The season-opening Daytona 500 gave NASCAR fans a little bit everything. There was that last-lap pass for the lead, which is beginning to become a trademark for the Great American Race. There were plenty of battles for the lead and for positions throughout and a lot less riding around waiting for the end of the race to make a move. And then as has been the case at different times throughout the Daytona 500 history, there has also been a chance for the underdogs to make their mark in the biggest race of the season. And if you like wrecks, there were lots of them, too. All but five drivers were involved in some sort of incident.
While he only led the final lap, Kurt Busch was in contention for much of the day. While it’s true that these restrictor plate races require having some good luck in order to stay out of accidents, if a veteran driver can make it to the end with a chance, that’s who actually does have the best shot at it. Maybe the best part of Busch winning, though, was the reaction of his crew chief Tony Gibson, a NASCAR lifer who now gets to celebrate winning the biggest race of the year. And let’s not forget, Busch is now locked into a place in the Chase.
One of the new rules for NASCAR this year is that if a car needs repairs, a team has five minutes to fix it on pit road, or the car will be eliminated from the race. The spirit of the rule might be for safety reasons and not having debris fall off damaged cars. If a car is damaged bad enough that it has to go back to the garage, it is has no chance to win, or even get a top 15 finish, it’s fine to have a rule to call it a day if that happens. But clearly there are some tweaks needed for this rule. NASCAR should give teams 10 minutes to make repairs and then also not start the repair clock until the car stops in its pit box. That seems a bit more reasonable than the way it is now.
The other significant rule change is that races are now split into three segments. I like to call it three halves (I know that’s not possible, but bear with me). What I liked most about the segments is that since points were involved, drivers were fighting for positions during the end of each of the first two segments. How many times in recent years have we seen drivers ride around, protecting their place in line at a restrictor plate race with the idea of waiting until the last 20 or 25 laps to make a move. That didn’t happen Sunday and let’s hope it’s a trend that continues.
One of the more preposterous ideas being bantered about on social media Sunday night was that the race was somehow rigged since Kurt Busch, who is sponsored by Monster Energy, which also paid big bucks to become the new series title sponsor. Well, if someone can orchestrate Busch not being directly involved in the 206 accidents that took place, and then also having leaders Chase Elliott and Martin Truex, Jr. run out of gas on the final lap, well, that’s some pretty serious orchestrating. Also, that means way too many people would have to be in on the secret, meaning it wouldn’t be a secret for very long.
One of the most entertaining things to watch in the early stages of the race was watching Ryan Blaney come from the last starting position (due to having to use his backup car) to challenge for the lead by the time the first segment was complete, when he was third. The driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers car showed early that he was there to be a contender and he remained near the front for much of the day. Blaney also took advantage of the last lap scramble to finish second. If he had been able to get a little push from someone else in the final stretch, he may well have won. Considering all the carnage in the race, while it’s frustrating to come close and not win, it was still a pretty good day for the young Blaney, who also picked up points by being in the top 10 in the first two segments.
Rob Gronkowski. That’s it. Just Rob Gronkowski.
One of the best things about restrictor place racing is how much of an equalizer it can be in terms of big money teams vs. smaller budget teams. It’s hard to say how many more times we will see AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto and Trevor Bayne all finish in the top 10 in the same race this year. But they did Sunday and that’s a good thing.
How many times has Chase Elliott been in position to win a race in his first year (plus one race) only to have something happen to cost him his chance at victory? Too many times, for him and his team, for sure. Sunday he was right there only to run out of gas on the final lap. So, with this week’s race being in his home state of Georgia, I’m going with Elliott to bring home his first career victory. The deep sleeper underdog who you might not think about pick is . . . Michael McDowell. He was in contention as well near the end Sunday, only to also run out of fuel. But the No. 95 team ended last season with a series of strong finishes and a track like Atlanta just might be a good place for them to keep the momentum going.