To Draft, Or Not To Draft?
With a new car out this season, I almost wondered if this year’s Speedweeks will look like the ones of old. Yes, the track time has shifted less and less over the years but due to this nature also, will the action when cars are on track heat back up?
See, in recent years, the limited practice sessions have really been tame in nature. Same for the Duels. Why wad up a race car when you already pretty much know what you have? With simulations being enhanced and not really very many big swings to the racing package on superspeedway’s from year to year, most teams knew what they wanted out of their race cars come February.
Now, they don’t have the luxury. Yes, there’s been a couple of different test sessions at Daytona with this Next Gen model, but none of which could truly simulate what exactly this car is going to feel like in a pack of 40 of their closest peers for the biggest race of the season.
Without the Busch Clash on the oval for a second straight year and only having two 50-minute practice sessions on Tuesday evening as the only on track time before the Duels, I on one hand expect both of those as well as the Duels to ramp up in nature.
You have to run in a pack at some point to see how this car feels in the draft. There’s not really any real time simulation programs you can put this car through yet because there’s not any data for it. The only true test right now is physical on track time and for another year, there’s not much of it being allotted.
Last year and even in recent memory at that, drivers could get away with running on their own in practice or even with their teammates during practice sessions. It was just a few short runs to check ride heights and to confirm what you really already knew the park it until the ‘500. You just can’t do that now. There’s just far too many unknowns.
Putting yourself in sketchy situations in practice and even in the Duels will further help your chances at a Daytona 500 crown on Sunday afternoon.
The flipside of this all is, how many situations do you honestly want put yourself in before the Daytona 500? Parts are still limited, so you really can’t afford much crash damage prior to the big race either. That’s the flip side of the coin here.
Some teams are only taking one car down to Speedweeks. They’re using a community back up car per say just in case someone tears a car up during practice or the Duels.
See, instead of Kevin Harvick as an example bringing a primary and backup car down to Florida this year, they’re bringing just one car. Same for his teammates. Should any of them need a backup, they’ll use maybe of of their teammates cars back at the shop.
In saying that, Daytona won’t require the winning car to be put in Daytona USA afterwards. Due to the limited car supply, teams can’t afford to part ways with a car for an entire year as a result of winning Sunday’s Great American Race. So, for the first time in a long time, Daytona and NASCAR will allow the race winning team to keep the car instead.
So, in saying that, due to the limited supply and teams not having full inventories yet, is it worth the risk to do much drafting?
You should run in the draft and put yourself in precarious positions in practice and in the Duels if you want a chance for the big prize on Sunday but it’s also not required. You should try and push the limits to get your car dialed in for Sunday’s race, but you also just can’t afford to tear up your equipment in the process either.
Gone are the days of having 3+ cars down in Daytona for Speedweeks. You’d have a Clash car, a primary Daytona 500 car and if your Clash car wasn’t your backup, a true backup car. If you got in a crash in 2 of the 3 cars, you could run a hauler up to the shop in North Carolina to swap out for a different car and head back south to Daytona Beach.
There’s not enough spare parts to do that right now.
Also, are the days of running with your teammates gone? I mean if the fleets are so low that they’re sharing backup cars, what happens if you run together as a collected teammate group and you all get caught up in a practice crash? How would that look after?
What about drafting with manufacturers? What happens if a bunch of Chevy’s or Toyota’s or Ford’s get wadded up? Are there enough parts to fix them all?
So, whomever can get the right balance and not tear up equipment, well they’re going to be the ones sitting in victory lane on Sunday evening in Daytona celebrating a huge victory. I don’t think Sunday’s winner is going to be one who avoided the draft all week like they could get away with in recent years past but they’re the one who’s going to avoid carnage in the process.
Tons of Excitement and Momentum
The lead up to this weekend’s race reminds me a lot of how it was back in 2001. This is truly a new sport. A new car with new number placement, a new way to do a pit stop with a single lug, a new way to race the car, a bunch of new teams, etc, this feels like a new NASCAR. That’s led to a bunch of excitement and anticipation following a huge Clash two weeks ago.
Upwards of 70% of the tickets sold to the Busch Light Clash were from first-time NASCAR ticket purchasers. Plus, the event pulled the highest TV Rating for the Busch Light Clash since 2016. With smiles on their faces and loads of momentum at their backs, the NASCAR Cup Series turns their attention to the Great American Race, the DAYTONA 500, on February 20, 2022 at Daytona International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the first point-paying event of 2022.
For Daytona, it’s led to a complete sell out of the Daytona 500. Grandstands, infield camping, infield RV spots, the Fanzone, all the suites, all the hospitality, you name it, it’s sold out. Everyone is on the edge of their seats to see this new car perform in the annual Super Bowl of NASCAR.
The feeling right now is as great as its been to start a season in decades.
One of the first things that everyone is noticing this season is the shake up the NASCAR Cup Series schedule underwent for the 2022 season. From kicking the season off in Los Angeles, to adding a new track to the mix like World Wide Technology Raceway, the changes were made with the fans in mind.
For the first time since 1981, the NASCAR Cup Series season started somewhere other than Daytona. And of all places, NASCAR picked the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Not only was a track constructed, but an entire fan engaging experience was built around the annual season-opening non-points paying exhibition race, the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum.
“First off just props to NASCAR and everybody involved, all the men and women that put a lot of the effort into making it happen,” Chase Elliott said. “Building a racetrack, paving it and all the logistics that have gone into this. Props to everyone for making it happen. They did a really good job with it. The workmanship and logistics of how this has worked has really impressed me.”
Some other great aspects to the schedule to keep eye out for in 2022 are the return of the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, the newly revamped Atlanta Motor Speedway with steeper turns now reaching 28 degrees, the return of Homestead-Miami Speedway to the Playoffs and last but not least the addition of World Wide Technology Raceway. The NASCAR Cup Series will compete for the first time at the 1.25-mile track located in the St. Louis market.
Credit: DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 14: Michael McDowell, driver of the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, crosses the finish line to win during the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Another Shock Winner?
It seems like every time we go to a superspeedway that we have to talk about the potential for fluke winners. In reality though, the usual suspects win Talladega. Daytona though, well it’s more of the opposite.
They’ve had more fluke winners than Talladega in recent years. Just look at their recent winners in fact.
For the Coke Zero Sugar 400, three of the last five winners have earned their first career Cup victories. The other was just his second.
2020 – William Byron (1st career win in August’s Coke Zero Sugar 400)
2019 -Justin Haley (1st career win)
2018 – Erik Jones (1st career win)
2017 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2nd career win)
2014 – Aric Almirola (1st career win)
2011 – David Ragan (1st career win)
For the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin has won three of the last six years but the other three winners were Austin Dillon (2nd career win), Kurt Busch (1st career restrictor plate win) and Michael McDowell (1st career Cup win).
Of the 63 Daytona 500 races, only eight times has a driver posted his career-first NASCAR Cup Series victory with a win in the event; the most recent to accomplish the feat was Michael McDowell last season.
|First-Time Winners in Daytona 500||Seasons|
Three other drivers posted their career-first victory in (points-paying) qualifying races at Daytona: Johnny Rutherford (1963), Bobby Isaac (1964) and Earl Balmer (1966).
For 7 of the last 11 points paying races at Daytona, we saw drivers win their first or second superspeedway race on them.
Who’s the next? If it’s not Hamlin, then it’s usually a new one.
Can Elliott, Larson, Keselowski, Kyle Busch or Truex Jr. Get His 1st Daytona 500 Crown or will Hamlin nab his 4th?
This is Chase Elliott’s NASCAR now. He won the last four Most Popular Driver awards to go along with a 2020 championship and second straight Championship 4 appearance last November in Phoenix. Now, can Elliott keep this all up with a Daytona 500 win on Sunday?
Elliott, has made six starts in this race including a runner-up last year. Prior to 2021, he had finishes of 37th, 14th, 33rd, 17th and 17th respectively. He was also runner-up in the 2020 Coke Zero Sugar 400 too, so there’s reason for hope.
But, the Daytona 500 isn’t an easy race to win though either. Even the greats take years to accomplish a win in the Great American Race while some never do it. Terry Labonte was 0-for-32. Mark Martin and Ricky Rudd each 0-for-29. Bobby Labonte was 0-for-24. Rusty Wallace was 0-for-23. Tony Stewart (0-for-17), Carl Edwards (0-for-12) and Ned Jarrett (0-for-7) never won either.
Among the drivers in this year’s field, only seven drivers now have actually won this race. One of them is Denny Hamlin. If he can win Sunday’s Daytona 500, it would be his fourth time doing so, all coming in the last seven years. In fact, if he could win, it would be his third in the last four years with the only non win in that span being last year to when he led a race-high 98 laps.
A win would tie him with Cale Yarborough for second most ever for the Great American Race. Richard Petty’s seven are tops. Can he reach that mark?
On the flipside however, four others outside of Elliott stand out among the winless – Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.
All four are champions of the sport, including taking three straight series championships, 4 of the last 5 and 6 of the last 10. But, all have also been shutout of Rouff Home Mortgage Victory Lane in Daytona during February’s Speedweeks’ biggest race too.
Truex, is 0-for-17. He’s not much of a superspeedway racer anyways but he’d love to get a win here more than ever. He only has five career top five finishes in 67 points paying superspeedway starts. 5 of his last 6 Daytona finishes have been 22nd or worse.
Busch, is 0-for-16. He’s finished 33rd or worse in three of his last four Daytona points paying starts. He’s also only had one top five there since 2017 too and only three of his 16 starts in the Great American Race being in the top five.
While leading on Lap 180 in 2020’s edition, his car started having problems. A lap later, Busch said his engine blew and would slowly ride around the track. That was partially a blessing in disguise as he avoided the Lap 183 “Big One” two laps later.
“We’ll just keep going down in history of figuring out new ways to lose it,” Busch said that year.
12 of his 16 Daytona 500 starts have seen him finish 14th or worse.
For Keselowski, he’s 0-for-12. What’s strange about that is, Keselowski is known as one of the better superspeedway racers in the series. His seven wins on them rank him first among all active drivers right now. If things go his way and he avoids the “big ones” and can be there in the end, he most certainly would be pushing double digits in the win column.
“That’s been the hardest part for me,” Keselowski said in 2019. “I feel we’ve been good enough to win it multiple times. We get caught up in somebody else’s wreck or problem. I think you see that a lot.
“Besides the luck factor, first things first, you got to be running at the end of that race. For whatever reason, I think maybe because it’s the first race of the year, maybe because it’s one of the biggest races of the year, I’m not entirely sure, but the Daytona 500 has traditionally been a race of very high attrition. Getting to the end has been very difficult for us.
“It’s probably kept us from winning it at least once or twice because, like I said earlier, I think we’ve had the car to do it. I think that’s a big part of why it’s so hard to win, the attrition factor, just surviving it to begin with.
“Again, of course, it is a difficult racetrack. This time of year, Florida is a lot hotter than most parts of North America, but this time of year it seems to be one of those racetracks that you practice and you qualify, then the race day, for whatever reason, the track temp goes way up, the cars slide around a lot more, chaos ensues. Trying to survive to the end for me is the biggest part.
“The races we have survived till the end, we have ran really well and been in a position to win. Hopefully that’s the case for us this year. I feel confident if I can be there at the end, we can win the race.”
He wrecked with teammate Joey Logano while going for the lead in Turn 3 on the final lap last year.
Despite saying that, they’ve struggled during Daytona Speedweeks though.
Keselowski for example, he’s had 33 career Cup Series starts during Speedweeks. In those races, he’s won just once.
He just doesn’t have the results or luck at that.
“It’s something I thought a lot about,” said Keselowski. “There’s a couple thoughts on my mind. Before last season I had never really won a major NASCAR race. I won the championship, done a lot of those things, which is certainly great. I hadn’t won a major. (2018) after winning Darlington and Indianapolis, gosh, the thrill from that.
“But Daytona is, of course, the 500, one major I don’t have. I feel like it’s a race we’ve been competitive at. We had opportunities to win it. For a number of reasons, it hasn’t come together, which is sometimes unsettling. People ask me all the time, What race is the one that got away? It’s the 500, has been so far. I want to change that.
“Opportunities are in front of us. I feel like if I could win the Daytona 500, it would be the biggest win of my career. I’m ready to do it. I still have a good understanding of what it’s going to take to do it. It’s just a matter of kind of putting the whole race together from my perspective, from the team’s perspective as well, then not having any bad luck.”
In the Duels, eight of his 12 starts have seen him finish outside of the top 10. In the Daytona 500, he has 10 finishes outside of the top 10 in 12 tries.
Other than the Clash, he’s struggled during Speedweeks.
Larson is another one. He’s the defending Cup Series champion but is 0-for-8 in the Daytona 500. Only five times has the reigning Cup Series champion came down to Daytona the next February and actually won the Daytona 500. The last time that it actually happened was in the year 2000. Its only happened twice since 1978 overall.
It’s not likely to happen again this weekend as Larson is like Truex on superspeedway’s. He’s never had a top five in 29 superspeedway starts before. He did finish 10th in this race a year ago, but also has led just 30 total laps in 29 superspeedway starts in the Cup Series over his career.
So, who does it? Do we see a fluke winner, Hamlin taking a fourth or one of these champions that have been shutout of Daytona lore let through the door? We’ll find out Sunday.
Credit: DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 10: Pole winner Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, and second place winner William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrate in Victory Lane after qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 10, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Can Hendrick Motorsports Get Back To Daytona 500 Glory?
Last year was supposed to be different. Last year was supposed to be the time that Hendrick Motorsports flexed their muscles for the entire Daytona Speedweeks. See, HMS has been a force early on during the annual February trip to the World Center of Speed. Since 2013, they’ve won six Duels as well to go along with six poles in the last seven years.
They’ve only won two Daytona 500’s during that span. Both occurring in back-to-back years in 2013 and again in 2014. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove his No. 88 Chevrolet into victory lane following a lengthy rain delay that 2014 night, never in a million years did I not expect HMS to be back over the next seven years.
That’s why 2021’s edition of Speedweeks was supposed to be different. They were going to come down here with a vengeance. With a similar package to the one last year, they knew that the speed would be there for qualifying.
They decided to spend extra time between the 2020 Daytona 500 and last year’s on working on their “race” cars. Following years of good alone speed but bad handling cars in the draft, they’ve massaged them the best that they could to bring down four really good hot rods to the 2.5-mile ova.
“We definitely focused a lot on qualifying,” said crew chief Greg Ives last Speedweeks.
They certainly did. William Byron said it best during qualifying, “he was fast.” Alex Bowman’s pole for last year’s Daytona 500 was his second in four years here.
“We felt like that going into tomorrow’s race (the Duels) that the track was going to have a lot of grip so we could trim out the car a little bit more than normal,” Ives continued. “And securing that front row starting spot is a big deal.
“I think with the impound qualifying, it’s a decision. It’s a decision whether or not to put your car in race trim and have some type of focus more on how the car is going to be balanced and handle in the draft.
“For the Daytona 500 for us it’s a marquee race that you want to get the pole. There’s obviously a special reason why first and second are locked into the race and don’t have to — I wouldn’t say necessarily worry about the 150s, but you have your starting spot, you understand where your pit stall is going to be, you can kind of perfect and get a calm and understanding of where you have to get in the box, get out, and maybe that tenth of a mile per hour better down pit road is going to help you come out first.”
Bowman, has never started off the front row in four Daytona 500 starts with Hendrick Motorsports. He just also hasn’t turned them into results in the race either.
“Yeah, for me it’s been an interesting couple years driving for HMS in the 500 obviously from the front row every year, have had extremely fast race cars,” Bowman said of no wins despite good starting spots for this race. “It’s like we make it through every crash until that last one. We go all day, we miss crashes that we probably shouldn’t miss, and then a crash that we probably should miss we get caught up in.
“It’s been frustrating to not get a great finish here in the 500. Obviously we’ve had some other superspeedway success, and we want to win this deal. This is the Daytona 500. Everybody wants to win this deal. We’ve just got to get through the whole race. We just haven’t been able to get through the whole race, and it hasn’t ever really been our fault. We’ve always had great driving race cars, fast race cars, led laps, but just got to get to the end. I feel like if we do that we’re going to have a shot at it.
“But yeah, it’s a really hard race to win. So many things have to go right. Your day has to go so well, and it’s hard. It’s tough to do.
“It’s hard to do no matter where you start. I don’t think any of our previous 500 runs have really even been influenced from where we start, so just got to get to the end, and if we do that, I know we’ll have a chance.”
William Byron qualified second last year for an HMS lockout. Neither driver finished in the top 25.
Despite the qualifying speed the last several years with six poles in the last seven tries, they’ve not won. Can that change this weekend?