Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
After narrowly avoiding one crash and getting enough damage in another that his car was held together with spare pieces and duct tape, it would have been easy for Carl Edwards to settle for a mid-pack finish, riding to avoid more trouble. But that’s not the racer that Edwards is, and he overcame losing a lap in the pits for repairs to climb back to fifth when it counted. That’s a great day, but it’s also the kind of day that champions look back on at the end of the year as a turning point.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
The final lap was a barn burner, but overall? There was little passing, and while it can be debated whether that was because of the racing package or by the teams’ design, what we saw Sunday was a reminder that a good finish is not the same as a good race. It wasn’t a bad race; there was some moving within the pack, but you didn’t see drivers able to make moves to gain multiple positions in a lap or two. There wasn’t a huge crash, either, and that, coupled with the finish, was the day’s saving grace.
Can there be a great plate race without a crash? Absolutely. Look at the fall race at Talladega in 2000 (video of the finish is below, but you can find the full race on You Tube and it’s worth watching again). That was almost the perfect plate race: drivers could make bold moves on the leaders, there were multiple lead changes between multiple drivers and the closing laps were for the ages (as was the final lap on Sunday, but that’s really all). There wasn’t a big crash, though, some did wreck crossing the finish line.
The package kept the cars stable in the draft while punching a huge hole in the air, and it made for some great racing. NASCAR scrapped it after Dale Earnhardt’s death, but their reasoning that it wasn’t safe never held water, because they ran a similar package in the XFINITY Series for several more years. The best plate racing since then was the short-lived era of tandem drafting, where drivers could make moves to pass and to avoid crashes, but some fans didn’t like the smaller element of danger, and it, too, was tossed on the junk heap.
Where… did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Chase Elliott held his own in the early going, though he lost the lead. Elliott, who won the XFINITY Series race at Daytona on Saturday, was riding in the top 10 when he lost control of the No. 24 car and spun across the nose of Carl Edwards and into the infield grass. The splitter dug in, destroying the front end of the car. Elliott was unhurt, but the same could not be said for his car.
The team got it back on track with a new radiator and nose, but the repairs cost 40 laps. Elliott started on top, but finished near the bottom in his first race as a full-time Cup driver, coming home 37th. He admitted afterwards that he made an error, but the good news is that he’s got plenty of time to learn — after all, Jeff Gordon had a less-than-spectacular first year in the No. 24, too, and he turned out OK.
Joey Logano was one hot commodity in 2015, starting with his Daytona 500 win, but he didn’t start 2016 with the same magic. He didn’t have a bad race, but he didn’t have the one a lot of people expected, never leading a lap, though he ran inside the top 10 for most of the day and finished sixth. No, he’s not in the Chase (yet), but he’s in good position to finish what he started last season.
When… did it all go sideways?
There was no Big One, but there were a lot of little ones instead for teams. Brian Vickers clipped the apron and spun. He finished on the lead lap, but he was driving a car that many had pegged to win the race before its regular driver, Tony Stewart, was hurt in an off-season accident. Carl Edwards got bounced around in a couple of incidents and at one point, his team had to replace a section of the car, duct tape and all. Cut tires plagued Greg Biffle and capped off a snakebit Speedweeks for Casey Mears. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. lost control of “Amelia,” his car named for Amelia Earhart (nice sentiment, but, maybe bad juju? Things didn’t end too well for that Amelia either) and suffered too much damage to bid for the win.
The hardest crash of the day happened when Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 93 car came around and collected Chris Buescher’s machine. The two hit the wall in what looked eerily similar to the crash that claimed Dale Earnhardt’s life, but both drivers walked away sore but unharmed, a testament to what might be Earnhardt’s true legacy — the improved safety that has undoubtedly saved lives in the last decade and a half. So while the day went sideways for the two Daytona rookies, it was one of the cleanest plate races we’ve seen in a while. And that’s a great thing.
Why… did Denny Hamlin win the race?
For most of the race, it didn’t look like anyone could pass the leader, and Matt Kenseth was in the catbird seat on the final lap. Hamlin was running third and when he decided to make something happen, Kenseth blocked once and made the mistake of trying it a second time. You don’t get a second block, especially on a plate race, and Kenseth was able to hang on, but dropped like a stone. While Kenseth was trying to deal with Hamlin, Martin Truex, Jr. made his move — just a hair too soon. Hamlin was able to close on Truex coming to the checkers and passed the No. 78 in the final few feet to take the win.
After the race, Hamlin’s mother posted a picture of an essay Hamlin wrote in second grade. He might have been a little off on the date (Hamlin would have been just 18 on that day), but it’s easy to see that one thing hasn’t changed…Hamlin still loves racing.
— Mary Lou Hamlin (@11mommalou) February 21, 2016
How… did the little guys do?
The three best:
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Regan Smith: If you were away from your television for the middle of the race, you might have thought Smith was out of it after an early spin trying to avoid a crash in front of the No. 7. Except he wasn’t. Smith ran a smart, strong race, quietly making a statement that his small team may well be on the rise in 2016. Smith, who took Furniture Row Racing to Victory Lane long before Martin Truex, Jr. did, was a good pickup for TBR — he’s mature, communicates well and has enough Cup experience to make the most of the team’s updated equipment.
Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell: A year ago, Circle Sport and LFR were teams many viewers paid little attention to, but fast forward to 2016, after a merger and an alliance with Richard Childress Racing. Suddenly, this looks like another team which could go the way of Germain Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing and that is up. McDowell had to make the race the old-fashioned way as Ty Dillon drove the chartered No. 95 this week, and he did just that. McDowell dogged the top 15 on and off on Sunday, and when it counted, there he was. He’s a good driver who made the most of improved equipment, and that’s a recipe for improvement as the year goes on.
Wood Brothers Racing; Ryan Blaney: A sentimental favorite of many fans because the team doesn’t have a charter despite being the oldest organization in the sport, the Wood Brothers team is still on pretty solid ground. Blaney has run well every time he’s been in the car, and many of the results he’s gotten have been clouded by bad luck. They’re capable of top-20 finishes all year long, with some top 15s and a few top 10s thrown in. They’re aligned with Team Penske, Ford’s top team, and they have good people in place. 2016 will be far from a disaster, charter or no charter.
All the rest:
|7||Regan Smith||Tommy Baldwin Racing||Nikko / Toy State / Golden Corral Chevy||27th||8th|
Spun early; had a nice save and didn’t hit anything, ran in top 20 midrace; Smith is a good plate driver; imoressive finish
|59||Michael McDowell||Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing||Thrivent Financial / K-LOVE Chevy||39th||15th|
Very impressive top 15; lost a lap in pits but got free pass late
|21||Ryan Blaney||Wood Brothers Racing||Motorcraft Ford||7th||19th|
Very impressive through first half of race; loose wheel under fourth caution but was able to pit before green to fix it; car was capable of a top 5
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing||Scott Products Chevy||30th||21st|
Started at rear in backup car; solid, quiet run
|38||Landon Cassill||Front Row Motorsports||Florida Lottery Ford||24th||23rd|
Solid as always on plate tracks; had a good run but not a great one Sunday
|95||Ty Dillon||Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing||Cheerios / Kroger Chevy||12th||25th|
Avoided trouble, caught in traffic jam in closing laps
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports||Pilot Flying J Chevy||22nd||27th|
Solid run; avoided trouble and kept car in one piece
|23||David Ragan||BK Racing||Dr. Pepper Toyota||29th||29th|
Finished where he started; big moves were hard to make at the back of the pack this time around
|83||Michael Waltrip||BK Racing||Maxwell House Toyota||36th||30th|
Black flagged after tire penalty on green flag pit stop
|32||Bobby Labonte||GO FAS Racing||Ford||33rd||31st|
Lead lap finish a fair start for team which struggles for them throughout the year
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||GEICO Chevy||32nd||32nd|
Unscheduled stop for a bad vibration put him a lap down just past halfway after a heartbreaking loss in Duel after fuel miscalculation; car was capable of top-5 run
|15||Clint Bowyer||HScott Motorsports||5 Hour Energy Chevy||31st||33rd|
Lost a lap after penalty and couldn’t recover it; had a decent car and never had a chance to do anything with it
|26||Robert Richardson, Jr.||BK Racing||Stalk It Toyota||40th||38th|
Car was smoking early in the race; went to the garage for engine issue-broken valve
|34||Chris Buescher||Front Row Motorsports||Love’s Travel Stops Ford||17th||39th|
Reported a vibration early but it went away; involved in hard crash with Matt DiBenedetto but was OK
|93||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing||Dustless Blasting Toyota||20th||40th|
Got into the wall on lap 91, collected Chris Buescher; both took hard hits but are OK
|30||Josh Wise||The Motorsports Group||Curtis Key Plumbing Chevy||DNQ||—||—||—|
|35||David Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||DNQ||—||—||—|
|40||Reed Sorenson||Hillman Racing||CRC Brakleen Chevy||DNQ||—||—||—|
|98||Cole Whitt||Premium Motorsports||Toyota||DNQ||—||—||—|