The Busch Clash is about to be run. That means Daytona 500 media week is behind us. Sunday’s 63rd annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) will once again mark the beginning of a new year. With that said, this year’s race is sure to look different than the 62 before it.
We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic, so while fans will be included in this year’s race, it won’t be run in front of a packed house. Following a fifth straight sell out a year ago, a reported 30k will be in attendance for next Sunday’s Great American Race.
Also, due to the ongoing COVID precautions, media day has looked different this year as well. In fact, I feel like it was vastly better. Instead of one full day of all the drivers being rotated in 1-by-1 for breakout sessions, media day became media week.
We had over 30 drivers available last week and two more days this week of interviews. All were done via zoom. All of them were available for 30 minutes each with plenty of time to get questions in for the upcoming season/Daytona 500 too. This has been vastly more efficient in getting more content out there without being overwhelmed of chasing big stories and having to do so all in one day.
We got a bunch of content from drivers on this being the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death, to how badly drivers that have won this race in the past want to win again, to how this race will look for Sunday, to how much pressure are on some drivers for not just next week but for the season in general too.
Here’s my top takeaways.
Earnhardt’s Death Still On Minds 20 Years Later, But How His Legacy Continued On Further Because Of That Day
As we gear up towards the 63rd edition of the Daytona 500, we can’t help but to look back to 20 years ago either. See, Dale Earnhardt has a rich lasting legacy in the motorsports world. A seven-time Cup Series champion with 76 career wins to his credit. Earnhardt, will forever go down as one of the best, if not THE best, NASCAR driver to ever come around this sport.
But, that dark day on Feb. 18, 2001, 20 year ago to be exact, well it also adds to Earnhardt’s legacy in a wild way if you think about it. That crash caused a drastic shift in terms of safety in NASCAR’s world. It was that moment to where it was time to do something about it.
Earnhardt’s death followed a deadly year on the race track in 2000. NASCAR lost Kenny Irwin Jr. in a practice crash in New Hampshire that season. That comes a few months after Adam Petty was tragically killed in an eerily similar fashion in a Busch Series practice on that same track. Tony Roper would get killed in a crash during a Truck Series race at Texas in Oct. 2000.
Then you get to Earnhardt’s last lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
In wake of that dark day in NASCAR, major changes occurred on the safety front. Following four deaths that resulted in similar injuries in an eight month span, it was time to get serious about safety.
NASCAR then mandated the HANS device. They updated the rules and processes for the seats that the drivers sit in as well as their seat belts. They made it mandatory for all tracks that they’d race at to have a SAFER barrier.
This all led to the debut of the COT. That has led to where we are today.
“As I look back to 2001, it was really NASCAR that kind of took the bull by the horns and really led that charge,” said Kevin Harvick, who replaced Earnhardt following the tragic death. “There was so much change during that typical time period. It was hard to keep up.”
With all of this safety now in mind, Earnhardt is the last death in NASCAR’s main three divisions. That’s 20 years ago this month. It’s a remarkable feat to show up for 19 straight years and not see any one get killed inside of a race car.
“I’m a beneficiary of the safety era,” Kurt Busch said. “With the SAFER barriers. The Hans device. The seats. Everything we’ve added to these cars to make them safer. I’ve seen a lot happen over the couple of decades.”
We now return to Daytona this week to kick off the another Speedweeks. Safety is on our minds again not only because of this being the 20th anniversary of that fateful day, but also because of how far safety has come with Ryan Newman’s frightening crash in last year’s Daytona 500.
If Newman’s crash occurred a couple of decades ago, there’s no reason to believe that he’d be with us today still. But, all these safety initiatives and constant updating that front, has allowed Newman to not only walk away from last year’s crash, but he’s back this year eyeing a chance to earn his second career win in the Great American Race.
“As terrible as it was and we’ll never get over losing Dale Earnhardt, but there was a lot that came out of it for safety,” said Richard Childress. “There’s been some horrendous crashes. Austin Dillon’s, Ryan Newman’s, you go on down the list of crashes and these drivers have walked away because of the safety.”
This year’s race also reminds us a lot of 2001 anyways. That year was the start of a new era in NASCAR then. A new TV package would start. All the attention was huge. The vibe and buzz around the 2001 race was massive.
Same for the 2021 edition. A new schedule is here. New teams have arrived with owners like Michael Jordan and Pitbull have joined. A new car is coming out in 2022. The Most Popular Driver, Chase Elliott, won last year’s championship.
The buzz heading into this year’s Speedweeks is big again and feeling reminiscent of 2001.
“With the TV package with FOX taking over, then NBC, there was this anticipation or aura about NASCAR and I’m feeling that same thing in 2021,” Busch continued. “With the Next Gen car on the horizon, a group of young drivers coming in and trying to take out the veterans. It’s that same feel. I’m really happy with how the sport has transitioned with the technology, the safety, the TV aspect of it. This is the first time I’ve seen this many changes since 2001. All in all, it’s a good refreshing time right now.”
A new era of NASCAR, just like it was in 2021 and a reminder of how good Dale Earnhardt led a safety charge for the sport moving forward.
Newman Reflects On Daytona 500 Return
Six seconds led to 42 hours. Those six seconds were all that separated Ryan Newman from a second Daytona 500 triumph. The agonizing 42 hours is how long it took until our fears of Newman’s life took a drastic turn for the good.
With drafting help from fellow Ford driver Ryan Blaney, the Roush Fenway Racing driver took the lead on the final lap of the 2020 Daytona 500 on the backstretch. The tandem exited Turn 4 running 1-2 and Newman held the lead for six seconds off the corner with only the checkered flag in his sights.
He unfortunately had to be reactive in the final pursuit of victory and make a maneuver that anyone else in that situation would have made in that moment too. He moved to block Blaney’s run in order to solidify his chance at another win in NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, that move not only cost him a win, but it hospitalized him as a result. It prompted a wild 42 hour timeframe which saw all of us fear for Newman’s well being to him walking out of the hospital.
That situation, that moment, Newman doesn’t want to let that one crash define his NASCAR career. The Indiana native has won 18 times in the pinnacle of the sport including the 2008 Daytona 500 as well as the 2013 Brickyard 400. Unfortunately, last year’s frightening crash on the last lap of the 62nd running of the Daytona 500 is what people are remembering Newman as right now.
He doesn’t want to be known as the guy who survived one of the more horrific crash that you’d ever see. He understands why people are so interested in that crash. The aftermath was one of the biggest feel good stories of the year to witness a photo of he and his daughters walking out of the hospital just 42 after after a critical crash.
For 42 hours, we feared for his life. No one thought after what had just happened that he’d walk out of the hospital, each daughter on either side of him, walking barefoot with barely a scratch or bruise on his body.
It truly was God’s work being shown through Newman. Now, Newman is wanting to use this as a platform. He isn’t ready for that to be the end of his racing book. It’s just a page in a chapter of his life but not the moment to define him. He’s not ready to be done. He still has more that he’s willing to accomplish in his racing career and that crash isn’t going to slow him down.
Newman, returns to the scene of the crash next week as he prepares to embark on his 20th Daytona Speedweeks. While it won’t be his first start at Daytona since the incident, it will be his first ‘500 back as the Daytona 500 punches a little more weight than the Coke Zero Sugar 400 annually does. The attention will be greater now than it was in late August even though Newman was hoping to win the race last year in what he was hoping would be a storybook opportunity.
Even though he didn’t win, he does have another chance on Valentines Day to write what would be a remarkable made for Hollywood script.
Newman, said that when people wonder why he’s continuing on, why climb back in that car that nearly took your life? Why risk danger again? How would your brain process a second go around?
Well, he again credits our good Lord in saying things that happened did so for a reason and how things occurred in the aftermath is also part of the plan that’s greater than his.
That main part is that he doesn’t have any memory of the crash itself. That day last year, is blocked out of his memory forever. That helps as to one part on why he’s able to keep continuing on with his dream job. He’s not supposed to remember that day for a reason.
“I’ve had zero,” Newman said on if he’s had any hesitation on getting back in a NASCAR again in wake of last year’s accident. “I’ve had people question me. But the reality is, God works in mysterious ways and one of those mysterious ways that I can’t answer is the deletion of that chapter, that part of my hard drive that was that day, so that I can’t remember the potential tragedy that wasn’t,” Newman said. “So, I don’t have any fear because I don’t have any memory, and that was the same analogy I used. If you’ve ever been in a car accident or you know somebody that’s been in a car accident and they were conscious the whole time, they will always carry that fear with them. And I have no memory, so therefore, I have no fear.
“But it’s also my passion and my love and what I enjoy doing. It’s a paid hobby. It’s the most amazing job you could ever have, and that’s where my focus is. I’m just doing my best to continue and become a Cup champion. That’s the way I feel is I still have another opportunity and God’s given me that opportunity and I’ll enjoy it with my two beautiful girls and our team together.”
Another reason is because his family is okay with him keeping going. While his two young daughters could be frightened to be going back to the place that put their daddy in the hospital, Newman said that they’re actually instead excited to be going back next week. There’s no animosity on their end either.
That all combined helps the healing process and to allow him to keep going with a dream of chasing his second Daytona 500 crown. He has no memory of that day and he has his family’s blessing.
“I have no reason to not do what I love,” he continued.
The safety aspect comforts him too. He said if you’d see his helmet from last year’s crash, you’d wonder how his head is still in the shape that it’s in. He had no business walking away from that crash like he did and he feels a greater sense of relief and joy and even peace in the aftermath with his life as well as his career.
“I continually say I haven’t changed,” Newman said. “It’s opened my eyes, made me more appreciative of a lot of things in life. I feel like it has magnified my personality for all the positive things and decreased the negative things. That’s an adjustment.”
Now, he’s going to try and process what happened last year and figure out a way for him to hold onto the lead on the final lap heading to the finish line. We know speedway racing is a different form and it takes as much skill as it does luck. The aggression is as high as its ever been and with the package that they’re racing now, the leader is a sitting duck.
So, with how last year ended, you’d think Newman would just look to other races to study his craft. With no recollection of that crash, Newman, like most others if they were involved in that crash, would just ignore it. Instead, he’s intrigued.
Some may not ever want to even see a video of a crash like that with them being involved. and Newman having no recollection of the crash itself, he’s actually wanting to study it further. So, he’s more recently searched out videos to see what exactly happened.
“I’ve watched every angle that I could possibly watch,” Newman said. “The biggest problem is I don’t have any memory of my own angle, which is the ultimate angle. And that’s gone, and that’ll always be gone, and no matter how many times I watch a replay or a different variation of that memory, it doesn’t change my personal memory because it just doesn’t exist.”
The reason for a more recent interest is due to last spring and summer, he wasn’t focused on the crash at that time anyways. He was trying to get back into the saddle of things behind the wheel of his car and also more concerned about how things were going for him in his personal life off the track too.
“I was more worried at the time about all the other things I had going on with my life,” Newman said. “I can’t answer the level of my injuries. I just remember my dad telling and showing me what happened. I studied it a little bit but at that point, I was studying the more important things in my life.”
Since though, he has sought out multiple views and came across a YouTube page giving him every angle he could have asked for in one video.
“YouTube is an amazing tool,” he said. “I didn’t realize someone created a video of every angle of my crash until about a month or two ago. I literally laid in bed one morning. It brought tears to my eyes — tears of respect and appreciation. Not sadness.”
Newman is now back. He’ll climb aboard that No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing next Wednesday and qualify for next Sunday’s Great American Race. He’ll do so with only videos to show what happened to time the last he went through the tri-oval in Daytona last February.
Open Drivers Eyeing Qualifying, But Nervous About Less Experience Too
Austin Cindric has never driven a NASCAR Cup Series car before. In fact, he’s never been behind the wheel of one at all. But, next Wednesday afternoon, he will have just 50 minutes to get acclimated to one because he’s one of eight drivers having to race their ways into the 63rd running of the Daytona 500 next Sunday.
“You’ve got 50 minutes to figure out how to get into the Daytona 500,” Cindric said on his Daytona 500 media availability. “That’s not easy. That will be my first time in a Cup car, my first time in a speedway Cup car – a lot of different things going on and obviously a lot of things to go through. Even simple procedural things like trying to get used to the digital dash on pit road speeds and doing hot pit roads and, obviously, figuring out how the cars work in the draft. There are a lot of things I’m going to have to figure out in 50 minutes, so it’ll be information overload.
“I’ve got great teammates that will be able to help me through some of that process. I’ve done a lot of prep work so far to try to nail down the small details, but nothing is simple as, like I said, pit road speed or procedural things inside the car what keeps us out of the race. I’ve tried to be as diligent as possible on those things, but it’s the things you can’t control that make you lose a little bit of sleep thinking about it.
“The easiest way to make it in is on time, and our guys at Team Penske are trying to give me the fastest Verizon Ford Mustang possible to do that, so I’m excited. It’s going be a great challenge, and I think everybody in this position is embracing that task because there are a lot of great cars trying to go for a spot.”
The 44 cars entered for 40 spots this year is the most since 2016. There were actually 50 cars entered for the 2015 race which is the most since 2011 overall.
Over the last 11 years at that, we’ve had 44 entries so far this year, 43 in 2020, 42 in 2019, 40 in 2018, 42 in 2017, 44 in 2016, 50 in 2015, 49 in 2014, 45 in 2013, 49 in 2012 and 48 in 2011. There were 54 cars entered for the 2010 race.
Now, Cindric is hoping to beat at least six other open cars next week to put his name among the 40 in this year’s field.
“I started thinking about all the scenarios, and you start feeling a little anxious and nervous,” Cindric said at the end of January. “Even when this was coming together, just knowing the format and knowing how many open cars there are this year, it’s gonna be a challenge.”
It all starts on Wednesday though as he has one lone practice session, then qualifying later in the day to make the show. See, the top two open cars on Wednesday night know that they’ll make the race on speed. They can still race their ways in during Thursday night’s Duels too, but they know that they have their speed to fall back on too.
That excites Cindric in knowing that he has a Team Penske car at his disposal and knows that the speed department for this camp will certainly help.
“I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t have as good a shot as any to qualify our way in on speed, but you can’t count on that,” Cindric continued. “I’ve put a lot of prep work already into understanding the Duels and understanding the format. They take one car out of each Duel, so that’s a very small window. That’s where all my (Daytona 500) focus is right now.”
Joining Cindric on the open list are names like Ryan Preece, Ty Dillon, Kaz Grala and Noah Gragson.
Preece, is in a full time entry that lost their charter this past offseason. They don’t have enough races sold to compete on a full season but are going to make the attempt anyways. Missing out of the Daytona 500 would be devastating for their full season aspirations.
Luckily, his teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the pole a year ago, so the speed could be made available in his No. 37 Chevrolet to get in.
But, does this bring more pressure?
“I’m not stressed at all,” Preece said. “We’re going to go down, and if everything works out the way I think it’s laid out, we should qualify on speed. So, I feel pretty confident with it.”
Gragson, like Cindric, is also making his Cup debut in Daytona too. He’s doing so with a team that features heavy hearts. Beard Motorsports lost its President, Mark Beard Sr. as the patriarch of the organization lost his life earlier this week. What a story it would be for them to make the race as one of the open cars next Thursday night.
He said he’s most nervous about the Duels on Thursday night and has been watching videos of Denny Hamlin to prepare. He’s singled out last year’s Duels for Hamlin to watch his onboard in preparation for this year’s for himself.
The open cars have plenty of storylines which will make the Duels fun to watch again. It’s going to be a pressure packed situation for these eight drivers.
Pressure On For Wallace/Chastain/DiBenedetto In 2021
Ross Chastain bet on himself. Bubba Wallace bided his time. Now, both come to Speedweeks with their best shots of success in NASCAR’s premiere series. Unfortunately, these could also be their first and last shots at success with top equipment too.
What I mean by that is, neither of the two may get another chance with a top Cup team if they don’t perform during their current contracts with their respective teams now. Chastain, is 28. If you can’t be competitive in a Chip Ganassi Racing car, what car will you be strong in? Unfortunately, by him pushing 30, that next opportunity may not come with a team like Gibbs, Penske, Hendrick or Stewart-Haas.
The trend is to get younger when a ride opens up, not go with a driver that is in their late 20’s or early 30’s.
Same for Wallace. He’s 27. I doubt this is just a one-off year for him with 23XI Racing. He knows that there’s likely not Plan B if he fails in the No. 23 Toyota too. Michael Jordan only came into this deal wanting to be competitive. He and Denny Hamlin have surrounding Wallace with a great team with great cars as they’re aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing. If he can’t win in a few years with this car, the question for him is the same as Chastain, when will he?
“I don’t want to go fail,” Chastain said during his Daytona 500 media availability. “So there is no alternative. There is no Plan B. We have the farm and grow and sell watermelons. But, as a racer, I want to succeed. I want to do my job. This is it.”
Wallace feels the same.
“It’s just delivering results,” Wallace said. “This for me, is the one and potentially last opportunity for me. We have a solid foundation underneath us to make this program better and to grow this team and make this a household name in the sport. Make it a pinnacle name of our sport.”
Chastain is used to this kind of pressure though. He bet on himself a few years ago when he took a full seasons worth of money for a guaranteed ride in a mid level NXS team to take it to Ganassi for a three race deal for their cars in the same series.
See, the Florida watermelon farmer has been around since 2011 and in 2017, his path stalled out. So for 2018, he could have been a mid level driver again or this time, take a risk at becoming great. The only way to be great is to be with a great team and Ganassi had a great program in that series. The problem was, if he failed, then he spent all that money to be put on a showcase and not be able to recoup it or get another shot after. Why would another top team sign him if he couldn’t win with Ganassi?
Chastain, didn’t have to worry about it.
He started from the pole and led the most laps in his first race with the team at Darlington that September. He won his second start with them in Vegas. He was runner-up a week later in Richmond. That earned him a full time shot in that same car for 2019. He finally made it. Unfortunately, DC Solar, which was supposed to be his sponsor, had huge problems and they were gone. So was his seat with Ganassi as they had to close up shop on the NXS team as a result.
Luckily, they kept him around under contract but just loaned him to Kaulig Racing in NXS and Niece Motorsports in Trucks for the last couple of years. Chastain has thrived in those seats though. Ganassi, with an open seat, wanted him back under their umbrella as he replaces Kyle Larson/Matt Kenseth in the No. 42 Chevrolet for 2021.
This is a good ride. It’s maybe not a championship caliber one yet, but one that is more than capable of making the playoffs which would be a very good season for Chastain if he could. If he can’t, then Ganassi may start looking for his replacement.
Wallace is in the same boat. He’s not had the successful background as Chastain with him racing for an underfunded Richard Petty Motorsports team. But, he’s shown promise and out performed his equipment. What happens when that equipment starts overshadowing your success?
Wallace doesn’t want that. He wants to match the equipment level with his new team and has set lofty goals as a result.
“There’s a lot riding on us you know,” Wallace said. “I’ve had personal goals of two wins. I think you just have to go out and be competitive and I’ve felt more competitive and more passion, more drive than I ever have with everything that’s right out in front of me with this opportunity.”
While saying that, Wallace knows that success may not come that early and that they have to stay the course and just take it week by week. Improvement each race is all that they’re after and allow the success to come from there.
“Do I expect to jump in and win right off the bat? No, not at all,” Wallace continued. “I know the sport. If it was that easy, a lot of people would be doing it. But, it’s not that easy and I know the competition that we go up against. It’s tougher than it’s ever been.
“I’m excited to get under way and just see where we stack up. We start to build a resume at Daytona and build off that and continue to get better for our team. It’s going to take a couple of races, just like any new team will to get everything underneath us.”
Does the lofty expectation give him more pressure though, especially with this being a make or break for his future in this sport?
“There’s been pressure ever since I got into the league to win,” said Wallace. “So just another year. New car, no different.”
Matt DiBenedetto also has pressure. This is his final year of his contract with the Wood Brothers/Team Penske and he knows that he won’t be back next season. With that said, he’s not stressing about 2022 yet.
“Going into this year, even with the uncertainty you can call it about 2022, I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my career going into this year even without knowing my plans for next year,” he said. “This is all I can ask for. My whole career has had an expiration date. I’ve thought it was over 1,000 times, so it doesn’t even phase me. I’m pretty mentally tough at this point.”
Past Winners Want Another Daytona 500 Crown Badly
Winning a race in a premiere motorsports series is hard. That’s by design. It’s not supposed to be easy. There’s a reason why they’re in the top level of professional sports. For Kurt Busch, he’s been a victor 32 times in the NASCAR Cup Series. There’s no doubt about it, he’s a future Hall of Famer in this sport whenever he decides to hang up his helmet and firesuit.
Among his 32 career wins are victories in the Coca Cola 600, the Bristol Night Race, the All-Star race and a season championship (2004). His biggest feat outside of his championship though has to be his 2017 Daytona 500 triumph.
A win in the Great American Race separates NASCAR drivers from men to legends. Daytona is the birthplace of speed and for a stock car racer, there’s no better feat in ones career than a win in the Daytona 500. There’s a reason to why the race is dubbed the Super Bowl of the sport.
The same could be said for an Indianapolis 500 win. I’ve talked to drivers after their Indy wins and if they don’t win again in the years after, the fire just burns deeper and deeper with each passing May. To have tasted the milk and know what it’s like to become a race immortal, you don’t want anyone else to feel that joy. You selfishly want to bottle it up all for yourself.
The Daytona 500 is the equivalent for NASCAR drivers. Some races, after you cross the checkered flag first, you’re labeled the “winner.” For Daytona or Indianapolis, the driver to beat everyone else is labeled a “champion.”
That’s for great reason.
For Busch, he says his starts from a wide eyed rookie in 2001 through a seasoned vet in 2017 felt differently than his last three trips to Daytona. The Las Vegas native won the 2017 Daytona 500 and now that he’s accomplished that feat, he wants to feel it again.
“The years before a win at Daytona, there’s the humility and the humble feeling that this track is still in control over me,” Busch said. “Then with winning it in 2017, it’s an experience beyond no other. There’s this energy in your soul when you go back to defend that no, this is my turf. This is mine. Then, if the race doesn’t go when, there’s that humble feeling again that the track will give you.
“That’s the approach that I have as the couple of years have gone by. To be humble. To approach the track with the same style, the humility, appreciation and the hopeful feeling of lady luck can be on your side to win, because you can never go there to expect to win. You just go there to try and take care of all of the things under your control to be in position to win.”
Busch, will make his 20th Daytona 500 start next Sunday and hopes to become just the 13th driver to win multiple ‘500’s over the course of the 63 year history of this great event. He’s been close multiple times with three runner-ups (2003, 2005, 2008) and six top fives overall.
He’s one of just seven drivers in this year’s field to have won this race before. Derrike Cope (1990), Kevin Harvick (2007), Ryan Newman (2008), Jamie McMurray (2010), Joey Logano (2015), Austin Dillon (2018) and Denny Hamlin (2016, 2019, 2020) are the others. Just Hamlin has won this among that group multiple times.
For Newman, he’s excited to be here. After last year’s near win which landed him unfortunately in the hospital after, he says that fire and jealously is honestly there for every race, not just at Daytona.
“I actually don’t ever look at it that way and I say that because and I’ll give you a little piece of private information because I’m pretty sure it’s unanimous across the board, but there’s not a driver out there that doesn’t have that burn or that desire and I say that because as much of a team sport that this is, even when your teammate wins, you’re still more disappointed or jealous that you didn’t win,” Newman said. “You can be happy your teammate won but still it makes it that much more of a burn I guess you could say internally or externally because you haven’t. That makes you want to fight that much harder. If you have the passion for the sport and the desire that it takes to be a winner, that will always be inside of you. My point is, no matter the situation on who wins or how close you were, it’s always going to exist.
“I don’t know if it exists more since 2008.”
In Hamlin’s sense, he said to be the first to win three straight Great American Race’s would be the biggest win in his career up until this point. It’s one that he’d not trade away for anything.
“I always think about in these situations and any time I get asked about all the ones that slipped away that I had no control and didn’t make the right decisions in the end to finish it off. It would be by far my biggest victory of my career and one that I probably wouldn’t exchange for anything.”
His friend Austin Dillon said that this race amps him up like none other.
“For sure,” Dillon said on if he has a deeper burn to win this race again since he’s won it once. “That feeling of driving into victory lane and hoisting that Harley J. Earl, there’s nothing like it. It’s a memory I’ll never forget. For me, every time that you get to jump in a car for the ‘500, you’ve got to be thankful because it’s history. It’s a prestigious event. It’s my favorite event of the year. It’s my favorite Sunday that when I wake up that morning, that Daytona 500 morning, there’s noting like it.”
That’s why this year’s race is going to be a fun battle among the drivers who have won and the ones who’ve not yet won a Daytona 500. It truly makes a racers career.
This Year’s Daytona 500 Will Look A Lot Like Last Years
Brad Keselowski said it best, the Daytona 500 is like having your final exam on the first day of school. It’s an inverse product to most other sports to where the biggest game of their seasons is at the end of the year. For NASCAR, theirs is at the start.
With being out of a race car for three months too, it can lead to even more aggressive driving than we’re normally accustomed to seeing. But, throw in the carrot at the end of the race of being a Daytona 500 champion and you get some wild and tense moments in the closing laps.
The drivers expect that this year’s race will look at lot like the ones in the most recent past because of that though. They feel like most of the early portions of the race could be tame in nature as it has lately but also with the intensity really ramping up in the final stage as well.
Last year’s race had just five cautions in the first 184 laps run. Two of those five were for stage breaks and another for rain. By comparison, there were four yellows in the final 23 laps to the checkered too.
The 2019 Daytona 500 had just five cautions in the first 159 laps. Again, two of those were for stage breaks too. There were seven cautions in the final 46 laps that race.
The reason for the lack of carnage early but so much late is these drivers all know that in order to win the race, you have to be around in the end. So, why not take care of your car just to make it to the closing laps. Why push hard early and risk getting caught up in a big crash, especially since most drivers now are forced to work with their own manufactures and you don’t want to risk taking out a ton of drivers who could help you later.
That’s one part of the story, but when you look at the box scores over the last four years, you’d see a lot of torn up equipment on there too. The last four years of Cup races from the World Center of Speed have been complete mayhem because of this.
In the 2017 Daytona 500, 34 of the 40 cars that started were involved in some kind of wreck throughout the afternoon. The 2018 Daytona 500 saw 31 of 40 cars crash. The July race that year had 34 of 40. The Clash in 2019 saw 17 of the 20 cars leave with damage while the 2020 Clash saw all 18 starters collect some sort of damage during the all-star event.
The 2019 Daytona 500 saw 36 of 40 cars involved in a crash at some point of the day too while 34 of 40 were collected a year ago.
DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 11: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, and Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Peak Ford, lead the field during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 11, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
That’s why if once you get to the closing laps at Daytona, due to the attrition rate being so high late in the race, the odds of being caught up in a wreck are substantially higher than actually crossing the finish line unscathed. So, you have to be aggressive as a result of that.
If you’re still around and have evaded some of those big crashes towards the end, you have to take advantage as this could be you’re one and only opportunity of cashing in and being a Daytona 500 champion.
“You typically go to Daytona and even Talladega expecting to crash,” said Brad Keselowski. “The odds are more favorable for carnage than a win.”
That’s why the aggression really ramps up in the final laps. You have to. There’s too much at stake.
“The only race that’s bigger than this is the championship race and that’s only for four cars,” said Joey Logano. “This is the biggest race for 40 cars. Everyone is out there racing extremely hard towards the end of the race.”
Logano says the other byproduct of this is the new rules package that we’re racing now. The tapered spacer debuted in 2019 but last year’s Daytona 500 was the first with this package. With the tapered spacer, the runs are larger from behind. The leader is essentially a lame duck. They can’t manipulate the air or block the runs from behind to stay out front.
With a Daytona win on the line, the leader becomes more aggressive to try and stay in the lead while those in the back are driving harder to use their run in the draft to capitalize on the speed and get by too. Something has to give.
“The pushing and shoving becomes very aggressive which that has been consistent over the years but with the rules package change, especially with the spoiler on the back of it, we’ve seen over the past couple of years that the shoving has become really aggressive and the blocks have been harder to pull off successfully,” Logano continued. “The runs are bigger. That’s all a recipe for disaster for the end of these things. The key is to be up towards the front when it matters the most.
“At the end of the race, it’s kind of like the championship. No one remembers who finished second. No one knows who finishes second in the Daytona 500 last year. That’s just what this race is about.”
His teammate in Keselowski agreed. He at one point was the top dog on superspeedway’s but with this rules package, his advantage was lost. He says this rules package is the No. 1 reason to why his stats have declined on superspeedway’s now.
What impresses Keselowski the most though is that Denny Hamlin has won three Daytona 500’s in the last five years. The odds are that you’ll get caught up in someone else’s wreck, so to have won that many times is amazing to him.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made a great point for this year though that it’s at least nice to have a consistent rules package again and not to have a ton of changes to the cars when going to these superspeedway’s this year.
“I don’t think the tapered spacer or restrictor plate matters,” Stenhouse said. “All it does is restricts power but maybe in a little bit of different ways. “We’ve gone big spoilers, smaller spoilers, it definitely changes the game. It changes the aggressiveness. It changes your ability to do things inside the race car and the handling of the race car. I think having something consistent now is big. Probably for everybody. We all know what to expect.
“There for a while, I feel like on superspeedway’s were changing fairly quick. It seemed like every year you raced the race, things would change. I like the consistency that we have going into this year.”
Also, with this new aggressive style, it’s created some last lap mayhem as well. Four of the last five Daytona 500’s have seen a last lap pass for the win. Denny Hamlin stormed through the pack and passed his teammate Matt Kenseth for the lead in Turn 4 of the final lap in 2016 and held off a hard charging Martin Truex Jr. for the victory.
In 2017, Kurt Busch passed Kyle Larson in Turn 2 on the final lap.
In 2018, Austin Dillon crashed Aric Almirola on the backstretch going for the win.
Last year, Hamlin did it again with a last lap pass of Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney for the victory.
Will we see another last lap pass for the win on Sunday? Trends say, yes. So does the recent history of the end of these superspeedway races.
“It’s case by case. I don’t think anyone of us would not take the lead on the final lap and defend the best we can knowing that you have the position. Being second would obviously be just fine as well in trying to make that move. But I feel like at that point, you’re almost reliant on someone to go with you and make that move with you whether that be going from the bottom or the top to make that push that you’re looking for so I feel like you control your own destiny with being in the lead.
The new package will likely promote a last lap crash as the second place car will have to make a daring move to win. We’ve seen that more times than not.
- Brad Keselowski – “The Daytona 500 is like having your final exam on the first day of school. It’s an inverse product to most other sports to where the biggest game of their seasons is at the end of the year.” He also said, “You typically go to Daytona and even Talladega expecting to crash. The odds are more favorable for carnage than a win.”
- Noah Gragson – “Tell that little shit to drive the piss out of it,” Mr. Beard’s wife said to Gragson following the death of Mark Beard.
- Derrike Cope – “I really don’t care what other people think,” Cope said on people questioning on if he should be allowed to race in the Daytona 500. “If I did, I probably wouldn’t be in this position. So, honestly, it’s really about what I want.”
- Kyle Busch – “Kind of feel like I got fired from the 18 car and moved over to the 20 guys with the way everything played out. So there’s this whole thing mentally in my head that I kind of got fired and rehired.”
- Kevin Harvick – “My focus is always on week to week winning races,” Harvick said on Friday. “In the end it didn’t really matter. We ran terrible at Phoenix, so it’s not like you were going to win the championship anyway. It didn’t really matter as we got to Phoenix and with the way that we ran.
- “I think you look back on it and you take the things that you did at each one of those race tracks and you try to make them better because that’s really what it’s all about is, ‘How do I stay focused on a week to week basis? What did we do last year at this particular racetrack? What did we do good? What did we do bad? Show me the strengths. Show me the weaknesses. Show me where we beat them. Show me where we were getting beat.’
- “And it’s the same preparation over and over and over, and the whole championship layout is something that is what it is, but it changes zero in your preparation. It really doesn’t change a thing.”
- Christopher Bell – “I would say dirt racing really prepared me for and maybe made me good at raw speed,” Bell said. “Going fast hasn’t really been my issue. But, one thing that at least my style of dirt racing that I did is, that it didn’t prepare me is for distance races. That’s been the hardest part each step along the way whether it be late models moving into Trucks then moving into Xfinity, the races have just gotten longer and longer and longer. Then, now the Cup races are sometimes twice the length of the Xfinity races that I just got done doing.
- “The distance racing part has been the difficult part making sure that you can complete 500 mile races and have a car that’s in one piece. I haven’t done a great part of that over the course of last year and I’m trying this year to see the checkered flag with all the fenders on my car. That’s something that I’m really focused on this year is limiting my mistakes, making sure my car is there at the end of the race.”
- Chase Briscoe – “I was so excited to kind of start a new journey but also so nervous and really didn’t know what I was getting into,” Briscoe said on when he moved from Indiana to North Carolina in February 2013 to pursue a NASCAR dream. “I was fresh out of high school. I remember my mom, right before I left, literally trying to teach me how to do the laundry because she had always done it for me while I was in high school.
“I was green to everything. I never had a credit card or a debit card. I literally went down with $150 in cash and just pretty much thrown into the world and try to figure it out.”
After a couple of years of nothing, he decided to move home.
“Literally the day I was driving home I remember I was in Kentucky, called my mom,” Briscoe said. “I was in tears and told her I was moving back home. I was over it. I had been down there for two years and didn’t have anything. I was going to go run a midget that weekend and the following Monday I was going to drive back down, get my stuff and go back home.
“Two hours later … I got a call from an ARCA team asking me if I was interested in coming and doing a test, and that was the Cunningham Motorsports team. I went there that following Monday and started volunteering my time.
“I’d been sleeping on couches for almost two years to that point and just started hanging out around their shop trying to be the first one to be there and the last guy to leave. I think I volunteered for a full nine or 10 months until I even got in a race car. They somehow, I don’t know why, decided they were going to let me race for them, and we went and ran for the championship in 2016 and was able to win the championship.”
“There were so many doors that probably shouldn’t have been opened that were somehow able to get opened”