The Daytona 500 means many different things for many different race fans. Over the years, the perception of the Daytona 500 has changed many different times. In its early years, it was a race where the limits of the machine and horsepower were tested.
Often a spread-out, low-attrition race, the Daytona 500 was sold as a 500-mile event that tested the willpower of those who wanted to go fast. By the 1970s, speeds approached 200 miles per hour, then exceeded that limit, quickly forcing NASCAR to reach the second major change in the race: the restrictor-plate era, beginning in 1988.
The restrictor-plate era had two phases. From 1988-95, plate racing was more spread out, but changes to the cars and to the plate itself brought the pack-style superspeedway racing we have come to be accustomed to. Since 2019, a tapered spacer has replaced the restrictor plate, but the style of racing hasn’t changed.
Over the last decade, the Daytona 500 has turned into a survival race, with luck being more of a factor than ever before. More than half the field has been involved in a wreck in seven of the last 10 Daytona 500s, including the 2021 running, which featured 30 cars sustaining damage. That number has drastically risen since the previous decade.
That led us to wonder: has the perception of the Daytona 500 changed? Is the Daytona 500 still what it once was? Is it still a special race to win? Vito Pugliese and Adam Cheek debate that topic.
Escalating Hostilities Are Diluting Daytona
Following the last few Daytona 500s, you’ll have to excuse me if I feel as if we’ve been sent through some sort of Beast Master-quality time portal. What has been the premier event in NASCAR, the one that Ken Squier deemed The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing at the World Center of Speed, has degenerated into what we used to expect from the Bristol Night Race by the time the early 2000s rolled around. Each year, the scope and magnitude of the accidents expands and escalates, each year more lurid than the year prior. Has this hallowed event gone through a changer in perspective in recent years.
I think, at this point, it’s unquestionable – yes, it absolutely has.
That isn’t to say its role and significance is diminished. It is still the race a driver wants on their resume. The only two championship titles that really hold their water in this sport are NASCAR Cup Series championships and Daytona 500 championships. The Harley J. Earl trophy is as iconic and recognizable as the Borg-Warner Cup that the Indianapolis 500 winner gets their likeness emblazoned upon. But what is the perception of a race that carries with it the sort of impromptu disaster and accepted likelihood of disaster as this race has become?
The superspeedway races were always billed as a 200 mph chess match. In recent years, it feels more like Russian Roulette – but with three rounds in the cylinder.
How did we get here, and when did this become expected, if not accepted? Being one of the more senior members of the Frontstretch staff, I have a bit of a unique perspective on this. I was at the 1992 Daytona 500 as a spectator, when over half of the field was eliminated at the halfway point, as Ernie Irvan dueled with Junior Johnson & Associates teammates Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott for what used to be the coveted halfway bonus of $50,000. What ensued was a melee not unlike what we saw on lap 14 – and lap 200 in this year’s installment. What resulted was a miserable 250 miles, with six cars left on the lead lap, and a complete inability for any sort of passing for the lead. Things seemed to calm down for several years after that.
Sure, there were some memorable accidents, but not the kind of carnage that was typically saved for Talladega Superspeedway. This was a handling race, and the field would be much more strung out and not prone to that kind of thing.
That was until 1999, when passing on the apron into the turns was still a thing and would cause a jam-up in traffic. While this year was the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s untimely passing on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, that incident was preceded by a multicar crash down the backstretch, one that saw Tony Stewart leading and then landing on Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte some 20 positions behind him. There was a bit of a break from that scale of crashing until the final lap of the 2007 event that saw a track-blocking crash at the exit of turn 4, resulting in Clint Bowyer coming across the finish line upside down and on fire. Things were a bit calmer during the COT days, being a bit hard to spin those cars out, as well as the repave of 2011 helping to contribute to stability. But then it showed up again in 2012, and then cars with trick-rear suspensions started careening into dump trucks full of jet fuel and burning a hole in the track.
Ever since then, it seems like it’s been game on at Daytona, in both the 500 and the 400-mile race that was in July prior to last year’s schedule change. Last year’s harrowing crash coming to the checkered flag, one that had the entire racing world and prime time spectators with a lump in their throat and a sick feeling in their stomach as Ryan Newman’s car teetered inverted with a crushed roof as fuel poured into the passenger compartment, was the pinnacle of this continued destructo-derby that seems a world removed from the single-file drafting train affairs of the 1980s and 1990s.
What once were fragile aerodynamic works of art are now giant bumper cars, being made competitive again after contact with the wall or other cars if enough giant sheets of Flex Seal are applied. It’s feeling less like a sport and more like entertainment, to the detriment of competition and credibility. Not trying to be a buzzkill, but when it’s readily accepted by competitors and the sanctioning body that half the field might not fit their cars back into the hauler at the conclusion of 500 miles, things are trending in the wrong direction.
Safer cars and tracks are great for survivability, obviously, but are doing a disservice to the actual race and importance of the event. – Vito Pugliese
The Nature of the Daytona Beast
The Daytona 500 is still the premier event in stock car racing, regardless of it constantly featuring the “Big One.”
Daytona is more or less half the reason we refer to the term “Big One” whenever NASCAR’s top three series visit superspeedways.
“When will the ‘Big One’ strike?”
“[Insert driver name here] is dropping back because he’s concerned about the ‘Big One’ happening.”
“There it is: the ‘Big One’ has struck at Daytona!”
It’s something that I and so many others fully expect every single time superspeedway races loom in our collective windshield; a crash that usually ends up happening one or more times during a single race, where one wrong move ends up trashing 10, 15, 20 or more cars. Sunday’s race had two of them; first, a nearly-20-car pileup 14 laps into the race that took out a majority of the contenders. That crash was followed by a lightning delay, and rain eventually swept in, pushing the checkered flag until after midnight.
Before the field got there, Team Penske stablemates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were out front, but became victims of last-lap desperation when making moves sent both into the turn 3 wall. Michael McDowell won the race, of course, but behind him Kyle Busch piled into Keselowski at full speed and was in turn nailed in the door by Austin Cindric, followed by a fireball that engulfed those cars, as well as Bubba Wallace and Cole Custer.
A violent crash? Absolutely.
Out of character for Daytona? Not at all.
In fairness, the last several Daytona 500s (in particular, 2018-20), all had their share of massive crashes. The several years prior had been tamer in comparison, but the threat of these melees is the nature of superspeedways. For example, the 2011 running of the event had 12 cautions for accidents, including a 14-car pileup on lap 30 and three crashes with four or more cars in the final 40 laps.
Of recent, many of Daytona’s races — winter or summer, regardless of the series — have seemingly turned into wreckfests, but these races have always been that way; it’s just been a bit more frequent as of late. We just don’t really notice it until we think about it, and even then, generalizations fit the bill for Daytona as a whole.
The 500 hasn’t lost its luster as a crown jewel victory, nor has the meaning of winning at Daytona been tainted. To me, and to many others, a win at Daytona is a win at Daytona — it doesn’t get more special than that and will likely never lose that importance. The accidents don’t take away from the meaning; crashes can and will happen at any track, but it just so happens that Daytona’s wrecks are much bigger than at most circuits.
The 2000s had their share of memorable crashes in the 500: Stewart’s wild ride in 2001, Newman tumbling through the infield in 2003, Scott Wimmer flipping out of the fourth turn in 2005, Bowyer crossing the finish line upside down and on fire in 2007 as cars were destroyed all around him. Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon had their own moments in 2013 and 2015, when each driver’s car sailed into the catch fence as the field took the checkered flag.
Other series have had their moments, too: Jeff Green and Michael Waltrip each flipped in separate incidents in the same 2000 Xfinity opener, while a day earlier Geoff Bodine suffered his well-known, incredibly violent crash in the Truck Series’ first race of the year. Bodine’s truck lifted into the fence after contact, exploded into a fireball and tumbled down the frontstretch, shedding sheetmetal as competitors crashed all around him. Christopher Bell flipped nine times at the white flag in 2016. A total of 29 of the 36 trucks entered in the 2012 season opener were involved in accidents, the most memorable of which were Miguel Paludo‘s violent mid-race crash exiting turn 4 and Joey Coulter’s truck achieving liftoff into the catch fence as the field took the white flag.
But the dangers of the Daytona 500 date back to the beginnings of the event. The Great American Race’s inaugural winner Lee Petty suffered a nearly career-ending injury in a 500 Qualifier (now the Duels) in 1961, just two years after being the race’s champion.
To say it’s normal is not to say it’s a good thing or that it should be the status quo: sooner or later, someone will get seriously hurt or killed. Kyle Busch was involved in one of the pileups in the 2015 Xfinity opener and had only slowed to around 90 mph when he hit an inside retaining wall, breaking both legs. Newman could have easily been the first fatality in almost two decades last year, with his violent tumble in the Daytona 500 a stark reminder of the dangers these drivers face.
The World Center of Racing’s season opener, in particular, doesn’t help the profile of these crashes. The stage that these drivers are on in the 500, the track itself and the type of racing all contribute to these wrecks occurring, and driver desperation certainly played a part in Sunday night’s (Monday morning’s?) last-lap incident.
Daytona has always had the penchant for its racing to beget massive crashes, but every few years there’s an accident that brings everyone to their senses about how dangerous the racing is. It just so happens that the last two 500s have made up for several years of becoming a bit content with the racing at these tracks without something truly heart-stopping taking place. I don’t see it stopping anytime soon, and, although that might sound callous, it’s certainly what we’re all used to and how these tracks have always been. Daytona, especially, is most certainly the animal that it’s always been, and that’s part of what makes a win there that prestigious. – Adam Cheek
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