NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Daytona 500

Can Denny Hamlin Pick Up A 4th Daytona 500 Crown?

Denny Hamlin has won everything minus a championship. Can he further join racing lore on Sunday? 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.

But, all of those past successes came in the Gen 6 car. Does the new Next Gen car take away his advantage?

“I just think I have a good understanding of the air here and how it moves around the walls,” said Hamlin. “Talladega is different. If you look at our results, we haven’t won as much at Talladega, but we’ve been pretty good. Here, there is just something about – whatever it is – the banking or the width of the track, height of the walls or something that I just kind of know where those little pockets of air are it seems like that are a little bit better.

“We have a new car now and it’s going to move around a little bit different and we will probably be learning just like everyone else will be this weekend. I don’t know that the advantage really will be as big as what it was in the past.”

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 and if so, what would that mean to him in doing so?

Should We Move Start Time Back To Noon?

How long are we going to keep doing this? I wrote about this topic in my Daytona 500 recap last year. How long are we going to keep appeasing the west coast viewers before enough is enough? Was the 2.8 rating for the Daytona 500 going to be it?

That was a record low by the way.

I get why some may say, ‘well the race drew a 4.7 initially before the rain delay. I get that. But, the 2020 race was a 6.26 during the same Sunday slot and the 2019 and 2018 races were a tick above a 5. I guess you could credit the 2020 race to President Trump being there and all the hype and build up to why it opened at a 6.26 for the start of the 62nd Daytona 500, but this number is disappointing for a number of reasons.

First, only 30k were even allowed into the track last year. In 2020, all 101,500 grandstand seats were sold out and there were thousands in the infield. You could argue that almost 100k less fans were at last year’s race than 2020 and the number still went down.

Then you had a ton of buildup for last year’s race too. It wasn’t as strong as 2020 but it was stronger than 2019 and before. There’s a lot of positive energy in the NASCAR world and for this race to flop on TV like it did, well it doesn’t bode well.

So what happens moving forward?

The momentum is as big as ever right now coming back to Speedweeks. The Clash drew a massive rating. But, what will Daytona pull in this timeslot?

The obvious fix is moving this race back to a Noon start. That’s the best option for everyone involved. I don’t know why I need to keep saying this and I hear their reasoning on why it’s later, but this is getting ridiculous. Yet again, a later start time nearly cost us a scheduled race. If the Daytona 500 started at Noon ET the last two years, then by time the lightning then later rain got here, we’d be almost done with the event.

The estimated time of this race is around 3-hours and 38-minutes. If we pushed the green flag up to 12:05 p.m. ET, then this race was going to end somewhere around 3:45 p.m. ET. a year ago.

We went red for the lightning delay at…3:26 p.m. ET.

While I get the notion that the race could end early due to rain, at least we’re close. I mean, we all know the intensity levels ramp up to new levels with weather in the area. This could have been another chaotic ending to the checkered.

I know that they say that they do this for the west coast viewer because it’s an afternoon start not morning out there, but if that was to truly increase ratings and viewership, then why aren’t the numbers higher? Cater to the west coast viewer and even without a rainout, the rating is still between a 4-5? They weren’t hitting 10 million viewers for a noon rainout last year. If west coast viewers were truly to add to the ratings, then we should easily pick up 10+ million viewers for a race like the Daytona 500.

We’re not because west coast viewers like their morning start times. Almost everyone that I’ve talked to or know from out west like the morning races or football games because they have the rest of their days to do whatever they want.

It’s time to move the start times back up, because how long are we going to temp this?

Plus, based off the last two years of numbers, will they start pulling the plug sooner on Sunday if it rains?

I think a lot of people tuned off at the rain delay last year and had a difficult time turning it back on.

First off, what about those fans that don’t have social media? How were they to know updates on the weather and the track drying process? How were they to know the race was going to restart a little past 9 p.m. ET? That turned some people away.

Also the late start time did as well. How many casual fans were going to watch a race that ends shortly after midnight?

I know the fans in attendance drastically dropped from the initial start to the restart. There was a big chunk of people that left and didn’t come back.

I think NASCAR doesn’t let this drag on in the future. They may just pull the plug early and allow people enough notice that they’ll be back the next day. I can point to the race got a 4.2 on the Monday rain out for 2020. It was a 2.8 in a rain delay to resume on the same day last year.

In hindsight, I bet NASCAR and Daytona would have been better to just postpone last year’s  Daytona 500 to Monday by the looks of it rather than ride out nearly a 6 hour rain delay. The ratings could have been higher.

It’s not ideal to the fans that are actually there, but TV stats prove otherwise for viewers at home.

Do Recent Winners Dilute Daytona 500 Lore Or Add To It?

The pay window was open and Michael McDowell cashed in on the final lap of last year’s 63rd annual Daytona 500. A 66-1 betting line makes him an underdog winner by definition. He’s a deserving winner though and one that should be actually be applauded. McDowell has always been a good superspeedway racer and always on the cusp of victory on them.

The stars finally aligned and was a stellar win for an all around good guy of the sport. Now saying that, does this win tarnish the Daytona 500 a bit or instead do the opposite — make it even greater?

Case for Tarnish

In the case of tarnishing it, the Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s Super Bowl. It’s their biggest race of the year. It’s an event to where legends of the sport are made. You have Petty, Earnhardt, Allison, Yarborough, Jarrett, Waltrip, Gordon, Johnson, Hamlin, etc all as winners. But, do fluke winners dilute this star studded list?

A Daytona 500 champion should be a special class of drivers. It’s like the Hall of Fame. You don’t just let anyone in that fraternity. Does the somewhat recent nature of what some consider fluke winners dilute this?

Out of the 63 year history of this race, we’ve had just eight drivers now earn their first career Cup win in it. Really, this all was predicated by the restrictor plate era. There were only nine drivers combined between the ‘500 and the ‘400 to notch their first career Cup victories at the World Center of Racing prior to the restricted air on these cars. There’s been 12 in the 33 years since, with three now coming in the last four seasons.

The thing is, out of the 21 first time Cup winners to occur in Daytona, 13 of which occurred during the ‘400. For the Daytona 500, the list is just Tiny Lund (1963), Mario Andretti (1967), Pete Hamilton (1970), Derrike Cope (1990), Sterling Marlin (1994, Michael Waltrip (2001), Trevor Bayne (2011) and now McDowell.

Lund, Andretti and Hamilton would make names for themselves. Hamilton only made 64 career Cup starts but he won four of them. Lund and Andretti don’t require further assessment.

Cope stole a win in 1990. He’d only win twice in 428 career Cup starts. Bayne, won in just his second career start in 2011 but hasn’t won in the 185 starts since. Waltrip, was 0-for-462 before his triumph. He did win another Daytona 500 and look vastly improved with DEI than he was before. Then you get McDowell who was 0-for-357 prior to his triumph.

Austin Dillon scored his second career victory in the Daytona 500. Kurt Busch earned his first and only superspeedway win a year prior.

Does this hurt the cause for the Daytona 500 winners fraternity? The races are being won by a more random nature than skill. My question is, does this dilute it?

“It’s been frustrating to not get a great finish here in the 500,” Alex Bowman said. “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.”

Brad Keselowski has seven points paying superspeedway wins, most among all drivers. He’s 0-for-12 in this race.

“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.”

Kyle Busch is 0-for-16. Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-17. Kyle Larson is 0-for-8.

“We’ll just keep going down in history of figuring out new ways to lose it,” Busch said in 2020.

Four of the last six years saw the winner lead only one lap, the final one. Five of the last six have seen a last lap pass for the win too. As Denny Hamlin said after last year’s race, he was “too far out front.”

He had the fastest car by a mile. He has the most skill in the field. He led 98 laps. Since when in racing is being too far in the lead a bad thing?

It is in superspeedway races though. You need drafting help to win them.

Also, does NASCAR wish that they didn’t throw the yellow out so quick a year ago now? Yes, it was a scary crash and I get the notion to throw the yellow out once we saw flames and chaos. In hindsight, everyone was okay and if the yellow doesn’t fly, Chase Elliott likely wins this race.

Doesn’t the defending series champion and three-time defending Most Popular Driver winning the Great American Race punch more weight than McDowell?

If the answer is yes, then doesn’t that answer the question of this topic? This is one of the only four races on the schedule to where literally everyone can win. Does that now deserve the praise of the biggest race if that’s the case?

The Case For It Adding To The Prestige

This piece is to just make you think so there’s no right or wrong answer to this. But, I can also make a case to where McDowell’s heroics last year add to the Daytona 500 lore too. The randomness nature of speedway racing makes winning here feel like you hit the lottery. That too can lead to an overwhelming feeling of joy because imagine your feeling if you did in fact hit the lottery personally.

That plus the race being dubbed the Daytona 500 gives you a large sense of joy. The fact that anyone can win this race and you have to be more lucky than anything else makes this overwhelmingly tougher to win. The four superspeedway races are the toughest races to win on the schedule as a result. Shouldn’t that punch weight too?

This race should be hard to win. It’s the biggest race. It shouldn’t be easy. That’s also why McDowell’s win should be praised. It shows how difficult it is to win here. The top drivers aren’t guaranteed a win and the levels the playing field for everyone.

Doesn’t that hold some merit?

Some of the greats have never won this race. It took Earnhardt 20 years of trying. Waltrip took almost two decades himself. Terry Labone finished 0-for-32. Rusty Wallace was 0-for-23. Mark Martin was 0-for-29. Tony Stewart ended 0-for-17. These are Hall of Famers.

Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-17 now. Kyle Busch is 0-for-16 and Brad Keselowski 0-for-12.

This club doesn’t just let anyone in is the point. McDowell earned his way in fair and square. That to me holds weight too.

“I think ‘wild card’ is a bit gimmicky because it’s not really true, but it is to some extent,” Denny Hamlin said. “We’ve seen a lot of first-time winners here which has all been really legit. I wouldn’t say Michael McDowell was a wild card winner because if you look at previous races, he’d been in the top 10 or top five pretty consistently. It wasn’t really an out of the blue shot there. But, in general, I just think I have a good understanding of the air here and how it moves around the walls. Talladega is different. If you look at our results, we haven’t won as much at Talladega, but we’ve been pretty good. Here, there is just something about – whatever it is – the banking or the width of the track, height of the walls or something that I just kind of know where those little pockets of air are it seems like that are a little bit better. We have a new car now and it’s going to move around a little bit different and we will probably be learning just like everyone else will be this weekend. I don’t know that the advantage really will be as big as what it was in the past.”

That’s why this is an interesting topic and I’m curious which side of the fence the race fans are on.

Will We See A Lot Of Crash Damage Again?

The last five years of Cup races at Daytona have been complete mayhem. Does the fact that we have a new car with limited spare parts calm this year’s version down?

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 in 2020. Last year saw 29 of 40 with crash damage.

Will Sunday produce as much carnage?

Out of 40 starters, the last five Daytona 500’s have seen 34, 31, 36, 34 and 29 cars collected in a crash at some point.

We’ve seen just one crash all Speedweeks. The Duels were tame. Does that mean a clean race?

“The 500 will be a lot different than this race,” Duels 1 winner Brad Keselowski said of comparing the Duels to the ‘500. “I think the big thing we’re noticing is as the pack increases the cars change pretty dramatically, and then of course on the 500, you’ll have the hotter temperatures because it’ll be during the day. Good Lord willing it doesn’t rain on us, which it looks pretty good for that. That’ll be a whole different set of circumstances that we’ll have to adjust to, but I think I’ve got a really solid team. Most of the team is from the 1 car last year, and they’re built on a really strong foundation. This is something to just keep going from.”

Odds are still higher for a crash than a win. You can’t ride around the top anymore as the preferred line like a defined conga line.

“The cars are built symmetrical. Last year’s car was built asymmetrical, and so this car is built symmetrical, and specifically how that affects it is when the cars were asymmetrical the side draft off the right side was really, really sensitive and the side draft off the left side was not sensitive at all — well, it was minimally sensitive,” Keselowski continued. “So you never really wanted to expose your right side. If somebody got underneath you, you could come back down and grab their right rear quarter panel and just stop them.

“So that naturally created this kind of gravitation towards the top lanes at all the plate tracks. With this car being symmetrical and that not being the case, I think the racing will be significantly better because that high lane freight train won’t be there.

“I felt like early in the race I was behind Ryan Blaney for a while early in the race, and I was ready to go, and he stayed calm, which was smart on his part, I guess. He stayed calm but I felt like we could have pushed and made the second lane work. I think all of us wanted to get through that pit stop and stretch our legs out and take it from there.”

The last three Daytona 500’s were fairly tame until the end in which chaos erupted often. I think this year’s will look the same to be honest. The drivers are all jacked ready to go but they also know that in order to win, they have to be there in the end.

This year won’t be any different. But, once you get to Lap 150…all bets are off.

Last Lap Pass For The Win?

All this chaos over the recent years have seen wild finishes. Five of the last six 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.

In 2020, Hamlin did it again with a last lap pass of Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney for the victory.

Last year, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano had a fiery crash in Turn 3 on the final lap which allowed Michael McDowell to triumph.

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.

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