetiously, “but, yes, if she keeps running that fast, then I think she should have to add a bunch of weight and mount it on the roof.”