NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2015 Daytona 500

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

A crash and an engine failure in their Budweiser Duels left Denny Hamlin and Casey Mears at the back of the pack to start the day on Sunday after a nail-biting night on Thursday for Mears, who came within one position of missing the Daytona 500 altogether. Hamlin had been locked into the race, but starting at the back wasn’t any easier to stomach. It’s not as big a detriment on a restrictor-plate track, but it means more cars to pass and a lot more opportunity for trouble.

But at the end of the day, Hamlin finished fourth, Mears sixth. That should not be a surprise as the pair were 1-2 in average finish on the plate tracks last year. This time, however, they gained a combined 73 positions on the track en route to their top-10 finishes, illustrating why they’re two of the best in the game on the superspeedways.

What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?

At a restrictor-plate track, you can take your pick. Engine failures popped up starting in the first of the Budweiser Duels and there were a handful on Sunday as well, claiming Landon Cassill, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney before the race was over.

And then there are the other drivers. It’s so easy for one mistake to balloon into a pileup involving a dozen or more cars. This year’s edition of the Great American Race included just one Big One, and they almost made it to the end without one. Austin Dillon got a little punchy on the final lap, turned Jeff Gordon…and it was on. For Dillon, that’s a tally of four wrecks caused in the last two Daytona 500s. He may be in the No. 3, but he can’t see the air.

Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?

Gordon‘s swan song began on a high note, with Gordon winning the pole and looking for his fourth overall Daytona 500 win. Gordon led six times for 87 laps, more than any other driver, and was headed for a top-10 finish (it would have been his 21st top 10 at DIS) until the final lap of the race, when Dillon got a little rammy and tapped the bumper of the No. 24, triggering the biggest multi-car melee of the day and leaving Gordon with a 33rd-place result for his effort.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Great American Race last year and looked like he might be on track for a repeat. Earnhardt led 32 laps with a car that looked like it could be driven to the front at will. Then with 18 laps to go on a restart, Earnhardt made what he later called a “real bad decision” in his lane choice. As a result, Earnhardt was shuffled bak to the middle of the pack. He recovered enough to make a run on the green-white-checkered, driving up to finish third, right where he started 203 laps before.

When… did it all go sideways?

The biggest story of the weekend happened on Saturday, almost 24 hours before the Daytona 500, and no matter who caused the pileup, the end result was the result of Daytona International Speedway’s poor planning. Without SAFER barriers to absorb the energy of his impact, Kyle Busch slammed a concrete barrier. Because the safety equipment in his car did its job, Busch survived, but he’ll likely be out of his No. 18 for months after suffering a compound fracture of his right leg and another fracture to his left foot. The injury left Busch out of racing indefinitely and his team scrambling for a suitable replacement. Matt Crafton was flown back to Daytona to drive the No. 18 on Sunday after competing in the Camping World Truck Series race on Friday night. Crafton had never previously competed in a Sprint Cup Series race.

Busch underwent surgery Saturday night, and according to team officials, he’ll need at least one more surgery on the leg. Compound fractures also have a high risk of infection; this is the type of injury that put Tony Stewart out of the car for nearly six months in 2013 and early 2014. Stewart has undergone four surgeries with a fifth scheduled after this season. Would a SAFER barrier have prevented the injury? Maybe, maybe not, but at least if they had been there, nobody would be wondering if the speedway had done everything it could to protect its biggest asset: The drivers who race there.

DIS did announce that they will install SAFER barriers on “every inch” of exposed surface before the summer race. Too little too late for Busch, but at least the track took their share of the responsibility.

Why… did Joey Logano win the race?

In restrictor-plate racing, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. Logano held the lead when the caution flew on the final lap, and that was all she wrote. Logano had a stout car, leading six times for 31 laps, and was holding point before the final caution flew. There were a few drivers with cars capable of making a run on Logano, so the final caution did potentially change the complexion of the race’s finish. However you slice it, though, Logano is rapidly becoming a threat to win anywhere.

Logano now has wins on a short track (Richmond), a flat mile (Loudon), flat intermediates (Kansas, Pocono, Michigan), banked intermediate (Texas) and superspeedway. He’s no one-hit wonder, and he’s only getting better. He’s staked his Chase claim already in 2015, and he’s capable of backing it up when the time comes.

How… did the little guys do?

Germain Racing; Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): It wasn’t an easy day for Mears, and what could have been a costly pit road incident, when Hamlin blocked the No. 13 pit, forcing Mears to make another lap and pit again. This nearly foiled the team altogether. Mears ran near the back of the pack all day, but when it counted, he was on the move. Finishing sixth, Mears captured his fifth top 10 in the last seven plate races.

Furniture Row Racing; Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy): Truex was almost as strong on Sunday as he was a week ago in the Sprint Unlimited. He only led one lap Sunday, but he was consistently in the top 10 and might have made a run had the late cautions not played out the way they did.

Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Cole Whitt & David Gilliland (No. 34 Kentucky Fried Chicken Ford & No. 35 Speed Stick Gear Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): This team is good on the plate tracks. Gilliland lurked at the back for most of the day but was running 11th on the lap that counted, the best finish for his team. Ragan, who qualified by the skin of his teeth after a spin in his Budweiser Duel, gained 10 positions on the green-white checkered to finish 17th. Whitt, in his first race with the team, ran in the middle of the pack for most of the day and came out with a 22nd-place result, after which he tweeted the following:

HScott Motorsports; Michael Annett & Justin Allgaier (No. 46 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Annett showed flashes of his talent in 2014 with Tommy Baldwin Racing, and he kicked off 2015 with his team’s best finish, a solid 13th, outrunning drivers with more experience and resources. Allgaier was having a solid run as well and running in the top 15 before Ty Dillon blew a tire right in front of him, causing the No. 51 to spin with three laps to go. Allgaier finished 37th, but that result is not indicative of his day.

BK Racing; JJ Yeley & Johnny Sauter (No. 23 Dr. Pepper/Maxim Toyota & No. 83 Dustless Blasting Toyota): Rookie driver Jeb Burton failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, leaving Yeley and Sauter to vie for the team’s to finish. This week, the honor went to Sauter, who secured the team a top-20 finish with his 19th-place run. Yeley suffered from mechanical issues during the race and, though he was running at the end, he wound up 42 laps down in 40th spot.

JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Scott Products Chevy): Allmendinger, who made the Chase in 2014 for his single-car operation, rode mid-pack for much of the race, biding his time until the end to make his move. The No. 47 suffered some damage when the No. 2 had its engine let go just in front of Allmendinger, and was then involved in the crash on the final lap. Allmendinger limped home to finish 20th.

GoFAS Racing; Bobby Labonte (No. 32 C&J Energy Ford): Labonte started at the back of the pack thanks to a past champion’s provisional and was never able to work his way past mid-pack, finishing 24th.

Circle Sport; Ty Dillon (No. 33 Cheerios/Kroger Chevy): Dillon was having a decent run in his Daytona debut, running inside the top 10 early in the day and 21st with 10 laps to go. A blown right-front tire with three to go derailed him and dropped him to 28th at the end of the day.

Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 95 Thrivent Financial Ford): McDowell flirted with a top 10 during the middle of the race, following up a strong run in his Budweiser Duel to qualify. He got shuffled at the end, though, and wound up 31st near the tail end of the lead lap. For this team, which runs a limited schedule, it was a day in which they hoped to shine and fell just short.

Xxxtreme Motorsports; Reed Sorenson (No. 44 Golden Corral Chevy): Sorenson almost didn’t have a race to talk about. After a crash in qualifying last weekend, the No. 44 team didn’t have a backup car. They took the wrecked primary back to their shop in North Carolina and were able to get it back to Daytona on Wednesday. Sorenson raced his way into the Daytona 500 handily on Thursday, but a mid-pack run Sunday was ended half a lap shy of the finish as Sorenson was collected in a multi-car crash on lap 203.

Jay Robinson Racing; Mike Wallace (No. 66 Crazy Vapors/ X8 Toyota): Wallace is as good as anyone at Daytona, and was a solid choice to put in the car. The team just didn’t have the car to turn Wallace’s top-20 start into a strong finish, and he limped home four laps down in 36th.

Wood Brothers Racing; Blaney (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Blaney had a strong Daytona debut, qualifying 12th and running as high as seventh before he was collected in Tony Stewart‘s crash on lap 41. Blaney handled it well, not panicking as his car was pinched against the wall, and drove through. Despite damage, Blaney worked his way back into the top 10. However, an engine failure on lap 175 sent him home early with a 39th-place finish that doesn’t reflect his week.

Hillman Smith Racing: Cassill (No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevy): Cassill was impressive in his Budweiser Duel, qualifying the No. 40 in 17th spot. He has surprised on the plate tracks in the past, and was running in the top 10 for 18 laps, when an engine failure, including a scary-looking fire, sent him to the garage for the day in 43rd.

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Glen H.

Interesting quote from Kevin Harvick on the lack of a SAFER Barrier where Kyle crashed and how the tracks and NASCAR are reactive instead of proactive on safety: “I hit the same wall a little further up last year at this particular race and kind of voiced my opinion. Unfortunately, I was just a dot on the chart. There was no reaction. Now, there’s a reaction.”.

That pretty much sums up NASCAR’s approach to safety – everything is fine until someone gets hurt or killed.

Steve

All tracks should have fixed the problem after Hamlin hit the inside wall at California. Like Harvick said it got ignored. By the way, guess who owns California? Its inexcusable that the sanctioning body tells us how much Nascar cares about safety and yet their tracks do not have safer barriers on parts of their tracks. Yes, Daytona is owned by the same people that run Nascar. It seems to take someone dying or getting seriously hurt before Nascar does anything.

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