The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona summer race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway…

1. Jonesing for a victory

Given all the talk this week about one of the younger drivers needing to win, Erik Jones’ first career victory came at a great time. It was one of the more prominent races (Daytona!) and a solid spotlight (first race of the season on NBC’s broadcast channel, a moment so important they brought in Mike Tirico to host).

Fans who probably don’t know much about Jones got to see him light up in the post-race interview and show some personality. That’s an important platform for a young driver who needs to get more exposure.

Seriously, this is great stuff:

Does this change anything? Jones was likely going to be in the playoffs whether he won or not (he’s 13th in the standings). But a victory might do wonders for his mindset; after all, he’s still only 22.

“I’m really expecting even bigger things from him,” crew chief Chris Gayle said. “You get a little confidence in him…we all know we can do it at this level. It just kind of helps you once you kind of get the first win. Everyone in the entire team knows that. So I’m looking for big things. It’s cool.”

Out of all the big name young drivers who have come onto the scene lately — like Elliott, Blaney, Suarez, Wallace, Byron, Bowman, Ty Dillon and Jones — only one of them had won a race so far. That was Blaney last year at Pocono.

So Jones makes it two, and now maybe he has something to build on. NASCAR can certainly hope.

2. They’re wrecking…again

I’m so conflicted about races like these. On the one hand, it certainly was exciting and entertaining. It’s not like anyone watching Saturday night would say, “This is boring!” People in attendance certainly got their money’s worth and the time investment for those at home definitely paid off.

On the other hand, it’s not satisfying to see so many cars wreck in multiple crashes. Seeing a Big One is part of the game at plate tracks, so it would almost feel odd if at least one didn’t happen — like going to a concert and your favorite band not playing their famous hit song. But you also don’t need to hear that song three times in the same concert.

And yet…you can’t deny narrowing the field set the stage for a crazy finish and a first-time winner. So those are positives and added to the entertainment factor.

Then again…sigh. I don’t know, I guess I don’t really have a take here other than I’m glad these races only happen a few times a year. They’re OK in very small doses.

Thrilling and dramatic? Yes. “Racing?” Eh…

3. Ricky has had better nights, but…

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. miscalculated a side draft and took out Kyle Busch and William Byron while they were battling for the lead.

Not good.

Other than that, I didn’t view his night quite as harshly as most others seemed to on social media (and in the stands, judging by the cheers from when he wrecked).

On the first Big One, I’m leaning toward Brad Keselowski’s point of view that Byron threw too big of a block.

As Keselowski spotter Joey Meier tweeted, there’s a fine line between managing a race (with the whole block-and-defend maneuvers perfected by Keselowski, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and others) and throwing a block.

From what I can tell, managing the lead requires moving up and down the lanes to take away the momentum from runs. In those cases, there’s no contact.

But blocking from the lead is when the move is last-minute enough that it leaves the trailing car with two options: Check up and hit the brakes or just drive through the leader.

Keselowski elected to check up, which caused Stenhouse — who had full momentum in the draft — to get into him. That’s why I don’t blame Stenhouse for that one.

Not that Stenhouse hasn’t been guilty of such a move before.

“I thought (Byron) blocked (Keselowski), but I did that here in February and threw an aggressive block down the back straightaway that in turn caused a big crash like that, too,” Stenhouse said. “I can’t be too mad because I felt like I did that in February.”

Stenhouse won two stages, but obviously wasn’t happy about his role in the race (he was officially part of five cautions on the race report) and even made a karma reference on himself regarding Kyle Larson taking him out later due to a cut tire.

“I was frustrated with myself causing crashes like that,” he said. “You don’t ever really want to do that.”

So would he have to do some damage control with other drivers this week?

“No, it’s aggressive speedway racing,” he said. “We needed to win to get in the playoffs, so it is what it is.”

That’s probably true, but unfortunately for him, situations like these often lack nuance. He’s going to take most of the blame for everything that happened Saturday night, even though he’s only partially at fault.

4. Underdogs have their day

In a race like this, there are always going to be some unusual results. Unless I missed someone, it looks like five of the 40 drivers in the race had their best career finishes — including Jones, of course.

Ty Dillon was sixth — his best career finish and first top 10. Jeffrey Earnhardt was 11th, which was the first top 20 of his career. Also, DJ Kennington had his best career result (13th). Ray Black Jr. was in just his fourth Cup race, but he hadn’t finished better than 34th before placing 16th on Saturday night.

There were other underdogs who had great nights, too.

How about JTG Daugherty Racing getting both of its drivers in the top five? AJ Allmendinger finished third and Chris Buescher was fifth, although it was Buescher who really had a chance to win the race.

Buescher, who gave Jones the winning push past Truex, said he thought he could shove the 20 car far enough to leave the two of them to determine the race. Then he planned to nudge Jones up the hill in Turn 3. But Truex side-drafted him and took away his momentum, leaving Jones to streak to the finish line well ahead of them both.

Also, Matt DiBenedetto was seventh, which was the second-best finish of his career and shouldn’t be overlooked. And Brendan Gaughan had yet another solid result at a plate race, finishing in 12th.

5. Points Picture

Erik Jones became this season’s seventh different winner, joining Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Truex, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon.

That means there are currently nine spots available to make the playoffs on points with just eight races left in the regular season.

Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Ryan Blaney are virtual locks.

Jimmie Johnson is currently safe by 54 points, Chase Elliott is in by 37 points and then Bowman (the cutoff position) is 19 points ahead of Stenhouse.

Stenhouse and Paul Menard (-55) are the only drivers with a realistic shot right now of making it on points.

Up next: Kentucky Speedway, where it should be back to the usual suspects running up front.

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.