Did You Notice?… Tires threatened to derail the Daytona 500 debut of the Next Gen car? Two obvious failures occurred over the course of 500 miles: Kaz Grala and Justin Haley saw their wheels come off at full speed. Thankfully, neither one turned into a serious incident as both drivers were able to continue after repairs.
But the thought of a wheel coming off like that, considering the tight pack racing of Daytona International Speedway is a little disconcerting. The problems came two days after NASCAR confiscated wheel sets from Brad Keselowski’s RFK Racing team and his former employer, Team Penske. Officials claimed “something improper” was being done to the tires during race preparation.
The accusations have been met with a strong response, unusual for most NASCAR penalties that are more tacitly accepted these days rather than working through the appeals process. Instead, both RFK and Penske focused on potential concerns they discovered prior to the race on Sunday.
“We had contacted NASCAR a week before and said that the wheels we were getting were not all the same,” Penske said after celebrating Austin Cindric’s Daytona 500 victory. “We felt we needed to modify the holes where the drive pins go. We didn’t really get any feedback, and at that point, we went ahead and opened the holes up.”
“Not a performance-related item,” Keselowski added. “Once they see all the data we have behind it, it shouldn’t be an issue… we made some safety changes to the wheels.”
Those comments look prophetic when you consider how the race played out. It wasn’t just these two organizations; teams like Martin Truex Jr. lost time in the pits struggling to get the lug nut on right. (Remember, we’re down to just one; tires should now be replaced faster than two full cans of fuel). With wear not a major issue at this track, some crew chiefs planned fuel-only stops in order to avoid the risk of having to change them.
But the most damning evidence of a larger problem occurred in the winner’s press conference, when crew chief Jeremy Bullins admitted his team pulled a set of Cindric’s tires from being used.
“We took a set of wheels out of the rotations today,” he explained, “Because we made some tools to check them to make sure they were what they were supposed to be … we were afraid they might not go on [the car].”
Despite that catch, the wheels issue could have kept Cindric from winning the race. Remember, the No. 2 car spun Chase Briscoe as teams checked up over Grala’s loose wheel back on lap 42.
Looking ahead, we’re now heading to a track in Auto Club Speedway notorious for its old asphalt ripping tires to shreds over a green flag run. You’re not going to have the option to go fuel only on a pit stop, meaning if we really have a problem here? It’s going to show up in short order.
There’s also the issue of Grala and Haley’s four-race suspension penalties. Under the NASCAR rulebook, any tire that comes off under race conditions is subject to suspensions for the crew chief, tire changer and tire carrier similar to this incident that happened with Kyle Busch in 2017. But should those organizations, both new to the Cup circuit, be subject to severe penalties when it was a NASCAR-sanctioned “part” that created the issue?
The good news from Daytona is that any other mechanical issues with the Next Gen car failed to materialize. Just one team, underfunded NY Racing, went behind the wall for a non-crash problem (something got stuck in Greg Biffle’s fuel line). All the engines made it 500 miles along with axles and brakes, parts that were cause for concern after a couple of weird DNFs out in Los Angeles.
A new car always comes with at least one curveball you don’t expect. This week will be a real test of open communication between NASCAR and its teams, diagnosing the issue and coming to a resolution that keeps all parties happy – and safe.
Did You Notice?… The way Ford worked together like superglue in the draft? It resulted in seven cars running inside the top 10 despite wrecks that wiped out a few of their top contenders (Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick). The way their teamwork clicked in pack racing isn’t unusual; it was the theme of the 2021 Daytona 500 before Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano tangled on the final lap of the race.
The other manufacturers are suffering from two completely different sets of problems. Let’s start with Chevrolet, which had the most cars of any make in the field (18). That should have given them a decided advantage, but think back a second; when was any time the Bowties found themselves bound together in a pack?
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was a contender but often on his own in the lead pack, relying on Fords to help him out. Hendrick Motorsports, which lost cars to wrecks throughout the afternoon, never hooked up together effectively. It felt like Chevys were disorganized and pursuing an every man for himself scenario even if that wasn’t their intent.
As for Toyota? They learned about strength in numbers. When you support only six cars out of 40 in the field, it’s easy for multi-car wrecks to decimate your ranks. By the end, just three were left on the lead lap and all of them (even second-place finisher Bubba Wallace) had some sort of damage.
If Toyota doesn’t want to put their money behind more teams the rest of the year? That’s their right. But I’d consider at least a few part-time helpers for the pack races. It looks like a lot of new owners testing the waters will run a limited schedule with these tracks in mind and it’s a great opportunity to try and forge future relationships.
Did You Notice?… Rick Ware Racing might be a team to watch? Yes, you read that right. So far this season, the reconstructed, streamlined two-car organization has run better than anyone expected. Ryan Preece won a Last Chance Qualifier in the Clash at the Coliseum running their No. 15 car; David Ragan followed it up with a top-10 finish in the Daytona 500.
But the title for Most Improved thus far in 2022 goes to Cody Ware. Ware posted a career-best 17th-place finish in the Daytona 500; he finished just one lap off the pace. That seems somewhat ordinary until you consider it’s his second top-20 finish in 56 career Cup starts. It’s a driver whose career average finish is 32.3, collecting more DNFs (18) than lead-lap finishes (five) with equipment that was seriously underpowered and underfunded.
RWR’s alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing is out to change that this season. Are they visiting victory lane anytime soon? Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. But early returns look good.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…
- Another team that quietly got out of Daytona in good shape: Spire Motorsports. Corey LaJoie and Landon Cassill combined for two top-15 finishes while bringing both cars home in one piece. LaJoie now has four top 15s in his last six Daytona races, a solid resume for a driver always wheeling an underfunded effort.
- I’m not sure why the NASCAR Xfinity Series hasn’t expanded their field back to 40 cars. 47 entries attempted the season opener and 44 showed up at Auto Club Speedway this weekend. If NASCAR wants to attract new competition, and more cars are showing up, shouldn’t they expand the field accordingly? Both Cup and Xfinity used to run 43 cars on a regular basis.
- Along those lines, the parts shortage is a big reason only 36 cars showed up to ACS on the Cup side. But the company line among unchartered teams was intermediate tracks weren’t worth it to show up for; they still felt there was too much of a competition gap. Hard to dispel that rumor when you don’t have teams making the attempt to create more parity.
About the author
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.
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