NASCAR superspeedway racing is typically edge-of-your-seat, thrilling competition mixed with a ton of calamity and crunched-up sheet metal. This weekend was no different as the Cup Series regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway lived up to the hype Saturday (Aug. 29) in setting the remainder of the 16-driver playoff field.
Last March, when NASCAR announced its 2020 schedule, moving Daytona’s summer race from its traditional July 4th weekend raised eyebrows. But it’s clear, 17 months later, the sport hit a home run. Superspeedway competition is already one of the most aggressive forms of racing out there but the intensity was palpable from the drop of the green flag. From the first lap to the final turn, drivers gave 110 percent – and the final stage on Saturday night? Absolutely incredible. The nearly 20,000 fans in attendance got quite a finish and the sport ended up with a first-time winner.
Oh, and that NASCAR Xfinity Series race? The night before? That wasn’t half-bad, either. Looking back at the final product, I don’t see how NASCAR could ever move its last race weekend of the regular season anywhere else. I think the Daytona finale is here to stay.
Here’s a few other numbers sticking out from the stock car weekend that was in the latest edition of NASCAR Stat Sheet.
Entering Daytona, William Byron had a four-point advantage on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the final Cup Series playoff spot. But at a track that levels the playing field, where anyone can win, it led to a lot of nervousness in the No. 24 camp.
Through the first two stages, it wasn’t looking good for Byron, as Johnson earned eight more stage points than he did. Byron matched Matt DiBenedetto‘s total, who entered the race five points ahead of the No. 24. That left the third-year driver the odd man out heading into the final 60 laps.
But in the final stage, Byron was at his best. He showed a burst of aggressiveness, shedding his conservative past while drafting up in position to win the race.
With nine laps to go in Daytona’s scheduled distance, the three playoff bubble drivers ran ninth through 11th. But a crash bunched up the field and on the next restart, Byron pushed Bubba Wallace to the lead. Soon after, Denny Hamlin hit Joey Logano, who was underneath the No. 43 car. The contact sent Byron, who was making a four-wide move for the lead, into Wallace. An 11-car pileup ensued, but the No. 24 car came out unscathed for the most part.
Johnson did not.
On the final restart, Byron lined up second and out-dueled Hamlin, one of the best superspeedway drivers currently in the field, to score his first victory. Byron punched his playoff ticket the hard way, by registering his first career victory at the sport’s highest level.
Regardless of what happens moving forward, Byron now has a win in the Cup Series. It took over two-and-a-half years to do it but he’s peaking at the right time. On a hot streak entering the postseason, the 22-year-old has scored his first two top-five finishes of the season over the last two races.
Remember what happened in February during the Daytona Duels to set the starting grid for the Daytona 500? Daniel Suarez wrecked out, failing to make the field for the Great American Race.
That was the beginning of what’s been a difficult season for the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, running his first season with Gaunt Brothers Racing. The No. 96 team is underfunded compared to most teams in Cup, which was a big adjustment for a driver who ran his first three years with two of the sport’s Goliaths: Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing.
But Daytona allows the little teams to play with the big boys, and that’s what Suarez did. During the second stage, Suarez, Ty Dillon and Wallace – all of whom compete for small organizations – raced into the top three positions, passing the likes of Kyle Busch and Hamlin.
Suarez went on to lead the next 19 laps, which is 19 times the amount Gaunt Brothers had led in its first 62 Cup starts (Suarez led the team’s only prior lap at Darlington Raceway). Sure, he led a single-file line around the bottom, in the process losing over 20 seconds to the Chevrolet teams that pitted earlier in the stage while leading. But it was a chance for Suarez to steal the limelight, cultivating growth for this team despite a disappointing 26th-place result by race’s end.
When the NASCAR Xfinity Series heads to a superspeedway, there’s a good chance Kaulig Racing is going to be in contention for the win.
Friday night (Aug. 28) at Daytona was no different.
Glued nose-to-tail three cars deep, AJ Allmendinger, Ross Chastain and Justin Haley were dedicated to one another in the Wawa 250. Sure, Allmendinger needed to use pit strategy to get up with his teammates due to his 34th-place starting spot. But once he did, starting up front at the beginning of stage two, it was lights out for his NXS competition. With his Kaulig teammates in tow, this organization went on to sweep all three stages in the race.
Allmendinger led the event on two separate occasions for a race-high 58 laps. The majority of the final stage was run single-file with the three Kaulig cars out front.
But when it came down to the final lap, the gloves were off.
Going into turn 3, Chastain got a huge run on Allmendinger for the lead, taking the No. 10 Chevrolet to the inside. When doing so, he clipped the No. 16 car, spinning Allmendinger out and creating a multi-car pileup. That left Haley, the third Kaulig driver, sneaking by for the win.
The victory was Haley’s second of the season, both coming at superspeedways (won at Talladega in June). Parking his car by the double-yellow line, a penalty that robbed him of a win two years ago, his teammates were scratching their heads over the ending.
It’s safe to say the Tuesday competition meeting is going to be awkward at the Kaulig campus.