Five thoughts after Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500…
1. Daytona’s lesson
Up until the green flag Sunday, the relentless hand-wringing over how the racing would look in the Daytona 500 was the theme of Speedweeks.
There were serious worries over seeing a single-file line cling to the top for hours in front of the biggest TV audience NASCAR gets all year. Ack! Any potential momentum heading into the season would be squandered. A disaster in the making!
The fears persisted until the start of the race. Even moments before engines were fired, a spotter for one of the top drivers confidently predicted the drivers would spend the first stage looking like the Xfinity drivers did in their awful borefest of a “race.”
I believed it, because it made logical sense. That’s how the Clash looked, how the Duels looked. There was no reason to think otherwise. Even the drivers thought it would be like that. Why would they push it and run double-file?
“I was expecting us all to be up against the wall, and quickly found out pretty early in the race that this was going to go a lot different than what we thought it was going to,” Joey Logano said.
Isn’t that incredible? Even the drivers, despite their group texts and manufacturer teamwork, are just as clueless as the rest of us when it comes to forecasting the rhythm of a race. The crew chiefs don’t know. The engineers don’t know. The media doesn’t know.
And yet we all work ourselves into a huge frenzy (see Twitter from Saturday night) after each little development leading up to the race.
The lesson from all this, once again: NASCAR is completely unpredictable. Just when you think you have a feel for what’s going to happen, you never do.
Let’s remember that for next week at Atlanta (new rules package), Las Vegas (extreme new rules package) and beyond. This is going to be a season of uncertainty, and it cannot be predicted with any degree of confidence.
In the absence of answers, maybe it’s OK to just let things happen, let the races breathe and maybe — MAYBE — even let ourselves enjoy the show along the way.
2. Toyota time
Speaking of nobody knowing anything, how about Toyota going 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 and leading the most laps when most predictions had Fords dominating the race?
Toyota Racing Development head David Wilson was making rounds through the media center on Sunday morning, so I jokingly asked if he wanted to help with my NASCAR Fantasy Live team.
He inquired who was on my team, so I opened the page — forgetting I’d picked Ford, Ford, Ford, Ford, Ford and Ford. I cringed at his potential reaction, but he seemed understanding.
After all, Ford had the strength in numbers. Ford had dominated the Duels. Ford executed a near-perfect Talladega race last fall. Wilson conceded all those things.
But he gave a sly grin. Toyota had a plan, Wilson said. Hmm…
As it turned out, that creative plan apparently included teaming with Hendrick Motorsports cars to get the numbers that would take on the Fords. And together, the Toyota+Hendrick line actually seemed to work better than the pre-race favorites.
But the plan went out the window — for everyone — after multiple crashes narrowed the field. In the end, there were two Toyotas, two Fords and a Chevrolet lined up for the final restart.
Even then, the Toyotas — Hamlin and Busch — cooperated on the start of overtime while the Fords — Joey Logano and McDowell — didn’t stick together and ended up having words over it on pit road.
After the race, I bumped into Wilson on his way out of the media center. He broke into a wide smile.
“Sorry about your fantasy team,” he said, not actually sorry at all.
3. NASCAR’s Leader
One of the biggest moments of Sunday happened two hours before the race.
Jim France, the new CEO of NASCAR, got up in front of all the drivers and said a few words reminiscent of his late brother, Bill France Jr.
“I hope a few of you drivers will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and make a show today,” France said.
Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened. Now, was that because of France’s comment? Maybe not directly, but there was certainly a shift in tone and attitude among the drivers once the race began.
France clearly has the respect of the garage — I’ve heard nothing but universal praise for his consistent presence at the track — and the drivers are willing to trust his vision.
More than anytime in the last two decades, NASCAR seems intent in putting on a show. They use the buzzwords like “entertainment” — and for the most part, the drivers seem to be on board with the push in that direction. Or at least they’ve accepted it, even if they don’t agree.
Either way, France has their ear. His not-so-subtle message likely stuck in their memories as they prepared to take the green flag on Sunday.
That’s leadership, and it couldn’t come at a better time for a sport that has lacked in it from the CEO position for so long.
4. Hamlin HOFer
Last week, I made an innocent Twitter joke that turned into a reminder of how under appreciated Denny Hamlin’s career has been. In suggesting Hamlin was a Hall of Famer — something I thought was a given — I was surprised at the resistance to the idea.
I get that people aren’t necessarily fond of Hamlin (especially Elliott fans) and the Internet loves to poke fun at his “10,000 races.”
But damn. The guy is unquestionably a Hall of Famer. If you didn’t agree before, there’s no disputing it now.
Hamlin is now a two-time Daytona 500 winner and has 32 Cup wins overall — which ties him with Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett for 24th on the all-time list. He hasn’t won a championship, but he’s had 10 seasons of top-10 points finishes — a pretty solid run of consistency in the playoff era.
While Hamlin shied away from comparisons with Jarrett (“He’s so much better than I am. … I shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as Dale Jarrett.”), the guy is only now entering his prime seasons age-wise. According to Motorsports Analytics’ David Smith, a driver’s peak age is 39; Hamlin just turned 38 in November.
And while this chapter of restrictor-plate racing may be over (Talladega will start the tapered spacer era at superspeedways), Hamlin should be noted as one of the best — along with Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — of his era on such tracks.
5. The Brain Problem
As mentioned, restrictor plates won’t appear on NASCAR Cup cars anymore. But they sure had one last hurrah in the final laps as a wreckfest broke out and somewhat sullied what had previously been a very good plate race.
With 50 laps to go in the race, only one car was out of the race. But in the end, only 19 finished — less than half the field — and just a handful of cars escaped with no damage.
So what gives? How do drivers who used patience and talent for 400 miles suddenly lose their heads at the end?
“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said. “That’s all it is. Everybody just ‑‑ the brain connection from right up here to the gas pedal foot doesn’t quite work the same anymore.”
Humans are imperfect, and drivers under pressure strapped inside hot race cars for four hours are even more imperfect.
In a way, that’s lucky for us. It gives us something to watch, something to react to, something to talk about.
And in that sense, the chance of highly skilled people making mistakes or bad decisions is the formula that makes these crazy races worth watching.