Who… should you be talking about after the race?
NASCAR giveth and NASCAR taketh away. A year ago, a questionable boundary line call cost Justin Haley his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series win when he was disqualified at Daytona International Speedway. This time, the call went the other way, with Haley being declared the race winner after he stayed on track following a multi-car crash and the rain came before the race could resume with 33 laps to go.
Was it a fluke? Yes and no. Spire Motorsports isn’t here to win races. They’re here for the prize money and have made no bones about it. Their equipment is good enough to enter races and race awhile. That’s not a knock on Haley or any of the crew. They’re out on the track trying to get the best finish they can and there are some talented people among them, including Haley. But the cars aren’t good enough to win.
Unless the team played the strategy game perfectly. And that they did on Sunday.
The win is as legit as any. A win is a win is a win. Rain, fuel mileage, something else, the winner played the right game on that day. There is no “less than” here. Surprise, yes, and maybe a bit of disappointment that team ownership doesn’t take the races more seriously. But the driver and crewmen went out and won anyway, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Do you know who has three top-12 finishes this year for another underdog team? Corey LaJoie, that’s who. He finished 11th at Talladega in the spring and 12th in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte in May. This week he cracks the top 10 for the first time in his young career with a sixth-place run. LaJoie battled a stomach bug all weekend, but on race day, he threaded the needle during the second big crash, and that was enough to boost him to a career-best result.
The No. 32 team struggles as much as any small team and it’s one of the smallest, but it has put quality drivers in the seat in the last few years and it’s gotten some surprisingly good finishes to show for it. This is a team that wants to be in it for the long haul and grow within the sport, and, especially when you consider how many small teams have come and gone during their tenure, it’s done a credible job of it.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Superspeedway racing is a skill, and like the ability to thrive on short tracks or intermediates, not everyone has it. That was evident in the day’s first Big One, which was actually not that big by recent standards. But the wreck collected several drivers nonetheless, including Brad Keselowski, who’s possibly the best in the field at this kind of racing.
The second multi-car crash was more of the same, with skill doing little to avoid it. In fact, it was even bigger, and while it was triggered by a questionable last-minute block attempt, a lot of very good drivers saw their day end through no fault of their own.
That’s the problem with superspeedway racing in its current incarnation. There’s nowhere for drivers to go to get out of trouble, and as a result, many have any hopes dashed. There’s often little reward for being the best out there because it’s all too easy to get tangled up with someone who isn’t. After the second crash, just 18 drivers remained on the lead lap, and some of them had significant damage. It might be exciting to watch, anticipating the crashes and seeing who might get through, but it’s hard to say it was a good race when the best racers aren’t there at the end to race for the win.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Pole sitter Joey Logano was sitting pretty in the first stage, at the head of the fast line with no less than eight Fords pushing him at one point. That teamwork allowed the Ford drivers to pit together, giving them strength off pit road as well. Logano easily took the first stage win. He struggled a bit in the second stage in traffic, his car not handling as well in the pack. The final blow, though, was one that keeps repeating in this section: the second multi-car crash of the day, which relegated Logano to 25th.
Defending race winner Erik Jones took his first and, to date, only Cup win in this race last year. This time around, Jones never really found his groove, though he did run near the front early in the final stage. But, as is a common theme here, it was for naught as he was caught up in a melee on that gathered in almost 20 cars to some degree. Jones was credited with a 23rd-place finish and a second consecutive playoff run in jeopardy amid rumors of his ride being on the line next year.
Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin was having a typically strong Daytona run for most of the day, running among the leaders all the way, working both with teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. as well as others. He’s a strong speedway racer, but like Keselowski, that didn’t help when others on track triggered multi-car incidents. Hamlin got swept up and finished two laps down in 26th.
All-time active track winner Jimmie Johnson (three wins) isn’t necessarily a driver with a reputation as a superspeedway ace, but he is a veteran who knows how to work with strong speedway racers to get to the front. In the middle of a win drought, Johnson had a strong car, but would he have the help he needed to contend? He was one of the few who sailed through the Big One with what looked like ease, unscathed. Had the race gone back to green, Johnson would have been in a great position to break his winless streak. He would have restarted third with easily the best car left in the field save his less-experienced teammate William Byron’s machine. As it was, Johnson takes his second straight top-five finish for the first time in over two years.
The only driver in the field (that we know of) with a commemorative Daytona tattoo on his backside, Austin Dillon mixed it up near the front for the first half of the afternoon and won stage two. He was leading when he got tagged by Clint Bowyer and triggered the second – and much bigger – Big One of the day. Dillon’s day was ended with his car a crumpled shell and a strong run derailed with just a 33rd-place finish to show for it.
When… was the moment of truth?
During the broadcast, there was discussion in the booth about teams setting pit strategies before the race and whether that hurts them in the long run. That’s a compelling observation because with multiple teams working together under their manufacturers’ umbrella, especially early in the race, it’s hard to change anything on the fly in order to adjust to what other teams are doing. That can be beneficial, as there’s no question as to what’s next and therefore less chance for error. But it can also mean lost opportunities for playing a better strategy game than the competition.
Is a race that’s become more about surviving mayhem than anything really a strategy game? It was for Kurt Busch, who pitted from the lead just before the race was red-flagged for lightning. He would have won if not for that but would have had to pit 15 laps shy of the end if he didn’t. It was for Haley, who stayed out and ended up in position for the most unlikely Cup win in recent memory. Both teams made calls that won and lost the race. Had it gone green again, another strategy might have been the winning one.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
This week marks the end of a long-standing tradition in NASCAR: Daytona on Fourth of July weekend, at least for the time being. Next year, the second Daytona date will be the cutoff race for the playoffs, run in September.
The last time NASCAR moved one of its most traditional dates, the Southern 500, to another weekend, fan backlash was immediate and unrelenting. As in, it went on for years, until NASCAR relented and gave the date back, and it’s now one of the most popular races in the sport again with its throwback theme.
Curiously, that hasn’t happened to the same degree here. Perhaps that’s because of NASCAR’s desire to run the race in prime time, leaving the once-standard 11 a.m. start in the rearview. The problem with that is that the 11 a.m. start had a practical reason behind it: it generally meant the race ended before the all-but-inevitable summer afternoon storms. Those storms have plagued late-day racing at Daytona for years, including delaying the race for a day this time and ending it early as well. Changing the date may not make much difference, though. September is hurricane season and frankly, it’s Florida. It always rains.
It’s bittersweet to see a 60-year tradition come to an end (for now, anyway). Will fans rally to see it come back, or will a new generation of fans embrace the mayhem in the cutoff race and maybe better weather to boot?
How… will 2019 be remembered at the halfway point?
Will it be remembered for being the best racing anyone has ever seen? Absolutely not. But will it be remembered as the worst? Nope, not even close. The aero package has been the major point of discussion, but while it’s far from perfect, we’ve also seen some really good races, including some at tracks that aren’t exactly known for a stellar show, like Kansas and Charlotte.
We’ve seen dominance by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske but also two first-time winners in a row. Alex Bowman has served notice that he could be a legitimate contender in the coming years, while Haley made sure everyone knows his name.
They highlight a mixture of veterans and youngsters competing for wins. Young guns Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney join Logano in leading NASCAR’s youth movement while Kyle Busch and Truex headline for the veterans.
Meanwhile, the oldest full-time driver in the field, Johnson, has hinted that he’s not quite done yet and that reports of his racing demise might have been a bit exaggerated. On the outside of the playoff picture a month ago, Johnson has solidified his position somewhat. If he makes it, he’ll be the only driver to have competed in every playoffs since 2004.
So while it hasn’t been perfect, it’s hard to label 2019 a bust, because there are multiple storylines and some solid racing. Sure, there’s more on the table as far as it being a great season, but it has been a good one.