Making sense of the crazy Xfinity Series race at Daytona

A few thoughts after the 100th race under the “Xfinity” Series banner…

— Whoa! We’ll remember that one for awhile. The first two-thirds of the race were completely wild, with Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott swapping the lead and throwing insane blocks on each other.

Then, the race got clunky and borderline comical with a rash of yellows — including a Big One and a record five overtimes.

To top it all off, Tyler Reddick and Elliott Sadler ran side-by-side to the finish and ended up in a near-tie, with Reddick winning the closest finish in NASCAR history!

“That was insane,” Reddick said. “I guess (the winning side-draft) was just enough and just soon enough.”

— So, about that margin of victory. The official number was 0.000, but that’s only because NASCAR’s scoring only goes to the thousandth of a second. But there had never been a margin that close since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

“That’s, like, a tie, am I right?” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owned the cars of the top two finishers. “Either way, fine with me.”

The previous closest finish had been in a 1995 Truck Series race at Colorado National Speedway. The famous Kurt Busch/Ricky Craven finish at Darlington in 2003 had a .002 margin of victory.

— Before all the chaos, the race was shaping up to be one of the best restrictor-plate races ever.

That’s because of the ballsy moves and blocks being thrown by Elliott, Logano and Larson that made it look like they were going to wreck the whole field at any moment.

Earnhardt gave some insight into their thinking after the race.

“All of them out there feel like they’re the best plate racer that’s ever lived and they drive in that fashion,” he said. “If someone is leading the race and you’re not, it’s almost an insulting thing. The comfort in those (Xfinity) cars allows those guys to be more aggressive.”

— There’s still some confusion on the bump-drafting rule in the Xfinity and Truck Series. Drivers were warned in their pre-race meeting with NASCAR not to lock bumpers “in order to advance your position,” and Sadler interpreted that as meaning “to pass.”

But NASCAR black-flagged both Sadler and Elliott when they locked bumpers at one point — this despite not passing a car at the time.

“I’ve got a misunderstanding of the rule,” Sadler said. “I thought you couldn’t lock bumpers to gain a position.”

Sadler said he needs to get a clarification, because if they wanted to enforce it the way he was penalized, then “You could black-flag every single car in the field.”

— Despite six Cup Series drivers being in the race — and dominating much of it — the top seven finishers (and 10 of the top 11) ultimately turned out to be Xfinity Series regulars.

That’s fitting, considering Xfinity was promoting its 100th race as series sponsor.

“It’s ‘Names Are Made Here,’ right?” Reed said. “I think this is a testament to that being true.”

Though Cup drivers are restricted more than ever this year in their Xfinity participation, this seemed like one race a Cup guy would win. So in that sense, the season is off to a good start.

— The five overtimes were likely the most in NASCAR history for a national series race.

“Was it only five? I thought it felt like a dozen,” fourth-place finisher Kaz Grala said.

When NASCAR began the green-white-checkered rule in 2004, there was only one attempt. Then it was expanded to three attempts in 2010 and stayed that way until 2016, when the GWC rule was converted to “overtime” with the overtime line.

After the overtime line was moved to the start/finish line last year, the rule was changed to allow for unlimited attempts. But that hadn’t really occurred in any race until Saturday, when the overtime periods kept piling up.

— The race was 357.5 miles long, which was the second-longest race in Xfinity/Busch/Grand National Series history. Only the 1985 Miller 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was longer distance-wise.

 

 

Let’s talk about reverse skew at Daytona

If you watched the opening weekend of NASCAR practice and racing at Daytona, you likely noticed the cars look…uh…different.

The cars appear like they’re crab-walking down the straightaways, except going the opposite direction than everyone is used to seeing. Instead of being pointed into the corners, they actually seem angled toward the wall.

“They look broken,” Danica Patrick said.

“It’s definitely weird to see,” Chase Elliott said.

“Is that an interesting look for you?” Bubba Wallace asked. “You’re like, ‘What the hell…?’”

I mean, yeah. We are.

So what’s the deal? Well, let’s talk about reverse skew!

WHY ARE TEAMS DOING THIS?

There hasn’t been a ride height rule at non-plate tracks for a few years now, but there was still a rule at Daytona and Talladega until this year. But NASCAR decided to get rid of the mandated ride heights at the plate tracks, which supposedly will help the cars not go airborne as easily.

The smart people in the garage immediately figured out a way they could take advantage of the new rule: By doing the opposite of what they do at intermediate tracks.

“Basically, everything we’ll do to gain skew at Atlanta next week, we just do opposite here to get the spoiler out of the (air),” David Ragan said.

As Ryan Blaney explained, teams want the spoiler in the air at other tracks so the car will go through the corners faster. It adds more side force and downforce.

“Here, you don’t really want that,” Blaney said. “You want to get the spoiler out of the air as much as possible, so that’s why they reverse it. It knocks drag out.”

By turning the cars toward the wall, the spoiler ducks behind the car a bit more. Thus, it creates speed.

IS IT HARDER TO DRIVE?

For sure. The more skewed the cars are, the worse they handle. That’s one reason why the Clash ran single file toward the end — the drivers were just trying to hang on and had difficulty racing side-by-side.

“There are a couple cars that are really aggressive with it, but when you do that, they don’t race as well,” Blaney said. “They handle worse. So that’s been interesting to see who all is doing it that much or how low you want to get the back end.

“I about wrecked (Saturday in practice) when we lowered it a bit more. I just couldn’t drive it. It was too loose.”

It’s going to be a tradeoff between speed and stability — something teams didn’t really have to worry about as much at plate tracks in recent years, when drivers could just hold it wide open and side-draft the crap out of each other.

Would you rather have a fast car or a comfortable one? That’s what teams will try to find in the Duels and practice sessions this week.

“It’s not going to drive the greatest, but I’ve always said as long as we’re fast — (even) if it drives like a dump truck — we’re fine,” Wallace said.

IS IT LEGAL?

Yep. The teams are playing within the rules set by NASCAR. They still have to pass inspection — and the new technology for inspection is even better than before.

It’s hard to get straight answers from the teams about their methods (“I’m not going to tell you that,” Greg Ives said), but some of the skew is achieved by setup and some of it is achieved by adjusting the track bar from inside the car (controlled by the driver).

“There’s a handful of ways you can get there,” Chase Elliott said. “I’m sure guys are adjusting track bars to do it. There’s so many other things you can do to make that happen. There’s no way everybody is doing it the same way.”

SHOULD NASCAR MAKE IT ILLEGAL?

If you recall, NASCAR didn’t like the cars looking so sideways in 2011 and later implemented rules to limit skew in the rear ends. So will it do the same thing now?

Not likely. This is only something you’ll notice at plate tracks, and it’s not very noticeable when the cars are in a pack.

The drivers can see it from inside the cockpits, though. And it’s quite a view.

“I’m sitting there behind cars and I’m like, ‘Damn, we’re on the earth. We’re digging right here,’” Wallace said. “We’re just trying to get as much speed as we can. Whatever you’ve got to do inside the parameters in what the rulebook says, you do it — no matter how it looks.”

The Top Five: Breaking down the 2018 Clash at Daytona

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.

No way.

“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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway…

1. Stenhouse, repeated

As the field lined up for the overtime restart on Saturday night, only one driver in the top nine already had a win this season. So surely, there was going to be a new winner and throw yet another wrinkle into this year’s unpredictable playoff picture.

Nooooope! That one previous winner in the top nine — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — used a run on the bottom to blow past David Ragan as the No. 38 car left the door open, then sailed through what was a relatively calm final lap (at least compared to the rest of the race).

Stenhouse has apparently gotten pretty good at this plate racing thing, which is weird to say. As recently as the first stage of the Talladega race, Stenhouse looked like a weapon. Then he ended up winning that race.

And Talladega wasn’t a fluke, because he led four different times at Daytona before securing his second career victory and second straight plate win.

Yes, Saturday was definitely a race of survival where the best cars were taken out. But you can’t use that as an argument to take anything away from Stenhouse, because when it was Big Boy Time, he put himself in position to win and executed in the end. Again.

“He’s learned a lot,” runner-up Clint Bowyer said. “He’s become a good plate racer. I remember when he came in, he was a little bit chaotic, but he’s not now. He’s got it figured out, and he’s won two of them.”

2. What might have been

Stenhouse was a nice story because he hasn’t won very much, but his presence in victory lane oddly felt like a letdown because of all the potential new winners late in the race.

Ragan or Michael McDowell would have been major stories for NASCAR, with underdog teams launching themselves into the playoffs at a to-be-determined star driver’s expense.

Or a Bowyer win would have triggered a major victory party that would have rolled on until the sun came up — and it would have been good for NASCAR fans to see him win again.

Or maybe the dawn of the new Young Guns could take another step with an unexpected victor. Rookies Ty Dillon and Daniel Suarez had shots to win and ultimately got shuffled back, as did Bubba Wallace (how huge would that have been for NASCAR to have an exciting young talent win in the No. 43 car on July 4th weekend?).

Anyway, you get the point. But one reason it didn’t happen is because the inexperienced drivers made moves that either didn’t work or were incorrect.

Take Dillon, for example. Dillon sought out Bowyer for a conversation after the race on pit road because he was unsure if he did the right thing by pulling out of line to try and go for the win (no one went with him and he got shuffled back to 16th).

Could he have done anything different? Ultimately, Bowyer told him there was no right answer.

“I’m kicking myself, because the finish doesn’t show what we’re capable of,” Dillon said. “But I think I’d be more disappointed just sitting there riding and not making something happen. I’m a go-getter. My personality might have gotten us a bad finish, but it also got us up toward the front.”

Suarez got stuck in the bottom lane on the last two restarts and called it “bad luck.” But there was also an element of inexperience that played a role.

“I’m still learning, so I don’t really know how aggressive you need to be to win these races,” he told me. “So maybe I have to push a little bit harder.”

Ragan, of course, has plenty of plate experience and just didn’t realize Stenhouse had that big of a run coming on the bottom (he was more concerned with trying to protect the top). He was disappointed, of course, but it won’t be the worst thing he’s experienced.

“Hey, I lost a Daytona 500 down here,” he said. “Losing a Coke Zero 400 — that ain’t nothin’.”

3. Wreckfest!

The wild race included 14 cautions, which is a record for the summer race and the second-most of any Daytona race ever — including all of the Daytona 500s except for 2011 (16 cautions). That’s saying a lot, considering there were 100 fewer miles for something to happen.

Of course, two of those cautions were for stages. But that’s still 12 cautions, and for all the chaos over the years, there have only been double-digit cautions at Daytona 10 times in 141 races here.

What happened? Well, Brad Keselowski tweeted a theory. He said it had something to do with a softer tire brought by Goodyear.

It certainly had an unusual feel, even for a plate race. Aggression really seemed to pay off in a big way (look at McDowell, who drew drivers’ ire with his moves but ended up with a career-best fourth-place finish).

“You’ve got to block hard, you’ve got to cut people off, you’ve got to push hard, you’ve got to stick your nose in there where it doesn’t belong — all the things that you know are capable of disaster,” Bowyer said. “But if you don’t, the next guy is going to, and nine times out of 10, it works. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

4. Dammit, Dale

Beat-up cars can end up winning plate races depending on the circumstances, so when Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from two laps down and got himself back into the top 10, I was starting to wonder if we were witnessing an Earnhardt Miracle.

But that thought didn’t last long, since Kevin Harvick had a flat tire and spun in front of Earnhardt. That’s a shame, since Earnhardt fans were really craving a win and felt Daytona might have been their driver’s last, best chance to do so before the playoffs.

So now what? Well, there are nine races left for Earnhardt to win and make the playoffs (it’s not happening on points). In theory, he’s got a shot at places like Pocono and Michigan, where he’s run well and won before. But time is starting to run out, and it’s a very real possibility fans won’t get to see Earnhardt get that feel-good victory like Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon had in their final seasons.

That shows two things: First, it’s a reminder of how hard it is to win any race in NASCAR (which should give us more of an appreciation for those who win often). Second, that should permanently put to rest any dumb conspiracy theories of NASCAR being rigged — because you know execs would love nothing more to have Earnhardt as part of the playoffs.

5. What’s the point?

Earnhardt isn’t the only one with playoff worries. Joey Logano’s encumbered win looms bigger and bigger every week.

There have been 10 different winners with non-penalized wins, which leaves six playoff spots open. Those currently belong to Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth. Logano, who finished 35th after crashing, is currently out by three points.

Logano will probably rally points-wise, but if one more new driver wins who is below him in the standings — say AJ Allmendinger at Watkins Glen, for example — Logano might actually miss the playoffs. That seems inconceivable given how good that team is, but it’s possible.

Of course, Logano could put all this to rest sometime in the next few weeks with a win, but it’s certainly an interesting development to watch — particularly because he’s 12th in the standings, and you don’t typically see drivers that high up miss the playoffs.

DraftKings Fantasy NASCAR Advice For Daytona Coke Zero 400

Restrictor-plate races are so freaking hard to predict, which makes them fun to watch but agonizing when there’s money on the line.

So for those playing DraftKings this weekend — and there’s a $350,000 total payout contest, so that includes me — a bit of extra strategy is needed. I hopped on the phone with DraftKings’ Pearce Dietrich on Friday morning to go over some lineup ideas for the race.

“What I’m going to suggest is going to make people throw up a little bit,” Dietrich said. “Don’t even worry about the drivers or track history. If you look at the past leaderboards, you just pick guys from the back. It sounds crazy, stupid, ridiculous, but the best starting position on the optimal lineup in the Daytona 500 was 26th.

“You’ve got to take the guys at the back. It happens at every plate race. But no one wants to do it.”

Dietrich is right: It’s not exactly appetizing, but the best bet is to rely heavily on place differential. DraftKings scoring is plus or minus one point for every position gained, and laps led (0.25 points) and fast laps (0.5 points) just aren’t going to matter as much at Daytona. So it’s banking on drivers who qualify poorly but end up surviving the wrecks and finishing well.

The best possible lineup in the Daytona 500 was Ryan Blaney, AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard, Michael Waltrip, Brendan Gaughan and Kasey Kahne. At last summer’s Daytona race, it was Michael McDowell, Cole Whitt, David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski and Trevor Bayne.

Those lineups involved leaving lots of salary cap money on the table ($10,000 for the 500), but it doesn’t matter. Dietrich said to resist the urge to take drivers who start in the top half of the field.

“It’s like, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy, I’m picking Denny Hamlin because he’s good at the plate tracks,'” Dietrich said. “But that’s not going to win you $50,000.”

That’s why my lineup for Daytona is Landon Cassill, Ty Dillon, David Ragan, Elliott Sadler, Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Whitt — all of whom start 25th or worse. And even that might be a little too high in the lineup.

My lineup of Daytona drivers was $11,900 under the salary cap — which seems nuts, but that’s supposedly the right call.

“Even when people read this, it’s still going to be hard to leave money on the table,” Dietrich said. “But the facts are there. This is how you win. Do this for just one week only and go back to the normal strategy next week.”

 

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I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission. Disclosure No. 2: I might be America’s worst daily fantasy player.

Last race’s results: Played $8 MEGA Beast and finished 9,600th out of 47,000; won $12.

Season results: $38 wagered, $49 won in 12 contests.

This week’s contest: $9 Firecracker ($350,000 total payout).