A look back on the 2023 Daytona Speedweeks, my top 10 overall takeaways

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The 65th annual Daytona Speedweeks has come and gone with a flurry of activities and storylines to come out of the World Center of Racing. Here are my takeaways from this past week.

Speedweeks Just Keeps Getting Bigger and Bigger

Just when you think you can’t possibly fit more and more people into the Daytona International Speedway, this past week blew me away when looking at the sheer magnitude of the attendance.

The Truck Series race was the largest crowd since 2011. A day later, the Xfinity Series opener was the biggest since the remodel (2015). A day after that, the Daytona 500 was a complete sell out. For the 8th straight year, all 101,500 grandstand tickets were sold. However, all parking, camping, suites, fan zone and general admission areas were too making this the biggest Speedweeks in well over a decade.

Just 1 Season Opener Ended At The Finish Line

When you think of Daytona, you think of edge of your seat, pulse pounding, heart wrenching close finishes. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen this year.

Among the four season openers between ARCA, Trucks, Xfinity and Cup, just the ARCAR race on Saturday saw the race decided at the finish line. The other three ended prematurely.

Friday night’s Truck race ended under red flag due to rain. The Xfinity and Cup races ended under caution due to massive pile ups on their respective final laps.

I get it, a crash on the backstretch or even Turn 2 would give drivers plenty of time to get to the start/finish line and get slowed down by time they returned to the crash site.

However, with a car upside down on Saturday and safety at risk for both crashes in each day in general, people forget that NASCAR has to dispatch safety vehicles to get to the crash scene as soon as possible and it’s hard to do so with race cars still circling the track at speeds in excess of 180 mph.

As much as NASCAR wants to end the race under green, it’s sometimes not possible.

Redemption Victories Lead To Feel Good Stories

It was fun to tell the story of Greg Van Alst on Saturday. A day later, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got redemption via a Daytona 500 crown. Each were incredibly fun and feel good moments during Speedweeks.

For Van Alst, the Indiana native moved two decades ago to Florida to pursue a NASCAR path. It unfortunately, didn’t work out. Now, 22 years later, he won at Daytona.

“Guys like me aren’t supposed to win here,” screamed Greg Van Alst at the start finish line of the Daytona International Speedway. “I worked my ass off to get here and we did it! This is for all the short track racers out there that don’t think you can get to this left.”

Van Alst moved back to Indiana after that failed venture and raced some dirt sprint races. His neighbor had a car. One night, Van Alst flipped and wrecked pretty badly. That was a Friday. He knew a new car would cost $1,200 to race again. He had $1,250 in his bank account.

He withdrew it all and left the $50 to continue racing.

He spent the next few days struggling to get that car together. He was determined to not miss a race. He had a concussion, and two blood shot black eyes. Somewhere mid week, the concussion was not allowing him to think clearly. He got frustrated and lost his cool. He then decided that he had to be done racing.

“I remember telling my wife I was done,” he says. “We had a six month old daughter and I realized in that moment that what I was doing was stupid and that my dream of racing in the big leagues was done. I told her I wasn’t going to race again until I could do it right.”

He started a fencing company. Put a post on Craigslist and off he went. Racing was in his rear view mirror.

He was also working a factory job for a medical supply company at night and fencing by day to make ends meet. However, that racing dream despite being in the rear view mirror, never went away.

While his second child was on the way, he decided to get a go-kart and try it again. Then, another set back. Injuries from a wreck at Winchester many years before required neck fusion surgery, which caused him to sit out most of the 2013 season.

He slowly worked his way back into it and by 2019, was the ARCA CRA Super Series Champion.

2020 he decided to try to get to Daytona at least one more time. He owed it to himself.

“I started a fence company, not because I wanted to, because I had to,” he says. “Its the only thing I found that I was good enough that people would pay me to do. My fence company got me here.”

The test went well. He knew with a second chance at this, if he worked a little harder, a little smarter, then maybe he could make his dream come true of racing at Daytona.

Then came a pandemic. He wasn’t about to let that stop his dream.

“In the midst of a pandemic, I put my head down and made work happen. While others were letting workers go and laying off employees, I hired. If the phone rang I answered it. I put in early mornings and late nights. All to try and fuel that Daytona dream.

“December 2020. Plans are in place. We are racing at Daytona. I have help from a business owner that I met by doing a fence for him.”

Van Alst came back in 2021. Yes, 20 years after starting, he came back. He finished 29th. Last year, he was 22nd. This year, he had a strong No. 35 Chevrolet. A self owned one at that and won.

A day later, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., another dirt guy, scored Daytona glory by winning the Daytona 500. Stenhouse had a tumultuous career with Roush Fenway Racing. He wrecked so many cars early on while racing for them in the Xfinity Series, team owner, Jack Roush, made him work on the cars himself so he could maybe see the value of taking care of the equipment. It took a vote by employees on whether to continue on with him or not.

They never gave up and all voted to keep him.

Stenhouse won back-to-back series championships and moved up to a Cup seat. Four winless seasons left him feeling the effects of losing. Then came a multi-win year in 2017. The confidence was back. He unfortunately followed that up with a pair of winless seasons again. 2 wins in 256 starts at RFR with points finishes of 19th, 27th, 25th, 21st, 13th, 18th and 23rd respectively forced RFR to basically throw him to the curb.

Stenhouse thought he had a multi-year deal left with them through the 2023 season. RFR found a clause to where that wasn’t the case and let him go late in the 2019 silly season cycle.

JTG had an opening and off Stenhouse went. He won the season opening Daytona 500 pole for them in his first race in 2020. Unfortunately, that was the highlight. 3 top 5 finishes and only 4 top 10’s led to a 24th place finish in the final standings. A decline with 1 top 5 and 2 top 10’s were in store in 2021. He was 22nd in points.

This was seemingly starting to feel like the end in NASCAR for the Mississippi native. Just 1 more top 5 last year with 5 top 10’s left him 26th in points. How much longer would JTG Daugherty Racing put up with these results?

“We didn’t give up on Ricky because personally, I feel like he’s got the spirit of a winner and I like what he represents as a person,” Jodi Geschickter said. “I see flashes of brilliance in what he does. I felt like he could do it. I felt like he could get the job done, and I never questioned that.”

Her husband, Tad, added that they have 18 corporate partners and there are not many drivers in this series that would do the work that Ricky Stenhouse does every day behind the scenes that no one sees. From appearances in front of grocery stores to trips to corporate headquarters. He’s a workhorse, and someone that believes in you that hard, you’re going to keep believing back in them, too.

“We don’t quit,” Jodi chimed in. “We’re tenacious. We don’t quit. We dig in.

“I had a very strong family background that taught me that and they instilled that in me. You do have to raise questions in your mind and say, is this the right path. You have to be smart about it.

“But you just don’t quit. You get the information, you try to make good decisions, and you just don’t quit.”

Mike Kelley was already with the team to help bring them up to speed. He was Stenhouse Jr’s crew chief with Roush. He stepped in to be Stenhouse Jr’s crew chief again for this season. He sees what the organization has in terms of giving him everything that he needs to win races. He just needs his driver to see that and get his confidence back.

“This morning when I woke up, it was at 3:30, and I’ve been coming here for a long time,” he said. “I think it’s like my 27th year coming here, and I’ve been fortunate to win the 500 one time before.

“But just something this morning felt different. Kind of how our week started. I kept telling myself, if we just keep working on our car and keep believing in ourselves, maybe something will work out.

“When I woke up this morning I told myself – and this is something I used to do for Ricky when we had tough days in the Xfinity car – I just wrote him a note that only he would see, and it was on top of the roll bar in front of him, and it said, “we believe.”

“That’s been our team’s motto all off-season is we believe. We’re a small team. We’re not a super powerhouse team. We’re small. I think there’s 40, 45 employees that work in our shop every day. But I have 45 people that believe in what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to get people to believe in Ricky Stenhouse again. We’re trying to get people to believe in myself and the vision that we have.

“That’s all it was, a simple note on a piece of duct tape that I wrote that said “we believe, and we believe today,” and I stuck it up there above his head.”

Stenhouse felt that calming presence and believed again in himself. He overcame a late race speeding penalty to win the Great American Race snapping a 199-race winless drought and giving JTG Daugherty Racing their first win in the last 266 races themselves.

“This is huge for us,” Stenhouse admitted. “I think it was really big for myself. Not winning since 2017, having struggles, ups and downs, to have somebody like Mike, who when he took over the reins as soon as the season was over, it was, hey, I know you can still get this done. We’ve just got to give you the right opportunities. We know if we give you cars capable of running up front, you can do that. We’ve proven that.

“I felt like his leadership throughout the whole shop is still not even — yeah, we won here at the Daytona 500, but I still think the fruits of that is going to come later on from his leadership in the shop and making sure — most of these guys that we have are the same guys we had last year. But he believes in myself more than I do, I think, and that’s huge.

“I feel like that’s what separates crew chiefs these days, is that team aspect and leading your guys and getting the most out of them. We all have similar equipment, and that wasn’t always the case in this sport, so now it’s little nuances like that that help propel a race team forward.

“We all felt confident this off-season, but it’s special to do it with Mike. We accomplished so much together. We’ve gone through ups and downs. He’s been in the sport a long time. He’s a Cup champion as a car chief with Kurt Busch. I think he’s won this race before, not as a crew chief, obviously, and our Nationwide Series Championships and race wins were something that we’re super proud of.

“But we know those were 10 years ago and we need to make some new memories.”

Now, the confidence is back and he’s already looking forward to the rest of the season ahead. While some may consider this a fluke win, Stenhouse says that this team is ready to compete.

“Every morning I get up and I put on my shoes at peace and I go out,” she said. “But make no mistake, this is a battle. The competition in this series is fierce and it’s serious, and we are blessed to have the partners that we have and the sponsors that we have. But it’s a battle and it’s a fight, and it’s hard.

“It’s not for lack of effort. We’ve come really close, so I try not to get our hopes up. Tonight when we were close and it was the last lap and there’s another caution, I just think, dear Lord, please, no. We need it. We need it, and we need it now. We need it tonight. We need it to happen. And it did.

“We work hard. The guys do their jobs. We’re prepared. We’re prepared every day. We have the support of Chevrolet and we have sponsors that stick with us, and we’re truly blessed. I’m just happy to be here.

“Doesn’t really answer the question, but it’s how I’m feeling right now.”

Speedweeks Winners All Deserving

While some may look at Stenhouse Jr’s win as a fluke, this has been a long time coming. It’s not like he’s a bad speedway racer. He’s just been overly aggressive and more times than not, has found trouble. However, all three of his career wins have come at either Daytona or Talladega and he notes that this car, had three straight top 10 finishes between 2017, 2018 and 2019, won the pole in 2020 and is in victory lane in 2023.

It’s not like the other races were flukes either.

Zane Smith backed up his Truck win in 2022 with a win in the rain shortened race on Friday night. Austin Hill has quickly become one of the best racers in the Xfinity Series in regards to superspeedway’s. Saturday evening was Hill’s second straight Speedweeks win in NASCAR’s version of AAA. Furthermore, Hill has notched 3 wins and a runner-up in 6 superspeedway starts between last season and Saturday.

“I think you’re always learning,” Hill said of this success on these tracks. “I think it doesn’t matter who you are. Denny Hamlin, doesn’t matter. Denny Hamlin is really good. He’s won a lot of Daytona 500s and stuff. Other drivers that have won the 500, I feel like they’re always learning. I feel like every superspeedway race that you run races a little differently than the next.

“I think a lot of it depends on the way the wind is, the way the air temp is, that type of thing. It just sets yourself up differently on how the draft is going to work that night.

“I think it changes throughout the race, as well. Those things that I learned throughout Stage 1 that I tried to apply in Stage 2 and they didn’t really work the same way, and then when I got into Stage 3, they kind of worked how Stage 1 was working. You’re just constantly learning each and every race.

“But I can sit here and say that I have a ton of confidence on these superspeedways. RCR builds such fast Bennett Chevrolets, and I can sit here and say that when we went in the race today, even though we had our radio issues, we had our issues we had at the start of the race, when we drove from the back to inside the top 10 within seven laps, I was like, man, this is our race to lose. We were so fast. I could make moves whenever I wanted to and do things that other guys couldn’t.

“It’s fun when you have a car like that.

“I think a lot of it is that I just react to what the lines are doing, how they’re generated, the energy in each line, how the air is working. There’s a lot that you can do with the air when you’re behind somebody versus when you’re in front of somebody, and I think a lot of guys in the truck level, Xfinity level, are still learning that, and I think that it’s just kind of came almost a little natural to me because it’s not like I’ve sat here and studied superspeedway races more than any other race that I do. I watched the race from last year one time before racing this weekend, and that was this morning over a cup of coffee.

“When I watched it, I’m like, oh, I didn’t take a whole lot away from it. I just have the understanding when I get in the race to make the aggressive moves when I have to and know when to not make the aggressive move and when to ride and when to stay in the lane and what line is moving. I just feel like I have a good understanding of that, and I don’t have no rhyme or reason why that is.”

When Will Heavy Hitters Win?

The last 3 Daytona 500 winners are Michael McDowell (1 win in 430 career starts), Austin Cindric (1 win in 44 career starts) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (3 wins in 365 career starts). 2 of the 3 drove for Front Row Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing.

In saying that, it’s the reason why guys like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are so frustrated to see them celebrating while each are past champions of this sport and been shut out in NASCAR’s version of their Super Bowl.

“Just used to it,” Busch said outside the infield care center on Sunday evening. “Come down here every year to just find out when and where I’m going to crash and what lap I come out of the care center.

“Who won? I don’t even know who lucked into it.”

Keselowski is in the same boat. He led the most laps (42) in Sunday’s Daytona 500. He was leading the race with four to go. He didn’t win…again. Busch passed Keselowski on Lap 196 and was well on his way to scoring his first Daytona 500 in 18 tries. However, Daniel Suarez spun a lap later and brought out the caution, sending this race into OT.

Busch and Keselowski ended up in the same Lap 212 crash and was scored 19th (Busch) and 22nd (Keselowski) respectively.

“I think this is the first time I led Lap 200, so I wish it was 1998 rules,” a dejected Busch continued.

Busch is now 0-for-18. Keselowski 0-for-14.

Busch, a two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, approached the dais Wednesday during DAYTONA 500 Media Day, he noticed a lottery ticket next to the microphone—a leftover item from the earlier announcement of PowerBall as an official NASCAR partner.

“Better chance of winning that than the DAYTONA 500,” Busch quipped, mindful of his 20.24 average finish in the Great American Race.

He’s only had one top five here since 2017 too and just three of his 18 starts in the Great American Race resulting in a top five finish.

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.

He’s now led the most laps (330) of all drivers who’ve never won the ‘500.

For Keselowski, he just mentioned on Saturday how much the third and fourth cars can control the ending of these races, not the leader.

He led 67 laps in last year’s race and was in the hunt at the end. The year prior, he was running second on the final lap before a crash just one mile from the finish with teammate Joey Logano. Those haunt him. This one likely will too, especially for the fact that RFK Racing was sitting 1-2 with four laps left in regulation.

“The DAYTONA 500, to me over the years, has probably been more focused on the speed of the cars and the willingness of the drivers to make bold moves,” Keselowski said. “I think, accordingly, I haven’t been able to close the 500 out. We’ve had really fast cars and caught some really poor breaks and then there have been some races where I felt like I didn’t execute at a high enough level. I think there’s probably a little mixture of all those things on why I haven’t been able to win this race.”

Keselowski has 37 points paying in NASCAR’s premiere series. 6 of them have occurred at Talladega. He’s also won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in July of 2016 as well as the Clash in 2019 here plus a Duel win a year ago.

It’s just that the ‘500 has escaped him. If he can get there on Sunday, it will complete the cycle of crown jewel’s on NASCAR’s schedule.

“It’s the last crown jewel I don’t have,” Keselowski added. “I’ve got the championship, the Brickyard [at Indianapolis] and the Southern 500 (at Darlington, S.C.) and the Bristol Night races and the Talladegas. Those mean the world to me, they really do, but the DAYTONA 500 is still the biggest race of the year no matter how you look at it and it still stings to not have it. It stings to have been so close in so many different ways.”

They’re not the only ones with long winless streaks here. Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-19. Yes, he swept both stages last year, but he also still finished 13th too in doing so. He’s 0-for-74 in drafting races if you include both Atlanta events last season and has scored just 6 top 5’s in those 74 starts. He has 3 top 5’s in 36 Daytona tries at that.

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.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 19: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series 65th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Then you have the Hendrick Motorsports head scratcher.

Qualifying trim is one thing. Race pace is purely another. That’s the thing that’s puzzled the Hendrick Motorsports camp when they’ve come down to the Daytona Speedweeks for much of the last decade. They know how to qualify here. They just struggle to finish.

I’ve written about it in each of the last three years now on if Hendrick Motorsports could finally turn around those top starting spots and make them into some Daytona 500 success. Unfortunately, they still haven’t.

While HMS has won 7 poles in the last 8 years to go along with 6 of those being front row sweeps, they’ve yet to win the Great American Race in that span too.

Alex Bowman did score his first Daytona top 5 in 14 starts and became the first pole sitter to score a top 5 finish since Bill Elliott in 2001, but at the end of the day, he didn’t win.

Bowman led four times for 12 laps and dominated early, but by being in the clean air up front, he was wasting more gas than the others. So, on his first stop, he’d need more fuel and drop from 1st to 26th. He’d finish 28th in the opening stage. He’d rebound back up to 2nd at the second stage break but would make an incredible save on Lap 138. He’d run most of the rest of the way outside the top 15 before charging back up for a top five in the end.

“It’s the Daytona 500, and we know how to crash some stuff,” Bowman said. “It was just super aggressive and a lot of pushing. You know you have to do it and sometimes they go wrong and crashes happen. Just proud of my team and glad we were able to make it out clean. Just starting the year off strong on the right foot. Not only here but at the Coliseum as well. I enjoy California. It’s been hit or miss for me, but looking forward to getting back there.”

Second place starter Kyle Larson restarted on the front row for the final restart, but was shuffled to the middle lane on the final lap. Unfortunately, he crashed in Turn 2 while doing so and would drop to an 18th place finish. Larson has never won a superspeedway race and has just 1 top 5 in 36 starts on them at that. He was 32nd and 37th at Daytona last year.

The finishing positions of the HMS pole winners since this streak began in 2015?

5th, 37th, 11th, 24th, 26th, 24th and 5th respectively.

Not ideal.

The second place starters when they’ve started there?

33rd, 37th, 14th, 17th, 21st, 35th, 32nd and 18th respectively.

William Byron was third quickest in qualifying on Saturday and also in the hunt towards the end. However, he was collected in that Lap 202 crash and would finish 34th. His Daytona 500 finishes? 23rd, 21st, 40th, 26th, 38th and now 34th respectively.

“I got into (Kyle Busch), and we just got off center somehow and I wrecked him,” said Byron. “Once he got off center, I tried to back up but I had (Brad Keselowski) in the back of me trying to push as well. Yeah, unfortunate because we were trying to put ourselves in the right position and we were in a really good spot there with about two to go and running third before that caution.  It seemed like when they did the teammate restart it really checked up the bottom lane and I had made my bed of trying to take that lane to have momentum off of turn two. That was unfortunate.”

Chase Elliott also crashed on Lap 117 and was scored in 38th at the end.  Elliott’s other Daytona 500 finishes are – 37th, 14th, 33rd, 17th, 17th, 2nd and 10th respectively. 

 “It looked like some guys got tangled up, upfront,” Elliott said. “Those of us in the back were just scattering to kind of miss it. It looked like (Kyle Larson) and (Erik Jones) kind of went to the apron. By the time we got slowed up, they were coming back across the track and I was the lucky winner to get there first. It’s a bummer. Long ways to go. Hate to end the day, but it is what it is.”

That’s 3 badly damaged race cars for HMS in one race.  

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 16: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 16, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Duels Continue To Lack Punch, Become Ford’s Playground In Predictable 150-mile qualifiers

When NASCAR envisioned this new platform for open cars, I don’t think they envisioned it going the way that it did on Thursday night. Neither race came down to that last lap pass for an open spot into the Great American Race. While each provided some good finishes up front, neither had much to sit back and cheer about either.

Chandler Smith sped on his pit stop near mid race of the first Duel. He was a lap down the rest of the way. Conor Daly fell a lap down early and still made it as the only real action came with that Lap 42 crash that collected Austin Hill and Travis Pastrana.

However, Chandler Smith threw his bid away by speeding on pit road. Hill gave up his spot by riding in the draft in harms way for which all he had to do was basically cross the finish line. Instead, he was in the garage at race end and both Georgia natives didn’t make the race for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Luckily the second Duel ramped up the intensity or this night was shaping up to be an anticlimactic one.

The first Duel went caution free with just four lead changes among 3 drivers. The second Duel packed much more entertainment in the 60 lap race. 15 lead changes among 6 drivers including 3 of which in the final five laps.

Still, in the end, familiar faces were all up front.

Joey Logano has 3 Duel wins in 5 years to go along with nine straight top 10 finishes. Furthermore, he’s actually finished in the top four in nine of the last 11 years at that.

Aric Almirola has two wins in three years.

Christopher Bell has a pair of runner-ups in the last three years including a 5th place finish in the middle of that.

Ryan Blaney has seven top six finishes in nine Duel tries.

Austin Cindric won last year’s Daytona 500 and was second in his Duel the last two years too.

Chris Buescher won last year and fourth this time around. His teammate, Brad Keselowski, has 4 top 10 finishes in his last 10 Duels, however 3 of the 4 have occurred in the last four years. He was first last year and third this year.

Michael McDowell was 9th, 2nd and 5th in his last three tries.

Kevin Harvick has eight top six finishes in his last nine tries in these qualifying races including a third-place effort in 2017, a runner-up in 2018, a win in 2019, third in 2021 and sixth on Thursday.

Bubba Wallace was runner-up in 2021 and seventh last year.

Martin Truex Jr. has 4 top 8 finishes in his last 5 Duel tries.

Kyle Larson has never won a superspeedway race and has just 1 top 5 in 35 starts on them at that. However, Larson does have 8 top eight finishes in 10 Duel tries including a third place result in 2020.

Chase Elliott has won two Duels and has scored a top eight finish in seven of his eight tries.

Furthermore, a day after the Chevrolet cars sent another message during Wednesday’s qualifying, the Ford dominated the Duels. Joey Logano won Race 1. Aric Almirola won Race 2. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. That’s nine Ford wins in the Duel in the last 11 tries including five straight.

Not only are they winning, they’re dominating too. In Duel 1, Ford’s went 1-3-4-5-6-8-9. In Duel 2, they went 1-2-4-7. Last year, they went 1-2-3-4 in Duel 1 and 1-2-3 in Duel 2.

They led 26 of 60 laps in Duel 1 last year and 50 of 60 in Duel 2. On Thursday night, they led 59 of 60 laps in the first Duel and 21 of 60 in Duel 2.

Combined, that’s 65% (156-for-240) of laps led over the last two years as well as 14 of the potential 20 top five positions.

As far as some fixes, you can move this race back to the day to make it more special for starters. As a night race, you don’t get much data to use for the ‘500 itself. Another fix would be to shorten it back to a pair of 125-mile qualifying races. That extra 25 miles does nothing.

Duels Are Made For Learning However

While you can’t take much data from the Duels and apply it to the Great American Race (one is a day race and the other at night), you can time your moves and learn something strategy wise that you can apply for the win on Sunday.

It happened last year for Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney. They made moves in their Duel together to which they used to win the Daytona 500 three days later. Joey Logano also made a move last year that didn’t work. He knew if put in that situation again this year, like he was, that he knew what to do to be better.

It clearly paid off.

“Well, yeah, duh. Hey, that’s why I always say, making mistakes are okay as long as you learn from them,” Logano said. “I made a massive mistake last year. I felt like an idiot. But being able to have another chance at it, that’s what life is about. If you don’t take risks and be willing to make mistakes, you don’t really learn.

“I learned a valuable lesson last year and was able to just be smart about the way I worked the draft there at the end. Felt confident. I knew what blocks I was going to be able to throw and which ones I wouldn’t, and you kind of seen that into Turn 3 where I just let the 20 have it. There was no sense of trying to make that block.

“I learned some valuable lessons and it worked out. Maybe last year wasn’t so bad after all.

“Absolutely I learned things. Any time you get on the racetrack these days, it’s very valuable. We don’t have much time on the racetrack anymore. We didn’t practice yesterday, so we’ve not made a lap. So you fire off on the first lap and you’re bumping and banging and you’re like, hope she drives okay when you get there.

“Yeah, definitely learned some things. I want to go back and talk to Paul tonight and come up with a game plan for practice tomorrow and how we can tune our car in a little bit better. It’s not bad. Obviously it’s fast. Handles pretty good. Takes a push pretty well. Just kind of little things that you can fine tune, which is a nice place to be, right?”

For Aric Almirola, he says the Duels are a double edged sword. There’s usually one Duel that’s tame. The other is overly aggressive. Which one does he prefer to be in?

The tame one gets you to the finish and with a clean Daytona 500 car, but how much do you learn? The chaotic one is a risk that you could potentially end up in a backup car.

“That’s a good point,” said the Duel 2 winner. “Yeah, I think when it’s more aggressive and more racy, like we’ll actually have Sunday, I think that there is more learning to be had in that, absolutely.

“When it gets really strung out and calm and tame and there’s only five, six, seven cars and you’re running single file, you don’t really learn a lot. You don’t really know what you have for handling and when your car is put in a bad situation.

“I learned a lot tonight about how my car drives in certain situations, how it drives when I’m pushing, how it drives when I’m getting pushed, how it drives when I’m getting pushed or pushed in the outside line versus the inside lane, when I pull out really aggressively to make a move, like all those things, I have a really good understanding of what I have, where if the race is relatively tame and calm, you don’t get that information.

“That’s a good point. I didn’t think about that. But from a driver’s standpoint, it is a little bit more nerve-racking when you’re getting shoved around and you’re like, man, this is just the Duel. I don’t want to tear my race car up in the Duel. Our car is so fast, you want to make sure you get it to Sunday.”

Keep Impound From Qualifying Through Duels

One trend that NASCAR has gone away from is the amount of practice time allotted during race weekend’s. Most races have 1 short session preceding qualifying. For Daytona, they had just 2 sessions during Speedweeks, 1 on Friday evening and the other on Saturday morning.

By that time, those sessions are typically pointless. Friday you go out to be sure your adjustments from the start of the week are confirmed and the ride heights set, but Saturday is just a risk that most aren’t willing to take. Just 16 of the 40 starters took a lap on Saturday morning.

Many drivers wanted practice before qualifying however. And I don’t blame them. Think how many problems could have been avoided if they did.

The thing I do like however is the impound rule in effect between qualifying and the Duels.

One race is 60 laps. The other is 200. One race is under the lights. The other is under the Florida sun. One race features 21 cars. The other 40. That’s just the surface, but there’s more to it in terms of why the 65th annual Daytona 500 would look a heck of a lot different than the pair of 150-mile qualifying races that we witnessed on Thursday night.

Part of why is Thursday’s Duels are run with varying agendas. There was no practice during this year’s Speedweeks prior to Friday. That means qualifying on Wednesday night and racing on Thursday night were done so without the aid of a practice session.

A wrinkle also involved in that is that these cars have been impounded since Wednesday night. Once you pass inspection on Wednesday afternoon, you can’t touch them again until after the Duels. Which leads to the first variation of agendas.

What you race in the Duels is what you brought down for qualifying. As a result, some teams will punt on qualifying in efforts to have a good “race” car for the pair of 150-mile qualifiers. Others, will go for the pride of potentially earning a Daytona 500 pole.

“We knew that last year we qualified fourth and Drew (crew chief) put everything he could into it,” Aric Almirola admitted. “We’re trying to break up that Hendrick front row.

“Drew and all the guys on my team take a lot of pride in building fast race cars. There’s two approaches to coming down here for Speedweeks. One is to not worry about qualifying and just make your car drive good so it’ll race good in the Duels, or two, you go for speed.

“Drew and I talked about it a month ago, and he’s like, I want to build the fastest race car I can. We’ll make it drive good after the Duels. But I want to go try and knock those Hendrick guys off the front row, and dangit, we couldn’t do it. I think we came up seven thousandths short or something like that, but still really proud of the effort that we put into bringing a really fast race car.”

Almirola says that approach caused his No. 10 Ford being a handful to drive under the lights. It didn’t handle the greatest. Was sketchy while being pushed in the draft and the Florida native felt like it made him vulnerable at times. However, even with a car in race trim, it was still bad fast.

“I just felt like we had such a fast race car that if I got the right pushes at the right time and found myself in the right position, that we could win that Duel and we could go to work tonight, tomorrow, and make it drive a little better for the Daytona 500,” he continued.

Here’s the problem with going for qualifying pace, it’s not race pace. It’s also to why a recent trend has started occurring and that’s the top 2 rows of the Daytona 500 starting lineup not reaching victory lane when it matters the most during Speedweeks.

The pole winner hasn’t won this race in 24 years. In fact, 17 of the last 22 races have seen the pole winner finish outside of the top 10 even. 4 of the last five pole winners have failed to even get to 16th in the end with the best result since 2015 being 14th by Elliott in 2017 and 5th by Alex Bowman on Sunday.

The last win for the second-place starter came in 1993 (Dale Jarrett). They have only finished in the top 10 just four times since 2006. Just five times in the last 28 years has the second-place starter came home with a top five finish even. This average finishing spot for the second-place starter is 16.39.

For a team like Hendrick Motorsports, who’s swept the front row for the Great American Race nine times now, four of which occurring in the last five years, they’ve not turned any of those qualifying performances to race wins on Sunday’s here.

Since 2013, they’ve won six Duels as well to go along with eight poles in the last nine years.

The thing is, they’ve not won NASCAR’s version of their Super Bowl in that time frame either. Their last Daytona victory came in 2014, a year prior to this streak beginning.

Trends Were Right

Don’t Count On The Front Row For A Win (Bowman, Larson)
o The pole winner hasn’t won this race in 24 years. In fact, 17 of the last 22 races have seen the pole winner finish outside of the top 10.
o The last win for the second-place starter came in 1993 (Dale Jarrett). They have only finished in the top 10 just four times since 2006. Just five times in the last 28 years has the second-place starter came home with a top five finish even. This average finishing spot for the second place starter is 16.39.

Avoid Duel Winners From Thursday Night (Joey Logano, Aric Almirola)
o The last driver to win a Duel and the Daytona 500 in the same year was Matt Kenseth in 2012. He’s the only one to do so in the last 19 years. It’s only happened five times since 1996 at that.

Steer Clear Of Defending Daytona 500 Champion (Austin Cindric)
o In 2020, Denny Hamlin became just the fourth driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500’s. Richard Petty did it in 1973 and 1974. Cale Yarborough did it in 1983 and 1984. Sterling Marlin was the last to do so in 1994 and again in 1995.

Steer Clear Of Defending Series Champion (Joey Logano)
o Only six times has the reigning Cup Series champion also 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.

Steer Clear Of Any Series Champion (Logano, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski)
o None of the last 13 points paying Daytona races now were won by a series champion in general.

Avoid True Rookies (Gibbs, Herbst, Pastrana, Smith, Daly)

Only 2 drivers have ever won the Daytona 500 in their first appearance. That was Lee Petty (1959 inaugural race) and Trevor Bayne (2011).

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 19: Kyle Busch, driver of the #8 3CHI Chevrolet, Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 Bass Pro Shops Club Chevrolet, and William Byron, driver of the #24 RaptorTough.com Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series 65th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Racing Package Okay In My Opinion

While some may not have enjoyed it, I think NASCAR is getting the speedway package right again. After years of experimenting with it between the restrictor plate and the tapered spacer, this one is as close to good as we’ll probably get.

Track position is a thing again which I like. It should be harder to work you way to the front. You should be penalized for making mistakes. That happened on Sunday.

On the flipside, the field isn’t strung too far out either. Most of the first half of this race was a high speed parade lap. Two-by-two with very minimal separation. It’s better than watching single file racing at the top of the banking for several laps.

That all was a win.

The stats back it up.

At 212 laps (530 miles), this DAYTONA 500 was three laps and 7.5 miles longer than the 2020 race, which held the previous record.

There were 204 Green Flag Passes for the Lead – most all-time in a race at Daytona International Speedway – easily eclipsing the previous record mark of 177 set in 2014 DAYTONA 500. …There were 21 different race leaders – tying the 2010 mark for second most all-time. …The 52 lead changes were fourth all-time; and most since 2011 (74).

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