Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Austin Dillon started on the pole and ran a competitive race. He might have had a late run for the victory, in fact, had it not been derailed by a crash on track. Still, Dillon was able to finish a strong fifth. He ran a smart, solid race, and he was trying to make something happen on the final lap. A small shift in circumstances, like many plate races, could have provided an even better ending.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
There is a lot to like about the changes NASCAR made to the restrictor plate package this season. The Clash looked a bit like some Daytona races of old. There were gaps between groups of cars, causing a much greater ability for an organized group to make a run at the front. Handling also played a larger role, the new ride height rules leaving cars less stable in the air. Drivers were able to move from deep in the field toward the front. That’s all good.
What was missing was the feeling the lead was the last place a driver wanted to be with a lap or two to go. Perhaps the field waited too long to make a move, any move at all, on the leader. Or maybe if Kyle Larson hadn’t turned Jimmie Johnson on the final lap, which stalled any last-ditch run, someone would have been able to get by Brad Keselowski. But compared to the first segment of the race, the finish was a little disappointing.
The package from the early 2000s, which produced some of the best plate racing to date, remains NASCAR’s best. Dale Earnhardt’s final win at Talladega stands as the gold standard, and I was also a fan of the tandem racing a few years back. Still, this package is solid and should produce some excitement for superspeedway fans next weekend.
Where… did Brad Keselowski come from?
Keselowski started at the tail of the field Sunday. But he said before the race he felt the No. 2 team could win, and win they did. It’s true that he benefitted from the last-lap crash, waylaying anyone else’s chance at a win. But the 2012 Cup Series champ got to the front and stayed there, keeping out of the line of fire.
Keselowski is one of the sport’s best plate racers, though he’s fared better at Talladega than Daytona. He’s intuitive enough to know when to make a run and aggressive enough to make the right moves. But he’s also smooth enough to make those moves without the tiny mistakes that prove the difference between getting to the front and winding up in the middle of a pile of smoking wrecks.
Winning the preseason warm-up hasn’t traditionally meant much the following weekend, when the race is 500 miles. But it gives Keselowski a little Daytona swagger and makes him one to watch when it really counts.
When… was the moment of truth?
On the final lap, we should have seen what the cars can do in the draft with big money on the line. Instead what we saw was a cloud of smoke as Larson, spurred from behind by Kyle Busch, ran into the back of Johnson. That proved to be a big mistake, sending Johnson around and collecting Busch.
The caution means there’s still a question mark about whether the leader can be challenged late in the race. But it did put an exclamation point on how difficult the cars are to handle in their current trim. Larson looked to hit Johnson square, which in the past they might have gotten away from, but not this time. The Chevrolet Camaro bears watching this week; its nose configuration appears to be more difficult to push with than its predecessor, so while fast, the model will take some getting used to.
Can one contend? Sure, and so far at least, the three makes seemed fairly equal. We’ll know more on that front a month from now, but Chevy has looked strong at Speedweeks if nothing else.
Why… do we still have the yellow line rule?
The rule was implemented at a time when NASCAR was desperate to make racing safer. It was designed to keep drivers from diving onto the apron at Daytona and (moreso) Talladega and then blending back into traffic going into the turns. The banking at those tracks and the speed at which cars travel made the move a dangerous one. It’s hard to hang on to a stock car as it crosses from a flat surface to a much more vertical one. The driver would often lose control and cause a crash, or there would be no room for him to blend in, also causing a wreck. In theory, it was a safety improvement at a time when the sport was a little gun-shy.
It’s tough to see other drivers’ days end early from an incident they played no role in causing. But other safety improvements have made that aspect of the rule less critical than they were when the walls were concrete and the cars less able to take the shock of an impact.
It’s also nearly impossible to call fairly because what constitutes a driver forced down below the yellow line is cloudy. If a driver does dip a few feet low, he’s easy prey. Pin him there and he can’t make any move except to drop back. NASCAR rarely makes the call that the driver was forced down over the line, even when it looks clear that he was.
The rule states that if a driver gives the position back if he gains one below the line, there’s no penalty. But it’s next to impossible to give a position to one car on a plate track, so he’ll lose multiple positions. That’s if someone doesn’t run over him in the process, causing the wreck the rule was meant to avoid in the first place.
In the “Boys, Have At It” era, the rule should be ruled obsolete. With every point so valuable these days, most drivers aren’t going to make a move that will potentially cost them a race, and if it’s the last lap, it’s the last lap. I’m all for making racing as safe as possible, but in this case, the rule has been detrimental. Maybe it’s time for that double yellow line to fade into the past.
How… important are the two non-points races?
Here’s an answer for you: They’re really important and not very important at all. To the teams in the season-opening Clash and midseason All-Star Race, they’re a chance to do two things: let it all hang out with nothing on the line and learn a little something for points-paying races later on. That first part is why they’re great for fans with nothing to lose but some pride and a very expensive racecar. These races are one of the few times when teams don’t have to worry about anything but checker or wreckers, and it shows in boldness and aggression throughout the event.
But don’t think for a moment that teams in this race had nothing to gain but a trophy. Next week’s Daytona is NASCAR’s biggest stage, and the 17 drivers in Sunday’s event got extra practice time for the Clash as well as the race itself. And while they won’t race the same cars next weekend, they can learn how the new restrictor plate package handles in race conditions. That’s an advantage over 23 other teams and drivers. Fair? Maybe not, but there is certainly an argument to be made for earning the spot. The flip side is the Clash further separates the haves and have-nots. Let’s face it: if you don’t have money, you ain’t in the show dedicated to pole winners and playoff drivers.
On the other hand, these races more often than not end up with some torn-up cars. All for what, exactly? They’re fun to watch because of the nothing-to-lose mentality. But they’re awfully expensive and make an already-long season two weeks longer for teams.
All in all, NASCAR’s Clash and All-Star Race are fun events for fans. In the case of the Clash, they’re an exciting welcome to the season. If the teams didn’t have to be there already for Daytona 500 practice and qualifying, adding another week away from home for teams would be less appealing.
But since everyone is at the track anyway, why not have a little race?