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Spot News Writing
Fourth Place
Mike Hembree, USA Today

Digital Dash

In another move that will make race cars closer in style and appearance to street vehicles, NASCAR teams are required to run digital dashes in Sprint Cup cars this season.

Several teams used the new dashes, which replace analog gauges that record such things as water temperature and RPM levels, in the closing months of last season. They became mandatory for SpeedWeeks activities at Daytona International Speedway.

The dashes fit in generally the same space – behind the steering wheel – as the former analog devices. They provide readouts – available in a variety of colors, sizes and designs – of water and oil temperatures, water and oil pressure, fuel pressure, transmission and rear end temperature, voltage, lap times and RPMs.

The rectangular units can be customized by drivers and teams. The display can be changed from a traditional circular gauge to digital-clock-type numbers to a linear graph – and beyond. Colors can be changed, and each indicator can be moved to numerous places on the dash.

As with virtually every change in the sport, the switch will require some adjustments for drivers and crews.

“There will be some growing pains and some issues and problems, for sure,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott. “But there is with everything.

“It’s good, though. You can tailor things. And I think the most important thing is that it’s relevant. What street car has all standard gauges any more?”

Brighter, bigger numbers probably will be a plus for drivers.

“I ran the last three races (last season) with it,” Jimmie Johnson said. “It’s cool. There’s a lot it can do. You can see it very well.”

It is likely, also, however, that there will be issues, particularly in the early going. Jamie McMurray said he had problems with the dash on pit road during last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited.

“We sat at the shop for hours, and I went over what I thought I was going to like (with the dash), and then when we did pit road practice for the Unlimited, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s perfect,’ ” McMurray said. “And then the first pit stop in the race and I’m like, ‘This sucks. I don’t know why I picked this.’ At one point I’m like pretty sure I was speeding right there, but I don’t know.”

Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR vice president of racing development, told USA TODAY Sports that the switch to digital dashes will open the door for bigger changes down the road.

“We want to do this in a way so that eventually we can send information to the driver on caution flags, red flags, penalties,” he said. “We can’t do that with the conventional gauges. Eventually, we hope to get to a place where, when a caution flag comes out, it would light up instantaneously at the same time [on all driver dashes].”

NASCAR is months and perhaps years from installing the at-track communications links that would be required for such a system, Stefanyshyn said.

“We have to build that link,” he said. “But it’s the digital dash that will enable us to display that. I don’t think it will happen this season.”

NASCAR plans experiments this year with tire sensors that would send tire-pressure readings to the dash. “The dash has a lot more capability that we haven’t exploited yet,” Stefanyshyn said.

Ultimately, there is likely to be a fan connection to the new dashes, he said. “This will open the door for us when we’re in a place to provide more information to fans,” he said.

Driver Carl Edwards said he is concerned about the possibility of the dashes failing.

“The one thing that you always think of is, ‘What if that thing goes black?’” he said, comparing the dash to gauges in his private plane. “You’re relying so much on that. In the Cessna, we have backup gauges and all these things … but in the race car, you’re getting all of your information from that one unit. That could be a factor, too. … It could be a disadvantage.”

Stefanyshyn said the dashes can be replaced relatively quickly during pit stops.