The Headline(s): Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson extended to seven his streak of Advanced Auto Parts Clash races at Daytona International Speedway being involved in a wreck, causing the Big One and scoring a victory for his trouble.
How It Happened: NASCAR’s second-longest track might as well have been repaved last night, as the vast majority of Sunday’s exhibition race was spent with 15-20 of the 20-car field running single file on the high side of the track. Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin both led charges that led to moments of brilliance for the lower line but never were able to seriously challenge for the race lead.
The race came to a merciful conclusion with a wreck around lap 56. Johnson, running second to polesitter Paul Menard, pulled out nearing turn 3 and got too close attempting to sidedraft, making contact with Menard’s Ford, sending him across the track into oncoming traffic. The resulting melee damaged 15 of the 20 cars in the field. Mercifully, Mother Nature had seen enough and the skies opened under the resulting caution, leaving NASCAR to call the race official after 59 laps.
Should You Care? Judging from the grandstands, not many fans did even before the race turned into a parade and ended with the race winner scoring a trophy by turning the World’s Center of Racing into a junkyard. Having said that, there were takeaways from this event that will certainly impact Speedweeks as the Cup Series heads into the Daytona 500. For one, race fans should join the Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce in praying for better weather. If cool conditions are going to produce this type of racing, where one line is considerably faster than the other, the Daytona 500 is going to be a painful affair. Fortunately, a 40-car field should mitigate that to some degree.
Second-place finisher Kurt Busch stated in his post-race comments that “I still counted a lot of Fords up front. They’re hooked up.” Busch is in a Chevrolet this season, but he immediately confirmed what every Ford driver was saying all weekend: the new Mustang body is up to speed already. Whether that will translate into the intermediate tracks where Chevrolet struggled with its new Camaro last year remains to be seen, but the Blue Ovals will still be a force to be reckoned with this Speedweeks.
Johnson walked away with the Clash trophy hours after Hendrick Motorsports swept the top four spots in Daytona 500 qualifying. Hendrick Motorsports leaves Daytona this Sunday with every piece of hardware that was up for grabs, and they did it with attitude.
When William Byron won the pole, every TV screen at Daytona was immediately focused on Chad Knaus, who was walking up and down pit road like he owned the joint. Follow that up with Johnson breaking a season-long winless streak from a year ago, and in doing so, taking absolutely no responsibility for, deliberately or not, taking out the race leader (it was a racing incident, said the No. 48 driver). The question all race fans should be asking is this: did Hendrick Motorsports put a target on their back for their performance today?
Sweeping qualifying is one thing that’ll leave teams smarting, but to follow it up winning by doing the entire field dirty could be a bridge too far. Let’s not forget that the last time the Cup Series was at Daytona, that same No. 24 car (with Byron driving) was at the epicenter of a big one on the backstretch, one that irked widely-respected plate racer Brad Keselowski and others swept up in it.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see bowties become bullseyes at some point this Speedweeks.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Johnson did win the Clash for the first time since 2005 and snapped a two-year Team Penske streak of winning this event. It was the first time a Chevrolet has won this event since 2013.
Logano finished third but deserves praise for demonstrating a supreme level of impatience while running mid-pack after the scheduled caution flag. It was Logano who coordinated with his spotter to make a charge, taking teammate Ryan Blaney with him, to pick up Hamlin and Keselowski at the bottom of the track in an attempt to form a bottom line. Their attempt was the most viable the bottom line looked all race long and got Logano up to as high as fourth before Hamlin ducked out to join the fast lane up top.
Speaking of Hamlin, though he didn’t finish, give the driver of the No. 11 credit for trying to make stuff happen all afternoon long. Hamlin’s move to the outside to pick up positions entering pit road as the field pitted en masse the lap before the scheduled caution on lap 25 was well worth the replays it got, and Hamlin was the powder keg that managed to break up the Ford party at the front of the field once the second stage of the event started.
Kurt Busch stated in his post-race remarks that prior to the wreck, he was expecting a good final 20 laps of racing, as Johnson, Hamlin and others had broken the Ford lock grip at the front. It’s a shame fans didn’t get to see that, but he’s right, and the entire field has Hamlin to thank for that.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Austin Dillon demonstrated some of the impatience that I just got done commending Logano and Hamlin for around the midway point of Saturday’s race. That’s a good thing. However, his impatience translated into pulling out to make a move while running 17th, immediately dropping back to 19th, with no driver even making a slight consideration to team up with him. Results matter, and unlike Logano and Hamlin, Dillon didn’t garner any.
Despite having one of those vaunted Hendrick Chevrolets, Alex Bowman’s only time at the front of the field came after he was one of the five cars to avoid the carnage up front. Maybe the No. 88 team thought this was the Duel.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
If there was one positive to take away from this waste of a Sunday afternoon, it’s that some of the movers and shakers in the field got impatient much earlier than they have been. Instead of parading into submission as was seen in last year’s Clash and at Talladega in the last plate race in the fall, the big moves start coming outside of 20 laps to go in a 75-lap race. That is, unfortunately, a drastic shift from what’s been seen in recent years. Unfortunate because race fans expect more competitive fire from the drivers they pay to watch, but fortunate that some in the field have had enough. Speedweeks is not lost, even after a dismal start.
The lap 25 caution was built into the race format. More than half the field pitted before said yellow flag. Nonetheless, the pinnacle facility in motorsports couldn’t get the scoring straight, and the caution lasted seven laps. If NASCAR wants TV timeouts, just call them that and stop counting the laps run under breaks. Seven laps of a (scheduled) 75-lap race being run under yellow to get the scoring straight is ridiculous.
Chase Elliott and his No. 9 team were heard strategizing on the radio that, if they got another trip to pit road, to try to make sure they left pit road in an even-numbered place that would have allowed them to start on the high side. This is at Daytona, not Martinsville. This gaming of pit road is becoming more and more prevalent (and sadly, necessary) at tracks all over the circuit, not just the one-groove short tracks, but at intermediates like Atlanta, where drivers know that restarting on the high side is borderline impossible, or Daytona, where there’s one conga line and you damn well better get in it. It’s time to rip a page from Bowman Gray Stadium’s book, put out a cone, and let drivers pick the lane they want to restart on based on where they’re running.
I wrote earlier Sunday that it was time to end the Clash. I rest my case.
Best Paint Scheme: Hamlin, for the white accents on the FedEx scheme are sharp.
Most Punctual: Keselowski, for showing up four drivers into driver intros by climbing the sidesteps of the stage while zipping up his firesuit. Runner-up to NASCAR race control, for throwing the first caution for rain so late that Aric Almirola said he was deliberately leaving space between himself and the pack to give his brakes a chance of stopping in the event of a wreck.
Where It Rated: If this race was a song, it’d have been Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” Stick whatever numerical measure you want to that.
Dust Off Your VCR: The Cup Series will take its next green flag this Thursday night for the Gander RV Duels Daytona 500 qualifying races. The first of the two Duel races are scheduled to go green at 7 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.