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Back to the pack? That's the goal

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Waltrip yelled across the room to Clint Bowyer in the Daytona 500 Club, asking his new driver if he liked the tandem racing that has become prevalent at restrictor-plate tracks.

Bowyer smiled and nodded, telling his boss that the strategy gives him something to do for 500 miles.

"Well, he's young," Waltrip said. "Don't listen to him."

Told Jeff Burton also likes what has been dubbed "Dancing with the Cars" because it is safer and less likely to create the so-called Big One, Waltrip said, "He's old. Don't ask him."

Waltrip hates tandem racing at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. The two-time Daytona 500 winner wants a return to the pack racing that made the show at both tracks unique and popular.

He's not alone.

Spectators also want it back, according to surveys performed by Daytona International Speedway and NASCAR's fan council. That means DIS and NASCAR want it back.

That's why the governing body, the track and teams have spent millions looking for gimmicks such as smaller spoilers and radiators to eliminate the dancing, and why we're in Daytona Beach for three days of testing at a time when drivers should be relaxing in a tropical setting.

Maybe crew chief Chad Knaus had the right idea when he decided to skip this test and go to South Africa instead of being here with Jimmie Johnson. Perhaps he knew all the changes and mandates ultimately won't eliminate the dancing, so why waste the time?

Perhaps everyone should have stayed home. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. has said repeatedly, nothing has changed; the Daytona 500 is "going to look like last year's race."

As exciting as the finish was with Trevor Bayne taking the checkered flag, the 2012 Daytona 500 looking like the one from 2011 is the fear. DIS and NASCAR want to maintain the wave of excitement from last season's Chase in which Tony Stewart won the tiebreaker over Carl Edwards for his third Sprint Cup Series title.

Officials understand that if fans leave Daytona disgruntled, it could set the tone for the season.

The last thing they want is for the biggest show of the season to become a public relations nightmare.

That's why Johnson is keeping an open mind about the test.

"The fans aren't into that style of racing,'' Johnson said of the tandems. "That's what we need to pay attention to."

So everyone is here in an effort to avoid that. This isn't about what the drivers want -- or even what the media wants. This is about what the fans want, about what will sell tickets and increase television ratings.

It's made this test one of the biggest in the recent history of NASCAR. There is so much worry about eliminating tandem racing that the debut of fuel injection has become an afterthought, that the spotlight on Danica Patrick making her Sprint Cup debut isn't quite so bright.

Nobody knows this more than DIS president Joie Chitwood III. He has seen the fan surveys that show a 20 percent increase in dissatisfaction with tandem racing. He has talked with more than half of those surveyed and felt their pain.

"Typically for us, if a category changes by three points, that is significant," Chitwood said. "When you have a category change by 20 percent, it catches your attention. That statistically is significant. From our surveys, we're saying it is a problem."

It's a huge problem, particularly if you're like Waltrip and hate tandem racing, or if you believe as I do that it has made the 500 less of a real race and more of a survival test than ever despite great finishes.

It also is a problem not easily fixed. NASCAR had tests last season at Daytona and Talladega that didn't stop the dancing, and went to the wind tunnel multiple times searching for solutions. The governing body made five changes to the car before this test that didn't stop it, and made three more after Thursday's session in which the tango continued.

Officials also eliminated team-to-team in-car radio communication and mandated that drivers run in packs for practice.

NASCAR and DIS might have spent less time and money blowing up the track and then reconfiguring it.

"We're here to put on good racing for our fans," series director John Darby said. "The majority of the fans have been pretty vocal about the fact that they prefer the old-school style of drafting."

The problem is that each driver wants to go faster than the other, and the tandem racing gives them the opportunity to do so. So no matter how unstable NASCAR makes the cars to prevent it, no matter how much the cooling systems are changed to increase the risk of overheating, the reward of being faster is greater.

Just as it was for Bowyer, who pushed Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. past 204 mph for a lap on Friday after wrecking with teammate Mark Martin on Thursday.

"The reward is worth the risk, cause you're talking two seconds faster," Bowyer said.

Later Friday, Kurt Busch pushed Regan Smith past 206 mph.

It's a dilemma that likely won't be eliminated until the track surface becomes worn or the new car in 2013 is introduced with bumpers that don't match perfectly.

But NASCAR is stubborn. It will do everything short of mandating no-bump drafting zones. That edict turned into a disaster at Talladega in 2009.

So what will make you, the fans, happy? No tandem racing? Partial tandem racing with more swapping? Pack racing until the final few laps when drivers will go back to pairs for a competitive advantage?

What will happen if the drivers leave Daytona on Saturday echoing what Earnhardt has said all along, that nothing will change? Will the jump in ticket sales Daytona experienced last January and February not happen?

"Sure, we're going to be concerned," Chitwood said. "It will have an impact. I can't tell you how big or how little. We hope the test results will be something our fans can jump on.

"We want the 500 to grab the baton from Miami and carry it the same way. If we can come out of the box strong like last year ended, Phoenix and Vegas and all of those tracks will benefit from us."

If that doesn't happen, Chitwood won't predict gloom and doom, but he admits "some of our fans won't feel very good about it."

That's why there is a sense of urgency here like no other preseason test in recent history. That's why NASCAR has pushed the envelope to the point that speeds of more than 200 mph increase the odds of cars becoming airborne, and that has drivers worried.

"Which car is Darby going to drive?" Edwards said after being told NASCAR mandated all drivers test in a pack.

You could hear the frustration in his voice. But the frustration in the voice of fans outweighs anything a driver says.

"When you have that many customers telling you it doesn't work, you've got to change," Chitwood said.

If the changes don't work, the fans need not complain, because everything short of putting spikes on the front and rear bumpers has been done.

But they will complain.

"When we had packs, all y'all were running around writing how are we going to get rid of these packs," Waltrip said. "Now we got rid of them and all y'all are running around writing how are we going to get these packs back?"

Don't listen to him, though.

"I'm old and crazy," Waltrip said.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.