How will Sunday’s Daytona 500 look? The drivers weigh in

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — 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.

Just look at the Duels finishes.

Logano, made a nice move for the win on the final lap of Duel 1. Almirola, used a great side draft at the exit of the fourth turn to get him back and then to beat Christopher Bell by just .041-seconds in his No. 10 Ford.

It was a similar ending in the second Duel.

Austin Dillon, with a shove and drafting help from Kevin Harvick, went through the top line in Turns 3-4 to shoot down low off corner exit to get below Bubba Wallace and win his first career Duel. He did so by .057 seconds.

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,” Stenhouse continued. “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.”

Aric Almirola agreed.

“Yeah, it’s hard. You got to be aggressive to run up front. You saw it tonight (Duels). But you see it all the time. It’s really hard to win from 15th. You can’t just drive up through the field and go win.

So when you ride around in the back, you really are relying on the leaders and the guys up front wrecking. When they don’t wreck, you end up looking kind of foolish and you run bad and you finish bad.

So, yeah, I think there’s so much risk/reward that you have to weigh out with speedway racing. It really is a high-speed chess match from start to finish. You have to figure out how aggressive you’re willing to be and how daring of situations you’re willing to put your car and yourself in to try and get to the front.

“Once you get to the front, how do you keep it? There’s sometimes some big moves you have to make to try and keep your car out front. But, yeah, I think speedway racing always has and always will be that tale of weighing out risk versus reward. If you’re super aggressive, there’s days it works out for you, then there’s days that you end up on a wrecker.”

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.

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