DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Schools back in session in the NASCAR world. Sunday’s 64th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) marks the season opener in the NASCAR Cup Series. The thing is, 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.
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.
See, for a race of this magnitude, it’s odd in the sense that you know you have a far greater chance of a wreck here than winning. So, how do you approach something like this, especially with such a great unknown on what the race will run like?
Last year was a little more chaotic early but that’s because rain was coming. Due to that and a lengthy rain delay, a perfect storm took place where we went the entire duration of the final stage without a crash until the final lap.
The 2020 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.
But, that’s in the past. What about now? We have a brand new car that from what it sounds will race completely different than the other version.
Side draft is vastly different meaning the cars in the corners are way more sketchier than in years past. Plus, not only are speeds slower, the days of the high speed train forming a single file conga line type parade on the high line of the track are probably gone.
“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 said. “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.”
In saying that, it’s easier to lose the draft if you get too sideways or out of the throttle at some point trying to save your car. We saw it all week. Losing the draft is a very real thing to watch. So is pit strategy.
Just look further on how this affects races than the ending of last year’s Daytona 500. It was a perfect storm per say.
Denny Hamlin had the car to beat in that race. He led a race-high 98 of 200 laps and well on his way to becoming the first three-peat champion in the races 63 year history.
Then the final pit sequence happened.
The Toyota’s hit pit lane last among the three manufacturers. It cost them.
The Fords were lined up and the Toyota’s couldn’t get formed quick enough to stay ahead.
Hamlin, had too big of a lead over teammate Kyle Busch and neither were close enough to use each other as drafting help. The Ford train was coming and blew right by them with 25 laps-to-go.
“We were too far out front (on the final pit stop),” Hamlin said then. “We got on-and-off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack.”
The pack would go single file and run at the top of the banking all the way around until a few to go. There wasn’t enough energy built up for the Chevrolet’s or Toyota’s to make any ground. They knew it would take a lot for them to break up the five Ford’s up front.
If you go to the bottom line, you need enough cars to build some energy. There just wasn’t enough.
“I figured the Chevys would make a move from two or three to go, because they are not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth,” Hamlin continued. “I was able to gain some positions. I think I was 12th and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything. I hoped once I got to eighth as long as they make a move with two to go, I’m in the energy – in the area where I can make something happen. Dominant car, just a dominant car. Just one of those things that execute too good.”
How does this play into it? We know teammates will work together again as will manufacturers.
It happened in the Duels. The Chevys blinked first in the opening Duel. The Fords came a lap later. The Fords flipped ahead of them after.
If you have any sort of sloppiness during your pit stop, you honestly ruin it for the whole group. The larger the group of cars to draft with the more energy and speed you gain. By breaking a group up while another remained in form entering and exiting pit lane, well it doesn’t take a top engineer to know which group will cycle ahead.
So, with the ‘500 featuring several pits stops throughout the day, the ones who have the best efforts on and off pit road will be the ones who succeed the most in track position.
That leads to the main question of how many cars do we wad up? When you look at the box scores over the last five years, you’d see a lot of torn up equipment on there. The last five 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 and 29 of 40 were collected in this race the last two years.
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’ve been racing now. The tapered spacer debuted in 2019 but the 2020 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.
That’s why NASCAR had to make changes for the summer Daytona and Fall Talladega races last year. It was too extreme and in the name of safety, something had to be done.
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 six 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.
Hamlin though says that his advantage may be gone now though. All of his success came in the Gen 6 car. Now, the car racing on Sunday still smells of the new car aroma.
“In general, I just think I have a good understanding of the air here and how it moves around the walls,” Hamlin said. “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.”
Also, with this new aggressive style, it’s created some last lap mayhem as well. 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, Michael McDowell squeezed through a narrow hole when teammates Keselowski and Logano crashed entering Turn 3 while battling each other for the win.
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 Jr. said. “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. 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.
“Typically, you need to be at the front no matter what,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “It’s going to be two, three-wide so it’s hard to get through a lot of cars. But aside from that how we do it and how the draft works, what’s going to be the best position to be in and all of those things are yet to be seen.”
In saying this, does this new car lead to more parity coming on Sunday?
“Temper expectations on that,” Hamlin said. “The quote of level playing field is probably overused. Certainly, probably a tighter box from front to back but again it’s just teams find ways. If you look at single car runs yesterday, the same guys that have been on all of the poles have been the fastest. While technically you’re able to put the same parts off of his car on my car and my car on his car, what really has changed? Well, nothing really except maybe the motor is different and the body is different but they’re significantly faster. You’re still going to have the team’s resources to find a way to make the car faster than the teams that just bolt it together.”
His teammate Christopher Bell says that it could though but it all depends on if the old dog could be led to new tricks.
“It’s going to be interesting to see if any of the veterans struggle with being quote ‘set in their ways’ and then the young guys coming into this sport that don’t have all of that experience and those notes of years and years racing the Gen6 cars,” said Bell.” The cream is going to rise to the top. The best drivers are going to figure it out. The best teams are going to figure it out. One thing that we don’t know going into this season is what team is going to have the advantage. A lot of that is going to be setup induced, because as you mentioned, all the 40 teams have the same components so it’s going to be a matter of your engineers and crew chiefs figuring out the setups and the drivers figuring out driving techniques that make these cars go around the racetrack fast. We have a lot to learn and a simple rule change that came over from NASCAR about the skew. There is going to be a lot of those changes throughout the course of the year. We keep learning every time we hit the racetrack. I’m sure that is not going to be the last rules change. It’s going to be interesting to see which driver and team get the advantage the quickest.”
It’s still likely going to come down to teammates helping teammates and manufacturers helping manufactures just as we’ve seen all week and in every speedway race in recent memory. The thing is, sometimes having too at your disposal could be a potential problem. Same for too few.
“When it was only a few cars, we’d always complain that we didn’t have enough people,” Jones said. “That was always the issue of pitting by ourselves or doing that kind of thing where we don’t have enough cars and we couldn’t maintain the speed we need to. Now over here it’s almost the opposite issue. You’ve got so many cars, how is everyone going to work together? It’s just not possible. It’s a struggle either way. You have to find the right balance and settle in with the group you’re going to really work with and what you’re going to do to make that work. There’s just no way you can have that many cars working together. You have to keep your eyes open. If there’s a time where you can help a guy out that’s with your manufacturer, you kind of have to do that depending on the point in the race. It just goes both ways. It’s funny when you’re on both sides of it that there is such a different mentality each way. You have to do what you can do help out.”