Who … should you be talking about after the race?
Denny Hamlin cemented his place as NASCAR’s top dog on superspeedways with his third career.Daytona 500 win and second in a row. He edged Ryan Blaney by just .014 seconds to take the checkered flag. But there was little time for Hamlin to celebrate.
By the time they reached victory lane, it was obvious that Hamlin’s team had learned that Ryan Newman had been extricated from his car by safely crews after a horrific last-lap crash that saw Newman’s car flip on the frontstretch and take a direct hit in the driver’s side roof — the most vulnerable spot on today’s Cup cars.
In the hours that followed, the racing community banded together with thoughts and prayers for Newman and his family, waiting for the statement from NASCAR that finally came. When it did come, it was short and simple.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 18, 2020
And the racing world breathed a collective sigh of relief. After the biggest race of the year, it didn’t feel much like racing mattered at all.
What … was the hidden gem in this weekend?
Maybe it wasn’t so hidden, but the moment of the weekend took place on Saturday, when Noah Gragson won his first career Xfinity Series race and proceeded with a lengthy, gleeful celebration which included, among other things, climbing the frontstretch catchfence, a Dukes of Hazzard-style slide over his car’s hood and a burnout that literally set the track on fire.
The celebration served as a reminder that this is supposed to be fun. It was refreshing in a sport where all too often, even victory celebrations are sometimes homogenized. Even the Daytona 500, the biggest race of them all, has produced some less-than-memorable victory moments, but Gragson on Saturday was a reminder why we love the sport, and how it should be for drivers.
Hamlin had no such luxury on Monday. After edging Blaney for the win, Hamlin and his team celebrated on the frontstretch, but as the team learned of Newman’s crash, the celebration all but ended as the team joined the rest of the NASCAR community in thinking of Newman and his family. It was the exact opposite of Saturday… and just as poignant a reminder of what NASCAR is and should be — and when things don’t go as they should, what NASCAR is is family.
Where … were the other key players at the end?
Polesitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led twice for 24 laps but, like much of the field, sustained damage in a multi-car incident which relegated him to a 20th-place finish, three laps down to Hamlin. Both of Stenhouse’s career wins have come on superspeedways, but past accomplishment is no sure indicator of future success.
Active Daytona win leader Jimmie Johnson was penalized early for too many crewmen over the wall on a pit stop, but was able to recover, leading three laps and running with the leaders. Johnson looked like a contender until the lap 185 incident triggered by Joey Logano saw the No. 48 caught in the crossfire. The team was unable to make repairs, and Johnson finished his final Daytona 500 in 35th place. Hamlin’s win ties the pair with three Daytona wins apiece.
Kyle Busch, kicking off his title defense, looked solid early, able to work with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates at and near the front. Busch, who has yet to win the Great American Race, looked like a major threat to get it done this time … until an engine failure ended his night prematurely. Busch finished 34th.
When … was the moment of truth?
It was business as usual at Daytona: a mild first half and a wild — and very nearly tragic — last 20 laps. The 19-car pileup triggered by Logano and Hamlin didn’t leave a lot of contenders on track, and with many of the top cars getting taken out, it left a depleted field to duke it out for the win. Duke it out they did, with several more incidents marring the day, including Newman’s scary flip and hit to the roof. That kind of racing leaves a lot to be desired, because the best teams are all too often taken out of contention through no fault of their own, and that doesn’t make for the best taste in the mouth leaving the biggest race of the season.
But what to do? The most memorable part of a race should not be a smoking, sparking tangle of wadded-up sheet metal and rubber, but all too often, that’s what fans take away from a superspeedway race. It’s hard to place blame on the drivers, because the closing rate is so fast and the throttle response so poor that the closing driver can’t avoid the bumper in front of him. If that driver cracked the throttle even for a split second, he’d get run over from behind before his car could respond and get to full throttle. If his bumper doesn’t line up perfectly with the car in front, the melee is on.
The big crash will make the highlight reels. But is it really what fans want to see play a big role in deciding who wins the biggest race of the year?
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
Hamlin said it best in victory lane after winning the race: “I think we take for granted how safe these cars are.” As of Monday night, it’s been exactly 18 years and 364 days since the last time the NASCAR world stopped turning. Another hours-long wait happened on February 18, 2001 as every person waited for news on the condition of Dale Earnhardt, who had impacted the wall at the worst possible angle on the final lap of the Daytona 500. That night, the announcement, when it came, held only tragedy.
If Earnhardt’s death had any good come out of it, it’s how safe the current Cup car is. Tracks now have SAFER barriers, and drivers must now wear head restraints designed to prevent injuries like Earnhardt suffered. That no driver has lost his life in a national series race since that time speaks volumes about how far the sport has come.
And Newman’s accident reminds us that there are still miles to go. The area of the car where Corey LaJoie hit Newman, the driver’s side roof, is the most vulnerable area on the current car. What can be done to change that, if anything, it’s hard to say. But it can’t go unexplored.
Not a day can go by without NASCAR looking at any way, however small it may seem, to ensure that at the end of the day, drivers go home to their families. Because of the safety features on these cars now, we can now say it’s been 18 years, 364 days … and counting. Let’s hope that count goes on for a very long time to come.
How … come 4:00 p.m. on Monday?
There’s a really good reason the Daytona 500 started earlier in the day for many years: It’s less likely to rain than in the late afternoon and evening. Yet time and again we see delays and postponements in both the 500 and the summer race because of late start times and weather.
A few years ago, after start times had been creeping later and later, NASCAR made an effort to go back to an earlier, uniform start time, and the fans were happy. So why change that? Television contracts pay a lot of bills, and the networks favor the later starts. Coverage bleeds into prime time, maybe avoids other events on the day. They have a say because they write a big check.
But the late Monday start was out of line, and NASCAR shouldn’t have capitulated on this one. 11 a.m. is the usual go-to for a postponed race, and that was an option for Monday, as weather was not a factor. The late start means teams have to get back to Charlotte late Monday, then turn around the hauler and have cars ready to load for Las Vegas so the traveling circus can leave in the early hours of Tuesday morning for a three-week West Coast tour.
When NASCAR re-ups the TV deal and revamps the schedule, it’s time to look at the local weather and set scheduled start times that make sense. In Daytona, that’s a lot earlier than mid-afternoon.