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.