The Headline(s): With weather impending after a lap 119 wreck, Kurt Busch came to pit road after NASCAR gave the one-to-go command, handing the race lead to Justin Haley. NASCAR then reversed course and kept the race under yellow after lightning reportedly struck within eight miles of Daytona International Speedway, necessitating a red flag that wouldn’t be lifted. With persistent rain pelting the speedway, Haley was declared the winner after 127 laps.
— Daytona International Speedway (@DAYTONA) July 7, 2019
How It Happened: Starting from the pole as the points leader, Joey Logano benefited from a strong push from Kevin Harvick to take an early lead. For the opening laps, the Ford Mustangs displayed all the speed they showed during Speedweeks in February, with Logano, Harvick and Brad Keselowski moving the low line to the front despite the efforts of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch on the high side. By lap 11, the top 10 of the field had gone single file, with the Fords holding the point. Ford’s stranglehold on the field continued until they held nine of the top 10 positions before coming as a group to pit road for green flag pit stops on lap 36, with the only incident being Aric Almirola missing his pit stall.
The following lap saw the Toyotas and Chevrolets pit en masse, though with several near-misses; Hamlin got loose on pit road entry and made contact with Kyle Busch, while several cars had close calls entering and exiting their stalls. When it cycled through, the Fords took the lead in a line from the exiting Chevrolets and Toyotas, with Harvick out front by lap 42. Chase Elliott got a line of Chevrolets organized and using the bottom line was able to crack the top five by the end of the first stage. But the stage was led by the Fords, with Logano using a last-lap push from Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. to pass Harvick for the stage win.
Stage two looked to be more of the same, with Stenhouse taking the lead from Elliott thanks to drafting help from six Fords in a line, but that went out the window soon after, with Stenhouse spinning on lap 59 as he cut down on Kurt Busch’s nose racing for the lead on turn 4 exit:
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) July 7, 2019
Though the resulting pit stops resulted in Clint Bowyer taking the race lead, the Fords were shuffled up front when the race went green again on lap 63. By lap 66, Austin Dillon led an organized line of Chevrolets to the race lead on the low side, a lead they’d hold until lap 75 when Kurt Busch spun in turn 3 after contact with the wall, clipping Brendan Gaughan as well.
When the race went green on lap 78, three-wide racing ensued, and it wasn’t long before the first major incident of the afternoon. Keselowski, shuffled to the high side of three-wide coming down the frontstretch, lost control of his machine after getting a push from Harvick, triggering a crash that would also collect the Fords of Daniel Suarez and David Ragan:
Brad Keselowski is done for the day after this wreck at Daytona.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 7, 2019
Dillon kept the lead on the lap 87 restart, and with the help of Hendrick Motorsports pushing, would hold off a lap 95 charge from Bowyer and Stenhouse to win stage two for the bowtie brigade.
As the final stage began, weather was on the minds of all teams, and the intensity of the race up front picked up. Dillon continued to lead the Chevrolet line up front, but with fellow playoff bubble drivers Stenhouse and Erik Jones up front, the battle for the lead was hot and heavy. However, it would be Hamlin that would seize the lead from Dillon on lap 114, before three-wide action also saw Logano and a damaged Paul Menard also competing for the point.
The Big One finally hit on lap 119, when Austin Dillon’s block on Bowyer at the front of the field triggered a massive melee:
We'll let the video speak for itself https://t.co/YE8kJGGjDF
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) July 7, 2019
After a lengthy clean-up and numerous penalties on pit road, the race was given the one-to-go command on lap 124, with Kurt Busch and the majority of the leaders who had not yet pitted under the caution to pit road for fuel with the resumption of the race eminent. That handed the lead to Haley, whose crew chief kept him on pit road with weather visibly coming (Austin Dillon noted during his interview at the care center under this yellow that he saw lightning strikes). Before the green flag flew, NASCAR put the yellow back out, citing imminent lightning. By lap 127, the race was red-flagged for good.
Why Should You Care? For one, regardless of circumstance, Haley winning this race is about a big an upset as they come. It’s easily the biggest Cup underdog win since Chris Buescher’s rain-shortened win at Pocono in 2016. Making just his third full-time start in the series, it’s the first example of a Xfinity Series regular taking a Cup win since Keselowski won at Talladega in 2009 and Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500.
Interestingly, if the race ends now. … Justin Haley would become the third non-Cup driver to win a MENCS race joining Trevor Bayne (2011 Daytona) and Brian Vickers (2013, NHMS) #NASCAR
— Ray M. Smith (@RayMSmith) July 7, 2019
In Daytona terms, it was the most visible underdog story the track has seen since Dave Blaney was leading the 2012 Daytona 500 in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 car during a lengthy red flag to clean up the jet fuel spill resulting from Juan Pablo Montoya’s collision with the jet dryer.
But the tone here was much different. Whereas social media and the broadcast booth was ablaze that race with plaudits for Blaney and dreams of what it’d mean to have the “Buckeye Bullet” win the Great American Race, instead the discussion around Haley and his Spire Motorsports team was a bit more… pointed:
Spire Motorsports — a team that’s shown no interest in being competitive whatsoever and a team with insane conflicts of interest that wouldn’t be allowed in any other major sports series — winning a race is harmful to NASCAR.
It’s harsh. But it’s the truth. https://t.co/j13yXaWcux
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) July 7, 2019
It’s hard to know where to start with this criticism (and I’m not picking on the Frontstretch alumnus here, he was far from the only writer going off on Spire). But there’s two elements that really bothered me here. Let’s start with the “no interest in being competitive” line. For one, to steal from Jeff Gluck, Haley’s strategy of avoiding wrecks and staying out when the rest of the field pitted is seldom a winning strategy, but it is a strategy, and it worked here. Haley and the No. 77 team played by the rules and won a Cup race. If that’s not trying to be competitive, I don’t know what is.
But more importantly, all of NASCAR’s fans, media, etc. need to take a deep breath here before going after the No. 77 team for competitive reasons. Sure, Spire has been toward the back of the field most of the season, but they’ve contested every race and attempted to go the distance at all of them. It’s still less than a decade ago that Prism Motorsports and MSRP Motorsports (both of which boasted TV analyst Phil Parsons as a co-owner) were doing start-and-park runs as a multi-car effort in both the Cup and Xfinity Series.
Today, start-and-park in the Cup ranks at least is all but extinct. What’s more, Spire Motorsports has not been that far off the efforts of their partner, Premium Motorsports, at the back of the garage. Keep in mind that’s the same Premium operation garnering plenty of plaudits for giving current media darling (and NASCAR multi-race winner) Ross Chastain seat time. Spire is a backmarker team, but they’re hardly a black eye on the sport.
As far as the arguments go about the existence of Spire Motorsports being a conflict of interest, I’m not batting an eye on this one… because the cat’s been out of that bag for as long as I’ve been following the sport. Since that time (2003), I’ve seen TV analysts owning race teams (Brad Daugherty, Rusty Wallace), carpetbagging millions out of the series with start-and-park cars (Parsons) and even leading new manufacturers into the sport (Toyota and the Waltrips). That’s not to mention the revolving door between race teams, race team PR and media present in the NASCAR garage that rivals the door between the public and private sector in Washington, D.C.
There’s also been no shortage of power teams holding vice grips on other competitors in NASCAR. Remember, the origins of Stewart-Haas Racing certainly blurred the lines on NASCAR’s team ownership limits when they partnered with Hendrick Motorsports. Back in the mid-2000s, Hall of Fame Racing was basically an offshoot of the Joe Gibbs Racing powerhouse.
To compare the prohibitions of agency ownership in leagues like the NFL to NASCAR is comparing apples to pineapples. Even with its charter system, NASCAR racing remains an open sport. If I won the lottery tomorrow, there is nothing stopping me from buying race cars and showing up at Kentucky Speedway next weekend with my own team.
Perhaps most telling of all, Haley and Spire, in a Chevrolet, won Sunday’s race by besting Kurt Busch’s Chevrolet on pit strategy. The move also cost Byron a win that would have taken him off the playoff bubble and put the No. 24 Chevrolet team in the postseason. What conflict of interest?
I’ll let Utter finish this one off.
Just one of many hypocrisies https://t.co/tfscJ7HSQ9
— Jim Utter (@jim_utter) July 7, 2019
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Let’s start with Haley. Granted, he won Sunday’s race by doing nothing (his words, not mine), but his performance at Daytona (no wrecks, and competent strategy) follows up his Cup debut at Talladega, where he had the No. 77 car in the top 15 for much of the afternoon before a wreck. Coupled with his consummate team player performance in pushing Kaulig Racing teammate Chastain to victory in the Xfinity Series race Friday, and Haley’s stock in the Chevrolet camp definitely has soared this weekend. Even money he ends up in the No. 77 for the fall Talladega race at a minimum.
Both Byron and Michael McDowell scored good finishes courtesy of notable evasive maneuvers through the lap 119 big one. Byron, as noted in his rain delay interview, capitalized on the “seas parting” for his No. 24, while McDowell used what Dale Jr. called the “turbo button” to sprint by the carnage on the track’s apron. Byron’s runner-up finish was a career-best, while McDowell’s 13th place finish was his best since the 500 in February.
Johnson’s third-place finish was his best of 2019, his first podium since Bristol last spring and best Daytona finish in a points race since the 2015 Firecracker.
Ryan Newman scored his first top five since Talladega in the fall of 2017 to move back into the playoff picture.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Ryan Blaney had bright spots during Sunday’s race, taking the lead at lap 64 and at several times working through lapped traffic to get in line with the Fords up front, but his hard-luck 2019 continued. Despite getting a huge break from his buddy Bubba Wallace on lap 113 that saw the No. 43 brake in the center of a three-wide battle to stay off the No. 12, Blaney’s car was utterly destroyed in the lap 119 big one; the 36th place finish was Blaney’s worst since Texas.
The gaping chasm in ride quality between the Kaulig machine that Chastain won in on Friday and the Premium Motorsports ride he drove Sunday was readily apparent from the get go; both Chastain and teammate Quin Houff battled every kind of mechanical malady imaginable on Sunday, from plug wires to bad clutches. Though Chastain didn’t have to spend the extended time behind the wall Houff did, both drivers finished 30th and 37th, respectively, five and 19 laps off the lead.
Despite showing speed at the front of the field, both Austin Dillon and Stenhouse also triggered wrecks while leading the race. Stenhouse’s block on Kurt Busch on lap 59 was the more innocuous of the two, but the fact that both drivers triggered wrecks at the front of the field while already having less than stellar reputations on superspeedways is likely to prove costly, both in terms of losing their best shot at wins to lock into the playoffs and in finding drafting help come Talladega in the fall. As for Dillon’s incident with Bowyer, we’ll just leave this one here:
— Jacob (@JacobRE1996) July 7, 2019
No driver wrote more headlines leading into Sunday’s race than Keselowski, who single-handedly resurrected the legions of Hendrick Motorsports fans by wrecking Byron in practice in apparent frustration for late blocking that has wrecked the No. 2 car out of several recent superspeedway races (more on that later). For all that attention paid to blocking, however, Keselowski would wreck himself out of the race on lap 83 when he lost control of his machine drafting with Harvick. Keselowski to his credit took full responsibility for the incident, but the fact remains that the No. 2 finished 39th, and that arguably NASCAR’s most accomplished superspeedway racer has not finished in the top 10 at Daytona since 2016.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Watching NASCAR Twitter explode after Keselowski’s wreck on lap 83 was about as frustrating an experience as sitting for hours waiting for NASCAR to pull the plug on Sunday’s race. It all started with NBC’s broadcast booth trying to stir the pot when Keselowski got into Harvick while drafting early in stage two, forcing Harvick into the save of the day. NBC wasted no time equating that to Keselowski’s promise “not to lift.” Leave it to Keselowski’s wife to put that fake news story to bed:
Now granted, it didn’t look great to have Harvick deliver the blow on lap 83 that took Keselowski out of the race. But let’s be very clear here… neither Keselowski nor Harvick were sending messages in either of their incidents. After forcing Harvick into the save early in the second stage, Keselowski stayed behind the No. 4 and kept drafting with him without incident. After the lap 83 wreck, Keselowski fired no barbs at Harvick, acknowledging he lost control of his car. What’s more, NBC and Twitter alike found no Harvick radio bombs celebrating vengeance over the No. 2 car. These two drivers have a less than subtle history with each other… if they were trying to mess with each other, it’d have come out.
As for Keselowski’s remarks, boy does context matter. “I’m not lifting” referred to late blocking, just like the type that Byron threw in this race a year ago that wrecked Keselowski and others. What occurred between Harvick and Keselowski was NOT a block… running on the high-side of three-wide without shifting lanes is driving, not blocking. What Austin Dillon tried to do to Bowyer on lap 119 was blocking. There’s a less than subtle difference between the two, even if that was apparently lost on much of the fanbase Sunday.
And NBC, give us a break with the catchphrases already. Halfway through Sunday’s race, “he’s not lifting” was about to become 2019’s “slide job.” Not to mention that the side-by-side coverage on lap 43 was probably the worst example of it any network has employed, featuring a lead pack shot that cut the lead car out of it and an in-car shot on lap 43 that showed nothing but the backstretch retaining wall.
Per Bob Pockrass, the rationale for not throwing a competition caution on Sunday despite rain greening the Daytona surface was a completely reasonable one:
Crew chiefs apparently told NASCAR that competition caution not necessary. I would think since they need to pit during the stage, they could choose to pit early if they wanted to under green. https://t.co/1oDt6swA1Y
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) July 7, 2019
Though it begs the question… why wouldn’t the “option to pit early” apply to every Cup race at every track? This inconsistency still reeks of weather driving the decision more than safety/competition concerns.
Despite being the fastest cars at Daytona, again, Ford’s Mustangs again went home without a trophy. Meanwhile, Chevrolet’s teamwork up front proved to be more disciplined and organized than Fords, even with a loose cannon like Austin Dillon leading for much of it. Either the rest of the bowtie brigade feared having Dillon pushing (entirely plausible after seeing his move on lap 119) or Chevrolet motorsports leadership are getting a far more effective message through to their drivers than the Ford camp.
The end of Friday night’s Xfinity race was probably the best example of officiating by NASCAR I can remember for as long as I’ve been following the sport; though the race featured three single-car spins during the final run, all three resulted in the cars not hitting the wall, not dropping debris, and staying off the racing line. NASCAR for once showed restraint, keeping the race green during each of those episodes. Fast forward to Sunday, and come lap 59, Stenhouse’s single-car spin brings out the yellow. Consistent inconsistency.
That’s not to say that Friday’s race was perfect. The decision to penalize Haley for (allegedly) forcing Noah Gragson and Riley Herbst below the yellow line at the end of the first stage was a laughable attempt to avoid having to penalize three cars at the end of a stage. Just the latest example of the stupidity of the yellow line rule: let’s paint over it already.
Watching Wallace throw football with the crowd during the lightning delays on Sunday prompted Matt Dillner to wonder why Bubba Wallace isn’t the most popular driver in NASCAR:
— Matthew Dillner (@MatthewDillner) July 7, 2019
I’d wager an average career finish of 24.4 with no top 10s since 2018 has a lot more to do with it than diversity advocates care to admit.
The more significant discussion to be had about the football tossing with the crowd is that it happened while NASCAR and Daytona were under a “seek shelter” advisory with lightning in close proximity. It’s very hard to take a lightning delay with no rainfall seriously when a competitor is standing on the racing surface playing catch with fans seated in the metal grandstands. Perhaps that’s why Daytona International Speedway deleted their Tweet commemorating the game of catch:
On a final weather related note, as bad as it looked for Kurt Busch to pit from the lead at one-to-go on lap 124, only to see NASCAR go back to yellow thanks to lightning striking within eight miles of the track, I’m not going to fault NASCAR on that one. The difference between a lightning strike at 8.01 miles away vs. 7.99 miles away is not discernible to the naked eye, and that’s ultimately what Busch’s crew chief Matt McCall had to rely on when deciding to pit from the lead. If nothing else, NASCAR was apparently (and thankfully) consistent with their handling of the weather when compared to last week’s decision to run 11 laps at Chicagoland with the storm coming.
Best Paint Scheme: Tifft. Two weeks running for the No. 36 team.
That’s one sweet ride! 🤙 pic.twitter.com/aaM914xjGa
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) July 4, 2019
It’s completely appropriate for a race at Daytona Beach… and also a reminder that I should have just stayed at the beach instead of rushing home to better wifi to ensure I could adequately cover Sunday’s mess.
The Kevin Malone “Call It” Award: Harvick’s car. It was so ready to go back to Charlotte that the tires spontaneously combusted:
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 7, 2019
Washed Down the River Bracelet: Kurt Busch. The house (NASCAR) always wins, this time bettering the car with a poker scheme with their lightning call the equivalent of Lucy pulling the football back.
Where It Rated: After two stellar superspeedway races to open the season with the 500 and a rock-solid Talladega show, Sunday’s 400-miler rivaled the Clash in terms of frustration and general ineptitude. I’ll rate this race the same as the showing of Midsommar I saw this weekend; ordering a ridiculously overpriced Coke, getting a Coke Zero Sugar instead, missing the trailers to get it refilled properly and then getting back only to see a movie that failed to live up to any expectations.
What’s the Points: Alex Bowman, Busch, Elliott, Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. have locked into the playoffs by winning races in 2019. If the playoffs started today, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Almirola, Blaney, Byron, Johnson, Kyle Larson, Bowyer and Newman would point their way into the playoffs. Newman currently holds a three point lead over Suarez for the final playoff spot.
Up Next: The Cup Series will try the whole night racing thing again when it heads to Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night. Coverage from just south of Skyline Chili country starts at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.