I fear calling this time of year “late winter” might be overly optimistic when it comes to continued cold snaps and snow, but I have it on expert what remains of winter will be brief. If you can’t trust a groundhog, who can you trust? Let’s just say we’re in that brief period of time between two quasi-holidays, Super Bowl Sunday and Saint Patty’s day. And with the NFL having packed its bags and exited stage right, NASCAR will try to step center stage with the Daytona 500 and the mechanized hoopla that comes along with it.
Truth be told, at least to date, the Mid-Atlantic northeast region I call home hasn’t had to endure that rough a winter. It’s been warmer than normal. The young-uns tell me that’s global warming. The older guys at the firehouse tell me sometimes these things just happen. Ain’t no accounting for it.
The sports car types actually returned fast loud cars to the track at Daytona a couple weeks back, but the big dog stock cars get off the porch this weekend. If you’ve developed a facial twitch or sour gut, or endured an occasional bout of weeping going through withdrawal from stock car racing over the past 83 days, your fix is at hand. Tune in this Sunday morning (February 9) at noon on FOX for Daytona 500 qualifying.
Leave it to NASCAR to kick off the season with what is arguably one of the most boring bits of “racing” anyone still broadcasts on live TV. I forget if it was Mike Skinner or Bobby Hamilton who once opined that you could teach a purple-butt baboon to qualify at Daytona overnight. Cars run against the clock one at a time around that great big 2.5-mile high-banked track that dwarfs them and masks just how fast they are actually going.
And as they say repeatedly in Bill Murray’s unappreciated semi-classic film Meatballs, “It just doesn’t matter.” Only the top two qualifiers earn a starting spot in qualifying. The rest of the drivers earn a starting spot in the 150-mile qualifying races to be run on Thursday the 13th. Even numbered qualifiers (second, fourth, etc.) run in the first 150-miler while odd numbered qualifiers (third, fifth, etc.) run in the second qualifier.
In years past, there was at least some drama in Daytona qualifying when more competitive cars showed up to make the race than there were starting spots to accommodate them. As recently at 2015, nine drivers and teams failed to make the race. This year, every entry list I’ve seen to date indicates that 43 drivers will attempt to earn one of 40 starting spots. 36 of those drivers run for one NASCAR’s charter teams, meaning they can sleep easy, knowing they have a starting spot for the 500 whatever foul fortune befalls them. The two fastest non-charter team cars in Sunday’s qualifying session will also know they’ve made the race Sunday afternoon.
The two highest finishing non-charter cars not yet in the field in the 150-mile qualifying races will be given starting berths for the 500. Why not just run qualifying as usual and let the top 40 fastest cars make the race? Because of the chance a name driver or a high-dollar sponsor might miss the big show. So why hold the 150s? DIS may not sell a lot of tickets to Thursday evening’s shenanigans anymore, but it still beats having the track sit idle yet another day. And it gives the TV folks a teaser to warm up for the 500. Expect a spate of panicked phone calls to hearing doctors on Monday from race fans who fear they are going deaf. Ladies and gentlemen, Darrell Waltrip has left the building. An old adage states that when you have nothing of import to say, at least say it quietly.
So after watching 43 cars take their single car runs around the track, a process that takes about two and a half hours, the top 12 drivers then head for second-round qualifying. The fastest two are guaranteed a front row start for the 500, unless they wreck their cars in the 150s on Thursday, which is why typically you’ll see those two drivers all but park their play-pretties back in the garage shortly after the start of their qualifying races.
If seems like there’s a lot of jumping through hoops and a whole herd of trained poodles doing tricks on miniature bicycles just to set the starting lineup for a race, huh? Perhaps the teams are intent on getting a better pit stall, but when it comes to the race itself, well Mr. Tripper, if you would? It just doesn’t matter. Daytona was a plate race back when they were still called plates, not “tapered spacers” or whatever euphemism we’ll be applying to them this year. “Global Cooling Devices?” A starting spot at Daytona just doesn’t matter. Some drivers who qualified well will almost certainly drop to the rear of the field within a few laps of the start, thinking that things can be a little intense closer to the front of the pack, capable of triggering the restrictor plate tradition of a field-decimating wreck AKA “the Big One.” And doubtless, some red-faced driver muttering the foulest of curses under his breath as he wriggles out of a racecar that looks like a Baby Ruth bar festooned in decals will tell the press “It is just too early to be racing like this!” And I feel a majority of race fans agree it might be better if NASCAR kicked off their season in late April or something.
It varies year to year, but often it seems that the racing in earnest in the Daytona 500 doesn’t really commence until the final 5-10 laps. And about then yes, it really does matter. It matters a good deal. There are large checks about to be written and hosannas to be bestowed on the top-finishing drivers but oddly enough, and perhaps unique to NASCAR, the same amount of points will be awarded to the winner of this year’s NHIS snooze-fest as will be awarded to the winner of the Daytona 500, which at least bills itself as the biggest race of the year. There are some folks in and around Darlington, S.C. who would dispute that of course.
Longtime fans are like fire horses put out to pasture once the fossil fuel-powered fire engines arrived. You hear that bell and you still take off a full gallop. So, after you make it through qualifying upright and alert, what’s next? Starting somewhere around 3 p.m. ET is what they’re calling the Busch Clash (again) this year.
The Clash was first run in 1979. In its original and purest form the Clash was a 20-lap race (50 miles). Entry into the event was pretty much restricted to drivers who had won a pole position at a NASCAR race the previous season. Nine drivers made the cut for the 1979 Clash. Buddy Baker won it. He took home a $50g check for that win, a pretty nice hourly wage for a race lasted all of 15 minutes and 26 seconds. I think I’ve heard “vocalists” at Cup races drag the National Anthem out longer than that over the years. A new arrival on the Cup scene, one Dale Earnhardt, decidedly the Senior, won the 1980 Clash to great rejoicing.
The fact Earnhardt made the race is of some note in that during his storied career Earnhardt the Original was never a very good qualifier. He’d won the pole for the previous year’s races at Riverside, Richmond, Dover and North Wilkesboro to make the cut. But in 676 Cup starts Earnhardt earned just 22 poles. (For comparison’s sake, Jeff Gordon started 805 Cup races and took the pole for 81 of them, roughly one pole for every 10 starts.) After ’79, Earnhardt didn’t win another pole again until 1982 and the next one after that was in 1985. As such, Dale in fact missed the 1981 Clash despite being the defending champion of the event.
From 1991 to 1997, the race remained 50 miles in length, but was divided into two 10-lap segments with a caution in between the two. And that’s when things started going awry by the standards of the “One Sentence Rule.” Conventional wisdom states that if you can explain an event in a single sentence it is bound to succeed. If it takes more than that to explain, it will probably fail. So what was the Busch Clash in one sentence? It was a 20-lap race between the drivers who had won pole positions in the previous year’s Cup races. Got it. See you in about 15 minutes. Don’t forget your checkbook. Bring beer.
In 1998, Rube Goldberg got his mitts on NASCAR’s printing press before the rules for the Clash (now sponsored by Budweiser). That year there was a race for those drivers not yet into the Clash, with only the winner of that race qualifier race being added to the field. And the race was run in two 25-lap segments. Somewhere during those two 25-lap segments, the drivers and teams had to make at least a two-tire pit stop.
In 2001 the race bloated up to 70 laps. The race had to end under green (borrowing that idea from the Truck Series). If the event was about to end under the yellow there’d be Green/White/Checkered finish. Repeat as necessary.
In 2003 any pretense of a simple to understand shootout style race went right out the window, carrying the baby with the bathwater. The race started with a 20-lap segment. It concluded with a 50-lap segment. In between the two segments there was a 10-minute intermission. A 10-minute intermission during an auto race? Who in tarnation came up with that idea? You ain’t from around here, are you, boy?
The simple determination of who made the race was another casualty of “progress.” Those drivers who won a pole for a Cup race the previous season continued to be eligible. Add in former Clash winners. And former NASCAR Cup champions who raced the previous season. And former Daytona 500 pole winners. And any drivers who made the previous year’s playoffs but weren’t yet in the Clash. And if need be, the driver who qualified for the outside pole in the Daytona 500. (That rule has since been rescinded, since no one at NASCAR could explain it without chuckling.) And in 2017 Daniel Suarez made the Clash because Joe Gibbs Racing had already built a car for the event before Carl Edwards‘s surprise retirement announcement a couple months before the race. Edwards would have been in the race, but there was no reason to include Suarez. So why did they let him race? Hey, everyone likes Suarez. I like Suarez. He’s a good guy. But by his being included that year, the cow had in fact jumped over the moon. This year, while Suarez is eligible to run the Clash, he and his new team have decided to sit it out and focus on the Daytona 500. Either that, or Suarez just wanted to pay back the mulligan NASCAR gave him in 2017.
Anyone recall last year’s Clash? Here’s a reminder. It rained. It rained a lot. The race was red-flagged twice. Paul Menard led 51 laps, a Clash record. More rain was in the forecast. Jimmie Johnson decided it was time to make his move. He moved into Menard’s car. Menard’s car spun back up across the track and triggered a a wreck that involved 17 of the 20 cars on the track at the time.
Officially, 11 of 20 cars that started the race finished, though many of them did so at greatly reduced speed. Johnson, who triggered the big wreck but drove away from it with minimal damage, won the Clash, which ended early due to rain. It’s the only NASCAR trophy Johnson has taken home since Dover in 2017.
The weather forecast for this weekend in Daytona Beach involves warm temperatures and a minimal chance of any precipitation (1%) Saturday or Sunday. So we have that going for us.
My prediction for the pole for the 500 and the Clash? Sorry. It just doesn’t matter.