SBNation.com’s Jordan Bianchi returns to the Untitled Jeff Gluck Podcast to help me break down all things Daytona 500, including talk about Austin Dillon’s move on Aric Almirola, Bubba Wallace’s stardom, Danica Patrick’s legacy and more.
Five thoughts after Sunday’s 60th running of the Daytona 500…
1. That’s racing
I’m sort of baffled by the outrage over Austin Dillon driving through Aric Almirola — after Almirola admitted he saw Dillon coming and threw a last-ditch block. There’s no sound reason behind the anger here, other than fans can’t stand Dillon and his perceived silver spoon background — while Almirola would have been a likable winner and feel-good story after last year’s broken back and transition to Stewart-Haas Racing.
I get that Dillon irritates fans (he doesn’t care, by the way; Dillon believes in the “as long as they’re making noise” philosophy), but geez. Seriously, folks? Take the emotion out of it for a second.
Dillon had a huge shot of momentum from a Bubba Wallace push when the Almirola block happened, and it was on the last lap of the freaking Daytona 500. So what was Dillon supposed to do, let off the gas and cut Almirola a break?
“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him, and not had this Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing,” Dillon said.
But even if he did lift, Dillon probably would have gotten turned by Wallace behind him.
After all, that’s what seemed to happen when Ryan Blaney blocked Chase Elliott in the first Big One (Elliott lost momentum, got loose and spun off Brad Keselowski, starting a pileup). And when Denny Hamlin blocked Kurt Busch in the last Big One, Busch lost his momentum and got turned by the air off Blaney’s nose.
As we saw throughout Speedweeks, superspeedway racing has evolved into a risky, ballsy game of chicken when it comes to blocking. Almirola had no choice but to throw that block — in hopes Dillon would somehow blink — and Dillon had no choice but to drive through him.
Unless he wanted to lose, of course.
“I had such a run,” Dillon said, “and I had to use it.”
2. A star is born
NASCAR got stuck in some political debates last year, which prompted outsiders to once again bring up stereotypes about the sport’s fans.
But the majority of race fans aren’t racist. How do I know? Because Bubba Wallace is quickly becoming one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR.
Fans at Daytona gave Wallace a loud cheer before the 500, and his high profile in the media this week (including a feature on ESPN, a six-part docu-series on Facebook and then some air time in front of the largest audience NASCAR has all year) allowed fans to take a closer look at whether they like him or not.
It certainly seems like they do. And it has everything to do with his personality, which is refreshing, energetic, fun, raw and real.
I mean, what other driver shows emotions like this?
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 19, 2018
If Wallace can do anything in the 43 car and is even halfway competitive, it will be massive for NASCAR. His profile only grow if that’s the case.
But Richard Petty Motorsports has a lot of work to do judging by last year’s results, and if Wallace doesn’t run in the top 10, he risks becoming another Clint Bowyer.
Fun guy, hilarious, great personality, people love him, but…
At the tweetup on Sunday, fans emphasized they seek the perfect combination of personality and results. A driver needs both to truly be a superstar.
Those who deliver in both ways are the types of drivers NASCAR needs to succeed. Wallace certainly has the personality; now we’ll see whether he can produce on the track.
3. For Blaney, wait til next year
This really seemed to be the Ryan Blaney 500, especially after so many other contenders wrecked out. It looked like Blaney had the strongest car and could do anything with it. He led 118 laps in playing the typical Keselowski role, a dominating performance on a day when no one else led more than 22 laps.
Blaney was leading a single-file line with 10 laps to go when William Byron spun in his damaged car, which brought out a caution that ultimately cost him the race after the ensuing restart.
“That stunk,” Blaney said of the caution. “That grouped everyone back together. I tried to block as best I could, but it’s just so hard when they’re coming so much faster than you.”
Still, a green-flag finish wouldn’t have guaranteed a Blaney win. He had the best car of those remaining, though that doesn’t mean everyone would have stayed in line. But he’ll always wonder.
“It definitely was going to get tough there, and it was starting to brew up to where people were going to start to go,” he said. “With five to go, it was probably crunch time — and we were five laps away from that.
“But I thought we could control the lead pretty good, and it just didn’t play out that way.”
4. Logic doesn’t prevail
I don’t know if this will go down as one of the best Daytona 500s ever, but it was certainly one of the most entertaining.
Honestly, it shouldn’t have been.
With drivers knowing their cars were less stable than in previous years thanks to the new rules package, it seemed running single-file (like in the Clash) would be the smart way to go.
It certainly would have been very boring, but logic dictates that’s what the drivers should have done in order to still be racing at the finish.
Instead, the drivers got all crazy over the end of Stage 1 and took out a bunch of great cars. Then more wild moves finally bit them just after the halfway point.
“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Jimmie Johnson said of the first incident. “… I’m not sure everybody was thinking big picture and really using their head through that.”
I’m sure they weren’t. But I can’t really figure out why. Drivers had privately predicted a single-file race, perhaps even with several groups of six-to-12 car lines spread across the track. Then they would all go hard for the win at the end.
Instead, it seemed like the opposite happened in the first two stages. It was weird. Super entertaining, but weird.
Perhaps the start of a new season left everyone too antsy to use the patience required to make it to the finish, or maybe racers just can’t help themselves from racing hard — even when it’s not necessary at the time.
5. Underdogs shine
Speaking of those who patiently bided their time and made it to the finish, there were some surprise names who had solid results after others wrecked out.
Chris Buescher previously had only one top-10 finish at a restrictor-plate track in nine starts, but he finished fifth on Sunday.
Michael McDowell finished ninth to record his sixth career top-10 finish — five of which have come at Daytona.
Justin Marks had a surprising run in his first career Cup race at Daytona and finished 12th despite being one lap down.
Also, David Gilliland made his first Cup Series start since 2016 — and recorded a 14th-place finish, his first top-15 since the 2015 Daytona 500.
And finally, despite all the drama and questions about whether it could even get the car on the track, BK Racing got a 20th-place finish with Gray Gaulding. Not a bad day for a team that just filed for bankruptcy protection.
Aric Almirola was a half-lap from winning the Daytona 500 in his first race with new team Stewart-Haas Racing — that is, until Austin Dillon turned him while battling for the lead.
So was Almirola pissed at Dillon for driving through him? Was Dillon being too aggressive?
Almirola let out a “Ha!” when I asked, as if that was a ridiculous question.
“He’s not driving too aggressively, he’s trying to win the Daytona 500 — just like I was,” Almirola said. “I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try and win the Daytona 500. I wasn’t going to just let him have it.
“I wasn’t going to stay on the bottom and let him rail the outside, so I blocked, and he got to my bumper and pushed. I thought I was still going to be OK, and somehow I got hooked. I’m just devastated.”
Almirola said if it was Lap 5 of the race, “I probably wouldn’t have pulled that block.”
“But it was the last lap of the Daytona 500, and I was doing everything I could to try and win,” he added.
Almirola was still managing to smile because he feels like he’ll have a chance to win other races this season now that he’s with SHR.
Tony Stewart came into the infield care center and gave Almirola a big hug. He told the driver: “The good news is, we have a lot more of this (running well) to look forward to.”
“This is just one race,” Almirola said. “This is might be the biggest race, and this is going to hurt for awhile. But next week, I think we’ll have another shot.”
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France opened the Daytona 500 drivers meeting on Sunday with some remarks.
Here is a transcript of his comments:
“Another amazing event. Weather is perfect. We are so excited to kick our NASCAR Monster season off in a big way. Looking forward to a great event. So thankful everybody is here today and we’re going to do this in a big way. Thanks, guys, and look forward to an unbelievable Daytona 500 today. You bet.”
Previous Brian France coverage: Should Brian France still be in charge?
Actually, most of the tips I’ve picked up over the last year of playing fantasy racing comes from DraftKings expert Pearce Dietrich.
So I hopped on the phone with Dietrich again this weekend to get some more advice that I could pass along to you guys — not just for the 500, but for the season as a whole.
A few pointers:
— When everyone else zigs, you zag. Don’t pick all of the obvious drivers for a couple reasons: 1) It’s unlikely to be the right lineup at a plate race and 2) Your lineup is going to be the same as everyone else’s.
For example: In the Duels on Thursday, 87 percent of DraftKings players picked Brad Keselowski. And then he wrecked.
“At the plate races, no one is safe,” Dietrich said. “Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson are going to be heavily owned in the 500. So you don’t want them in every lineup, because then all those lineups are dead if something happens.”
— Look at the ceiling. The winning lineups at plate tracks need to have drivers who average 55 points for you. So a driver who starts in the top 11? Unless they lead a bunch of laps, it’s not worth it.
“Look at a guy like Darrell Wallace Jr.,” Dietrich said. “He’s a great story and might have a great race, but even if he finishes second, that’s not going to be enough points for you.”
It really comes down to position differential, which is why it’s more important than ever to pick drivers outside the top 30 at plate tracks.
“Gray Gaulding scored the second-most points at Talladega!” Dietrich said. “That is unbelievable. But only 12 cars finished on the lead lap. If it’s going to be a mess, play people in the back and hope they avoid the wrecks.”
— If you think you have a great lineup, you’re probably not going to win.
“Your lineup should make you sick to your stomach,” Dietrich said. “It should not make you feel good.”
To wit: Last year’s best possible lineup for the 500 was Ryan Blaney, AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard, Kasey Kahne, Brendan Gaughan and Michael Waltrip.
Some logical picks, to be sure. But would you have felt good about the lineup as a whole?
How about last fall’s Talladega race? The best lineup had Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, yes — but it also had Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola, David Ragan and Gaulding.
“You may need to take a Corey LaJoie and a Gray Gaulding,” Dietrich said. “If they can just stay away from Ricky Stenhouse, maybe they can make it happen.”
— For intermediate tracks, fast cars are fast. Most of the time, Dietrich said a fast car on a long run in practice is going to be the same in the race. It’s rare to see a guy practice in the middle of the pack and then get you points leading laps and running fast laps.
“Starting position doesn’t necessarily correlate as much, but practice speed does,” he said.
If two drivers are going to dominate the race and lead the most laps, you’ll need both of them in the lineup. If it’s three drivers, you need all three. Because if you don’t, someone else will. So you’ve got to predict correctly on that part.
Beyond the fastest cars, try to get a decent return out of every person. If you sacrifice too much — even for one spot by going with a super-cheap driver — it’s probably not going to be a winning lineup.
I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is jeff_gluck) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.
David Ragan spoke about a fun idea during an interview in 2016: What if drivers could talk to each other during every race, and fans could hear their conversations?
“(What) if we had direct communication with other cars and I could flip over to someone else’s radio and say, ‘Hey! What the hell did you do that for? What are you thinking?'” Ragan said. “We had that option (in 2011) when we were doing the tandem drafting. We had like 15 different channels, and that was a cool feature.
“That would be something fun for the TV networks and fans to listen in, absolutely.”
Building off that idea, I asked drivers on Daytona 500 Media Day about whether they’d be in favor of the concept.
Check out what they said:
Five thoughts after Sunday’s season-opening exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway…
1. Calm Clash
Well, that was weird. An exhibition race with no points on the line, and most of the field ran single-file as Brad Keselowski led the last half of the race. OK then.
“Who would have thought they’d just run single-file for 30 laps?” said Kevin Harvick, who lost the draft while trying to make a move. “It didn’t all make sense to me.”
As the laps wound down, a few cars tried to take shots at building a low lane to challenge the frontrunners, but it was mostly a failure. They’d just drop to the back if anyone tried anything.
So what happened? According to several drivers, the cars weren’t handling well with the new restrictor-plate rules package, which made it difficult to run side-by-side or three-wide. They actually had to drive the cars — at least more than usual at Daytona — instead of running wide open while playing the typical chess game.
“I know it looks like we were just riding around the top, but we were actually lifting and trying not to run over each other when you get those big runs,” Austin Dillon said.
The new package helped cars suck up much quicker, but they’d hit the invisible air bubble just as hard. Meanwhile, the stability offered by the previous rules package — which made for lap after lap of pack racing as drivers tried to side draft and pick off positions — became a thing of the past.
“They were too much of a handful to race side-by-side and three-wide,” Erik Jones said. “Earlier in the race when we were doing that, I was out of control and just uncomfortable. I had to back out and give everybody some space.”
When a driver would pull out of line, he not only dropped to the back — but actually risked losing the draft altogether. Harvick said he was trying to slow the car in front of him in order to get a run, but he slowed both down that the draft just left them behind.
If a car stays in line, it never loses its momentum. Plus, the cars are running significantly faster than before — Keselowski said he ran a 199 mph lap while leading (not with a run), which was eye-opening.
“I was trying to make moves, but you just have to accept the pack being single-file or you’re going to be at the back of it,” Harvick said.
So that’s it. The drivers wanted to go and were eager to make something happen, but there was no overcoming the momentum deficit with so few cars and a single-file lane up top.
2. Now what?
The big question now is whether the Duels and the Daytona 500 itself will be less than exciting (or whatever term you want to use), as was the case with the Clash.
As Jones noted, the Duels on Thursday night will probably look similar to what fans saw Sunday because it’s an impound race and teams already have their race setups installed — which are close to the setups in their Clash cars.
And the 500? It’s obviously a concern, but Harvick said not to worry yet.
“I’ve seen this a little bit before (in the small field of the Clash),” he said. “It’s just different when you get all the cars out there.”
As for the contenders for the remainder of Speedweeks? Well, it would be a surprise if anyone but a Ford won the 500.
Fords have looked so strong on plate races over the last couple years (they’ve won seven straight plate races!), and they finished 1-2-3-4 in the Clash. What was especially striking was Harvick said his car was comfortable and stable despite losing the draft — which was the opposite of what other drivers were saying about handling.
Logano, too, said his car didn’t feel much of a change from last year after the team made a few adjustments.
“Not as much (change) as I thought it was going to be when I went to sleep last night,” he said.
If that’s the case, the Fords will return to the track Thursday night with a significant edge on the rest of the field.
3. Team orders?
As the Team Penske cars ran 1-2-3 in a line with the laps winding down, you may have wondered to yourself if Ryan Blaney and Logano would just be content to push Keselowski to the win.
“I don’t know about you guys, but for the last 20 laps, I was in there going crazy waiting for someone to make a move,” Logano said. “I was ready to go.”
Of course Logano and Blaney wanted to win for themselves. It’s just they were in a similar situation as everyone else, realizing they needed help to make something happen.
Blaney eventually tried it and made a move coming to the white flag — but all it did was drop him through the field. That move wasn’t the original plan, but it was perhaps his best option in the moment.
“I feel like I was in a good spot because Joey was behind me, and he would have gone with me for the win no matter where I went,” Blaney said. “I was going to kind of hang out until the lane started to form and then I’d jump out. It just never did.”
Roger Penske and Keselowski agreed if that scenario happened again in the Daytona 500, it would be an every-man-for-himself situation in the final laps (like it was with the Toyotas a few years ago). So there’s little chance all the drivers would have just stayed in line while Keselowski just cruised to a win.
4. Rules are rules
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passed below the double yellow line, which is a penalty. You can’t do that.
NASCAR’s rule is it will overlook such a pass if the driver was forced below the line by another driver — but Stenhouse wasn’t.
Stenhouse, his team and a whole mess of people on Twitter argued otherwise, but NASCAR’s call was extremely consistent and fair compared to how officials have called it before.
The 2008 Regan Smith/Tony Stewart incident is the defining moment for this rule. If that wasn’t forcing someone below the yellow line, it clearly must be very obvious for NASCAR to call it.
So you might not like it, but NASCAR made a fair call in this case — which is all anyone should hope for.
Stenhouse had a run coming, but it looked like Busch’s car had already started to move down (Busch said his car got sucked down there and he wasn’t trying to go that low). Could Stenhouse have forced the issue with a wreck? Sure, but what’s the point?
It’s not unlike a driver getting a huge run on the outside and the leader moving up to block. What happens then? If the oncoming driver presses the issue, they’re both in the wall. So most of the time, they back out of it.
Stenhouse tweeted next time he could just turn Busch and wreck the whole field, but he either A) Could have backed out of it or B) If he felt that was impossible given his momentum, he could have given the position back and there would have been no penalty. So it’s not like that was the only option.
5. The new pit stop ballet
NASCAR took away a pit crew member from each team in the offseason, which forced crews to rearrange their choreography. Plus, tire changers now have to all use the same pit gun. There was much talk about how it would look and impact the races — and rightfully so.
But although the stops were significantly slower (FOX said more than four seconds!), it was hardly noticeable.
We probably won’t see the true impact until there’s a “race off pit road” situation at 1.5-mile tracks — where track position really matters. Daytona doesn’t make that big of a difference (although Keselowski did use a two-tire strategy to take the lead).
Overall, though, it just didn’t seem like a big thing. A month from now, we probably won’t even give it a second thought.