The Headline(s): While the battles for the final spots in the Daytona 500 field proved underwhelming, the racing throughout the pack was hot and heavy. Winning races that were highly contested and featured no Big Ones, Joey Logano and William Byron scored well-earned victories Thursday night (Feb. 13).
Both Daniel Suarez and JJ Yeley suffered wrecks in their Duel races and failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 field. They were joined by Chad Finchum, who lost the draft five laps into his Duel and was never a factor.
How It Happened: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led the opening 22 laps of the first Duel from the pole in a race that quickly looked a lot like the Busch Clash from a week ago. By lap 12, the entire field was single file, and while a lot of drivers rode in line Denny Hamlin was busy making passing attempts throughout the field – with or without help. Pit stops were again done by manufacturer, with the Toyotas heading down pit road on lap 24, a sequence that saw rookie Christopher Bell bump Martin Truex Jr., who overshot the turn into his pit box. Truex was saved, however, when a significant yellow flag flew on lap 31. Suarez, who had to race his way into the 500, wrecked when he got clipped by Ryan Blaney as he attempted to make it to pit road.
Heartbreak for @Daniel_SuarezG!
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 14, 2020
Though Stenhouse led the field back to green, it would be Logano that took the lead on lap 38, trading the top spot with Stenhouse for several laps. As the race wound down, a pairing between Logano and Aric Almirola came together and proved pretty formidable. The two used a tandem draft through turns 1 and 2 of the final lap to best a bottom line that saw Stenhouse and Hamlin making a play for the win.
The second duel race again saw the pole sitter drive away, with Alex Bowman leading the opening four laps before yielding the point to Kevin Harvick. Harvick and Bowman’s draft lines would continue to swap the lead for the opening 22 circuits; Erik Jones assumed the lead on lap 23 as the Chevrolets organized to pit. With six cars losing the lead draft that included all “open” cars in the Duel, the lead pack of Fords and Toyotas pit on lap 33, with the backmarkers pitting the following lap.
Disaster struck for another “open” driver on lap 43. Yeley, who had been in a restless battle all night long with Corey LaJoie, BJ McLeod and Timmy Hill, came across LaJoie’s nose right as Hill was bump drafting the No. 32. The result put Yeley into the wall and out of the 500 field.
A tough break for @jjyeley1.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 14, 2020
Under that yellow flag, the Chevrolets, which had pit 20 laps earlier for fuel only under green, came back down pit road for tires. With fresh rubber, they mounted a charge late after Harvick held the lead from the lap 48 restart. Though Harvick, Jones and Matt DiBenedetto all held strong in the closing laps, they proved unable to hold off a final push from Hendrick teammates Byron and Jimmie Johnson.
DRIVERS WHO ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING
300 miles of Duel racing that was worth watching, and no Big Ones? That’s the definition of accomplishment at Daytona.
Reed Sorenson and Hill qualified for the Daytona 500.
While Speedweeks has seen the Penske teams marred by uncharacteristic mistakes (Keselowski’s crash into a fence in the garage during 500 practice, Blaney’s involvement in the Suarez wreck in the first Duel), Logano and new crew chief Paul Wolfe had the No. 22 team looking as they always have. Logano was a fixture at the front of the field for his entire Duel, delivering a trophy even as he’s spent a week in the crosshairs of his own teammate Keselowski. The No. 22 is carrying the Penske banner into Sunday.
By grabbing a trophy the way he did, Byron proved the driver able to turn Hendrick Motorsports’ single-car prowess into race-winning material. The No. 24 has its trademark flames back, and it’s running like it.
Even after winning the first Duel race, Logano remarked in his post-race presser that the No. 47 car of Stenhouse was the strongest car in the field, the only one that can make the lower line work to make passes. While Hamlin may object to that, the reality is Stenhouse proved a formidable lead car throughout his Duel race, both in terms of speed and stability. It’s been 20 years since the 500 pole-sitter won the big race; Stenhouse has a car that can end that drought.
Hamlin had more failed pass attempts than I could count on my fingers and toes, went to the back of the draft at least three times in a 60-lap race, and still was in the mix for the win when the money was on the line. The No. 11 is poised to defend its 500 crown from a year ago.
Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 car has now scored consecutive top-10 finishes at Daytona. Ross Chastain finished ninth in the second Duel and proved strong enough to keep up with Johnson’s Chevrolet in a small pack. It’s a rainy weekend forecast, too, which may make the No. 77’s new driver the lead darkhorse.
Johnson rebounded from falling behind in the pack to finish second in his Duel race and did so without incurring the wrath of half the Cup field as he did a year ago between the Clash and the Duels. However….
DRIVERS WHO ACCOMPLISHED NOTHING
Johnson may need to show some concern about how his No. 48 car performed getting up to speed. While teammate Bowman comfortably held the lead on the initial start, the No. 48 dropped to sixth in the opening laps and proved incapable of having the high line keep up. The same thing happened during green-flag pit stops on lap 24; leaving pit road, Johnson lost the lead of the Chevy pack and ended up drafting in a tandem with Chastain instead. For all the speed his manufacturer showed, the No. 48 has short run questions to answer on Sunday.
Finchum, Suarez and Yeley failed to qualify for the Daytona 500.
While Hill did qualify for his first career 500, his performance in the No. 66 was far from perfect. Hill, along with Yeley, LaJoie and BJ McLeod, proved unwilling or unable to get in line and race to try to keep up with the leaders. Instead, they were bobbing and weaving in their own race that was lightyears from the front of the field. Hill also tried “island-hopping” in his own car, putting himself in vulnerable positions at the back of the draft on several occasions. The MBM Motorsports team has a stronger piece than they’re accustomed to this Speedweeks, but it’s no JGR Toyota. Hill may not prove the stablest of drafting partners.
The same story to a lesser degree played out for Tyler Reddick. Though he finished 10th in his Duel, Reddick employed the same strategy used to emphatically win last year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Talladega, with less than stellar results. Reddick’s team even had to warn him in the closing laps to use patience as he attempted to make passes toward the back of the draft. Fact is, RCR Cup cars are not as stout in this field as Reddick’s Xfinity machines were. It’s the first of what will be many adjustments for a driver that’s likely better than the cars he’s driving.
Bell is no stranger to squabbles amongst teammates, as anyone that remembers the slide-job he pulled on Jones at Kansas Speedway in the fall of 2017 knows. Fast forward to tonight’s first Duel, and he’s right back in the mixer. While teammate Truex acknowledged that he was following Hamlin too closely and was likely going to miss hit pit box even before Bell hit him on pit road on lap 24, the reality still is that Bell hit a teammate on pit road. Fast forward five laps, and Bell had irritated manufacturer teammate Suarez, who blamed the driver of the No. 95 for an aggressive side draft that caused the No. 96 to lose the lead pack mere laps from the wreck that knocked him out of the 500. JGR’s potent Toyotas absolutely needed the No. 95 and DiBenedetto a year ago to pull off their Daytona 500 win; right now, they’ve got a bit of a loose cannon for a fifth car.
The sixth Toyota didn’t qualify in large part based on a miscommunication from the pit box of Blaney, who somehow didn’t get the message that all the other Fords in the field were supposed to pit:
Suarez spotter despondent on No. 96 radio. Asks crew chief to tell Suarez that even @Team_Penske spotters didn't know their drivers were pitting.
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) February 14, 2020
The miscommunication has Blaney going to a backup for the 500. And while on that note…
INSIGHTS, OPINIONS AND FAKE NEWS
Further discussion of the comms between the No. 12 team that led to the wreck on lap 31 revealed that the No. 12 team didn’t get the message that the Fords were pitting because it didn’t show up in the group chat they were using to communicate. Anyone that’s been to a racetrack before knows that Tweets, chats, texts, etc. will occasionally lag or disappear. Sounds like a good time to bring back the reliable system of written notes and pit road runners. Did nobody learn anything from Iowa?! Plus, think of the image problem this causes.
— Richard Allen/InsideDirtRacing.com (@RichardAllenIDR) February 14, 2020
Every time I see FOX doing a special pre-race segment on the “hangar” shoot that they do every preseason to show the same drivers in slow motion making stupid gestures in front of dubstep lighting, I think to myself, “how many commercial breaks this season do we have to sit through to pay for this stuff?” I can’t imagine there’s many race fans out there that would miss this high production value nonsense if it meant the money saved turned into a few extra green flag laps being televised.
Yes, the weather in Florida makes Daytona vulnerable to early evening showers 12 months a year. No, that doesn’t mean that moving the Duels to Thursday night so that everyone not fortunate enough to be in Daytona can actually watch the races was a bad decision.
Twitter was lit for much of the night about how average speeds for much of the Duels were well over 200 mph. While this will go down a little bit in the heat of the day on Sunday, it begs the question whether some of the communication issues that popped up in Thursday’s Duels are more a product of spotters being overworked at high speed. Already in this era of racing, spotters are being relied on more than ever to provide not just “quarter, door, clear” but tons of information regarding strategy, lines on the track, drafting packs, etc. Case in point came on lap 52 of the first Duel, which saw Clint Bowyer and his spotter plot for a lap about how they were going to jump with Keselowski to the high side when the No. 2 was ready… only to see the No. 2 jump out as they were still discussing it. As fast as the closing rates are with the cars this Speedweeks, there’s only so much that can be done from the roof.
Having spent multiple nights at the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna Speedway this week, Wednesday night’s was the best, and not just because I can say firsthand that our own Davey Segal wasn’t exaggerating when he called the finish of Wednesday night’s modified race “the closest finish in history[’s] history…”
Man, I just watched the replay for the first time. This is ridiculous.
I don't know about 'closest finish in the history of motorsports' but it's damn sure the closest I've ever seen. It's one of those things where you just say 'screw it, they both won.'
They did in my eyes. pic.twitter.com/OLGvi9WIAq
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) February 13, 2020
Also responsible for the night being the best of the series? The crowd went from overwhelming to large. The huge crowd that showed for Monday’s ARCA Menards East Series race was a “gift from God” for the speedway, but it also turned the parking lot into Lord of the Flies. Please, New Smyrna, take a page from Volusia’s playbook and put some flagmen in the parking lot. It won’t cost that many $5 hamburgers to cover. Also, a traffic cop at the intersection of 415 and Pioneer Trail would get that crowd into the stands a hell of a lot faster.
We’ll save the paint scheme award for the Daytona 500. On that note, Sorenson and Yeley contested the duels without sponsorship on their racecars. Should Sorenson not find a sponsor by Sunday, he’ll be the first to race an unsponsored car in the 500 since Tony Raines in 2003.
YOU’VE HEARD IT HERE BEFORE
“Gaughan transferred into the Daytona 500 without finishing on the lead lap in his Duel, winning what could hardly be called a battle with Gase, who finished three laps down and was clearly the slowest car entered on Thursday. As entertaining as the manufacturer strategy was as Kligerman and Ryan Truex battled for a spot in the 500 field, that race was decided because Kligerman’s partner was stronger than Truex’s; both the Nos. 71 and 96 were incapable of deciding their race on their own.” – Bryan Davis Keith, 2019
Just like last year, the “battles” for the final 500 spots were less than compelling. The first race was decided on lap 31 when Suarez wrecked out. That left Sorenson to change tires and be told by his team to get out of the lead draft because they were already over a lap ahead of Finchum at that point. And the second race? It was decided by lap 43, when Yeley wrecked. At that point, Hill locked up the final 500 spot with more than 40 miles of racing to go.
For a spectator, making the Daytona 500 just didn’t feel as significant as it used to.
What’s the Point(s)? With 90% of the field locked in before they actually get to Daytona, it’s a good question. There were points awarded to the top-10 finishers of each Duel… but does anyone really care who’s ahead yet? Come back after the West Coast swing for a tally.
Where it Rated (with one can being a clunker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’ll give this one 4.5 strong pulls of Sugarlands Shine, who were kind enough to hand out samples in the Daytona media center. The Duels aren’t the same without compelling Cinderella battles to qualify, but the lead packs came to play on Thursday. There’s reason to be excited for this 500.
Up Next: The Great American Race. Enough said. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX.