Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Denny Hamlin carried the late J.D. Gibbs on his shoulder all the way back to Victory Lane. Hamlin went winless in 2018, the first season in his career without a victory, but he erased that losing streak Sunday in NASCAR’s biggest race. Showing everyone the best way to avoid trouble is to be in front of it, Hamlin took the lead just as the final caution flew.
That allowed him to control the restart, and once he got in front of teammate Kyle Busch, nobody could catch the No. 11. The win is Hamlin’s second in the Great American Race and the 32nd of his career. Hamlin is quietly putting himself in Hall of Fame range, even without a title.
While the field was busy spinning and crashing in the closing laps, one rookie was busy driving through the carnage like it was an everyday occurrence. Modified ace Ryan Preece had never attended the Daytona 500, even as a spectator, before Sunday (Feb. 17). But Preece was fifth for the final restart, shooting through traffic to avoid several wrecks and came home eighth. That’s a great start to Preece’s campaign and for JTG Daugherty Racing.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
One thing about the Daytona 500 is there doesn’t have to be a takeaway. Yes, it’s the beginning of the sport’s regular season. But the way the race plays out year after year is proof that, at least for this one week, nobody cares about points. Title runs can start at Atlanta Motor Speedway next Sunday.
What that gives this event is something no other race can enjoy: everyone is trying to win. Yes, that means playing strategy early, but nobody was holding back at the end. Even drivers with no shot gave it all they had, and some wrecked trying.
The carnage isn’t a good look, I admit. But really, this atmosphere is exactly what NASCAR needs to open the season. Any other time, points are too important. But for one week at least, it’s only about the win.
Maybe NASCAR needs to look at what Daytona brings out in their drivers. Is there a way to put more value on wins and less emphasis on the season title? Teams wouldn’t like it, but how about putting all that year-end point money into race purses instead? Let the champion enjoy a nice dinner at the banquet, wear that ring and hoist the big trophy… but find a way to make winning races the main focus. That would go a long way toward making the sport better.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
- Kyle Busch won the first stage and almost held the same advantage at the final caution. But teammate Hamlin squeaked past just as the yellow came out, earning lane choice. They used a little bit of teamwork to keep a charging Joey Logano behind them, but the end result kept Busch out of Victory Lane in the one race that has continually eluded him. Busch finished second, a bittersweet result for the driver, though poignant for the team after the loss of J.D. Gibbs this winter.
- Matt DiBenedetto led a career-high 49 laps and had a real chance to win until late in the race when an impatient Paul Menard got into his rear bumper, triggering a 19-car melee that ended DiBenedetto’s day along with many others. Still, the young driver had his first taste of racing a superspeedway in a competitive car, doing an admirable job. He’ll be one to watch at Talladega in a few weeks.
- Ryan Blaney brought it home in stage two, and like a lot of others, was in contention when it mattered… until he wasn’t. Blaney was just a hapless victim of the Big One, along with 18 of his closest friends.
- Clash winner Jimmie Johnson looked like a contender for his third Daytona 500 win… until Cody Ware got into teammate B.J. McLeod and spun onto pit road as a pack of cars, the No. 48 among them, was pitting. Slowing for pit speed, those cars became bowling pins for Ware, who pushed Tyler Reddick into Johnson’s car, tearing the left rear quarterpanel off. Johnson overcame a subsequent penalty, getting back on the lead lap, but got swept up in the big pileup along with half the field. Somehow, the team kept the car on track, and despite getting minor damage in the last two incidents, Johnson finished an admirable ninth.
- Brad Keselowski just might be the best superspeedway racer in the game right now, always a favorite to win at Daytona or Talladega. But a cut tire with just 14 laps to go sent the No. 2 spinning and left the 2012 champion 0-for-10 in the Great American Race. Teammate Joey Logano was lightning fast but couldn’t make the charge on Hamlin that many expected him to. Logano began his title defense with a fourth-place finish.
When… was the moment of truth?
Perhaps the field and the fans were lulled into complacency at one point. The race was inside 15 laps to go, running mainly without major incident. But Daytona is Daytona.
A week ago, Paul Menard was gunning for a win in the Advance Auto Parts Clash when Johnson got a little impatient in the late laps and turned him around. This time, it was Menard who was sniffing a run, hooking DiBenedetto into the oncoming field.
What’s telling here is that the Big One is so commonplace it has a name. Daytona was a sellout. So were all those fans banking on seeing something like this ending? Is that really the type of racing fans want to see each week? Judging by rules changes designed to tighten the pack on intermediate tracks to look more like superspeedway racing, that’s what NASCAR is banking on. It’s a big gamble.
People will say Daytona was exciting. They aren’t wrong, because it’s still possible to pass the leader with a big run. Will that be the case next week in Atlanta, or will there just be the illusion of the possibility of carnage? And will that be enough? The Big One will make the headlines this week… but what to expect every week is still a question mark.
Why… should you be paying attention?
The Daytona 500 was mostly ordinary. Outside of the weird pit road incident triggered by Ware (and that was out of the ordinary only because cars were pitting, not because an inexperienced driver with questionable credentials caused a crash), everything that went down was completely expected. Even the multi-car Big One triggered by Menard is commonplace in superspeedway racing these days. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when something like that will happen.
Moving forward, NASCAR will abandon the restrictor plate after this race for the same tapered spacer used in other races, just with less air flow. Yes, it still restricts air intake and slows cars. But proponents say it will allow for more throttle response than the current plate while still keeping horsepower low enough for cars to maintain a safe speed.
That’s worth paying attention to. Will it break up the packs and allow drivers to avoid trouble or make moves? Will it make it so a small train of cars can move around and find a line like they used to? We won’t have answers until the spring race at Talladega, but it’s absolutely a story everyone should be watching. Hopefully, a 19-car pileup won’t be inevitable anymore.
How… come damaged cars are stuck with it?
There was a time when a team with a damaged car would have had an easier fix. Teams had body pieces at the ready to rivet or tape onto the damaged area to try and salvage whatever aerodynamic help they can. But those days are in the past. NASCAR’s damaged vehicle policy no longer allows teams to replace a damaged panel. They’re also not allowed more than six minutes to make any repairs; there’s no extra man to help them.
It’s designed to keep slow cars off the track, but it comes at a cost for teams. Some with repairable cars aren’t allowed to finish, potentially meaning a handful of points at a track like Daytona where several cars crashing out is the norm. A few points can make a difference in the end-of-year paycheck, a playoff berth, even a shot at the championship. The safety implications of the damage policy are negligible and easily addressed with the black flag for a car that is shedding debris, which might not have happened had the team had adequate time to repair the car and the ability to replace a panel.
Bottom line: while NASCAR should do all it can in the name of safety, the damaged vehicle policy does more harm than good.