Suffice it to say that everything went better than expected during the 2019 Daytona 500.
Up until Sunday, Speedweeks had featured a lot of uninspired racing. Last week’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway felt like the drivers who competed in that race were just going through the motions. A mostly single-file race in the upper groove still did not save a lot of teams from tearing up race cars.
During the Gander RV Duels on Thursday night (Feb. 14), most drivers seemed to have self-preservation on their minds. Daniel Suarez made some daring moves in the first duel, while Chase Elliott attempted to put on a show in the second. But for just about everyone else, the game plan was clear: protect the car at all costs and worry about starting position later.
Saturday’s Xfinity race figured to be more entertaining. A full field and warmer race conditions suggested that the drivers might be able to get more effective drafts going in the bottom lane. However, everyone stayed glued to the top line once again. Most passing in the race was a function of positions changing on pit road, with everyone spending on-track laps waiting for the next stage break or pit stops to rerack the field.
The best race by far had been Friday night’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. By punching a bigger hole in the air, the trucks were able to sustain a style of drafting that did not keep everyone pinned to the top line. Unfortunately, the race turned out to be a bit of a wreck fest. Only nine trucks were running at the finish, with about six fighting for the win in the closing laps.
Based on all these events, the Great American Race looked like it was either doomed to be a single-file parade or a demolition derby. However, what we got was one of the best Daytona 500s in recent memory. Most of the field may have crashed in the last 40 laps, but the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers put on a show all afternoon and gave NASCAR some positive momentum as the 2019 season begins.
Maybe NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France deserves the credit for turning the tide of Speedweeks. Prior to the race, Bob Pockrass tweeted that France instructed the drivers to make use of the bottom lane and “make a show today.” It was NASCAR’s version of the carrot and the stick. Go ahead and race hard to give yourself a better chance at winning the season’s biggest race. But if that is not enough motivation, know that the big boss is watching.
All indications are that the drivers took France’s message to heart. Some of the usual suspects like Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano all survived the chaos to duke it out at the end. Yet until the end of the race, Sunday looked like it could belong to Matt DiBenedetto or William Byron.
DiBenedetto enjoyed the most competitive race of his career, leading a train of cars that caught the back end of a larger pack during a long green flag run. Byron, the race’s polesitter, got shuffled to the back a few times but showed great ability to move through the field in a race where everyone assumed passing would be difficult. Neither driver was able to contend for the win in the closing laps, but everyone knew they were here today.
Of course, DiBenedetto and Byron were not the only ones collected in wrecks. It is true that the Daytona 500 may have ended like Friday’s Truck Series race, but those two races were clearly different animals from start to finish. The truck race never seemed to find its momentum. Of the 111 laps run in the race, 55 were run under one of 11 cautions, and there was no green flag run longer than 13 laps.
In contrast, the Daytona 500 felt like it had a more natural rise in tension. The long buildup over the first three-quarters of the race found most drivers still in the game. As a result, the Cup Series racers had to take more risks, stepping little by little out of their comfort zones, risking a crash that could end the race of most competitors.
Paul Menard was the primary victim of Jimmie Johnson’s bump gone wrong in the Clash last week. But in typical plate track fashion, it was Menard who bumped DiBenedetto into a spin that set off the first big wreck of the day. It’s superspeedway racing, it happens.
Even after the field was decimated by the wrecks, there was no clear favorite. Hamlin and Busch were able to work together in the closing laps, but the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were clearly worried that Logano might swipe the victory from both of them. Not to mention that Michael McDowell, Ty Dillon and rookie Ryan Preece were all there to play the role of wildcard in the race’s finish. Indeed, Logano completely outfoxed Busch on the last lap of the race to get to Hamlin’s bumper, but he ran out of time to make one more pass.
Everyone who finished in the top 10 earned their result the hard way. Preece expertly dodged several big crashes by inches. Erik Jones climbed all the way back to third after a fuel pickup problem seemingly knocked him out of contention. Johnson and Kyle Larson battled back from crashes to bring home good results. Credit Ross Chastain as well, who drove a smart race to earn the first top-10 finish of his Cup Series career for Premium Motorsports.
The win is a big one for Hamlin, and not just because it’s the Daytona 500. After slogging through the first winless season of his career, JGR made a crew chief change for Hamlin, bringing on Chris Gabehart. The team also lost J.D. Gibbs last month, who had been fighting a neurological disorder for nearly four years. After Hamlin took the checkered flag, there is no doubt that J.D. was on the mind of his father, Joe Gibbs.
“J.D.’s name is on that car,” Gibbs said. “That’s his number 11 with Denny. He found Denny.”
Hamlin, too, paid his respects to the Gibbs family after climbing from his car.
“The whole family, they’ve done so much for me over the course of my career,” Hamlin said. “This one’s for J.D. We’re definitely gonna miss him the rest of our lives, but his legacy still lives on through Joe Gibbs Racing, and (I am) proud to do this for them.”
NASCAR still faces an uncertain future with declining TV ratings and track attendance. The 2019 aero package is still a major question mark as the first intermediate track races approach. But for one day, a great race dispelled the gloomy concerns about what kind of show NASCAR could put on in its biggest race.
Maybe Jim France is on to something.