Race Weekend Central

Daytona Disaster Proves NASCAR Change is Needed

NASCAR’s summer return to Daytona International Speedway began with plenty of anticipation. The 2022 regular season finale was supposed to be a celebration, the peak of a year filled with parity and playoff drama surrounding the Next Gen car.

Instead, the sport leaves Daytona with more questions than answers, a weekend that led to serious concerns about officiating, safety and whether this track is the right spot to hold the regular season finale.

Mother Nature, more than anyone, took center stage right from the start; both the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup series races suffered through hours’ worth of rain delays. Sadly, once the events finally began, both teams and drivers were saddled with perhaps the most destructive race weekend on record.

All in all, 36 of the 75 cars crashed out of this weekend’s two events. Roughly about 10 of them were left in one piece, avoiding wrecks or suffering minimal damage.

Cost-saving measures have been important for teams in NASCAR this season, yet 650-plus miles at Daytona collectively destroyed millions of dollars of equipment in less than 48 hours. And with Atlanta Motor Speedway being reconfigured to serve as a de facto superspeedway, the teams have to face this pack racing gauntlet six times every year. Is it really worth it?

For the Xfinity race, the first 70 laps were clean, with just one car out of the event. But as the pressure ratcheted up, the final 48 laps turned into a glorified demolition derby. A total of 19 of the 38 cars crashed out of the race, and just about everyone else was crippled from damage. After 118 laps, all but five cars were involved in an incident at some point throughout the night.

Now, look: Accidents are a part of racing. To hope for a crash-free race anywhere — let alone at Daytona — is foolish. Drivers are pushing their cars to the absolute limit, and they are only human. Mistakes will be made.

But in recent years, it has become almost an expectation for multiple Big Ones in the closing laps of superspeedway races. And when drivers can’t go one lap without crashing on multiple overtime restarts, what message does it send?

The carnage wasn’t always this bad. Yes, the Big One is not a recent occurrence. The term was coined in the early 2000s, and NASCAR has had its share of large accidents back in the 20th century, including the scary Bobby Allison wreck at Talladega that spawned modern pack racing back in 1987.

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Only Yesterday: A Championship Team Folds Because of Test Car

But what’s different now compared to even 10 years ago is the majority of Big Ones happen during the closing laps, sparked when all the money is on the line. In the current win-and-you’re-in era of NASCAR, second place means nothing. Everyone needs the trophy to earn that coveted playoff bid, and drivers are willing to take more risks, block more runs and give more pushes at the end of these races to get it.

The result has been numerous races at Daytona and Talladega that have become a battle of surviving crashes in the final laps. These days, the fastest car almost never wins; the fastest undamaged car is the one that survives and wins a battle of luck to reach victory lane.

That’s exactly what happened early Saturday morning in the Xfinity Series. With 10 laps to go in the scheduled distance, 34 of 38 cars were still running. But with eight laps to go, a wreck took out several frontrunners. On the restart, the field made it two laps before another big crash happened with two laps remaining in the scheduled distance.

Then, we hit NASCAR Overtime, producing the biggest carnage of the night. During the second overtime, the field endured another frightening incident. It was only after three overtime periods and 18 extra laps that the race finally ended.

Ten cars were totaled in crashes that happened past the scheduled distance, and countless others were crippled on their way to the finish. In an effort to give fans a green-flag ending that ultimately did not happen, sheet metal was twisted, hours of hard work were thrown out the window and millions of dollars got wasted.

For the sake of the teams, the race should have ended after the first attempt. If the drivers are unable to keep their cars straight for one lap at a superspeedway, the race deserves to finish under caution.

Several drivers have been open about their disdain for superspeedway competition, and third-place finisher AJ Allmendinger did not mince words after the NXS race. His main concern?

Staying safe among the chaos.

“I’m just happy to get out of this place alive,” Allmendinger said. “I absolutely f****** hate this race. Anytime I can walk away and feel my legs and my arms and be OK and have a top-5 finish, I’m OK any day with that.”

See also
Xfinity Breakdown: Jeremy Clements, Playoff Driver

With the end of the Xfinity race, attention turned toward Cup. And while it was expected that the Coke Zero Sugar 400 would have some chaos, it would be a tall hurdle for that Cup race to surpass its predecessor in destruction.

Against all odds, it happened anyway.

The Cup race was delayed to Sunday morning, and the first half of the race was clean. By lap 100, only two cars were out of the race via crash damage (sound familiar?).

Unfortunately, just like the Xfinity race before it, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 turned into a crashfest. There were two multi-car incidents near the front on laps 102 and 125, then another multi-car spin at the front of the field on lap 131. Around this time, rain and lightning became a serious threat to end the race early. After a restart on lap 135, the drivers went all out knowing a popup shower could end the race at any moment.

And then, on lap 138, came the rain.

In one of the most surreal and unusual moments in NASCAR history, six cars at the front of the field simultaneously lost control and crashed. The entire field crumbled, wadded up in turn 1 after a deluge of rain poured down on the racetrack. With almost everyone taken out in the pop-up shower, Austin Dillon made his way through the carnage unscathed to take the lead.

As the field barreled into a wet racetrack, race control took considerable heat for the decision. It wasn’t the first time that the field crashed in rain either; weather wiped out the top two cars last year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. With viewers wondering why the race wasn’t put under caution sooner, Scott Miller —the NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition — even went on CNBC (who was broadcasting the rain-delayed event) to address the situation.

There were mixed responses from drivers. Some said that it was not raining in turn 1 the lap before the shower, while others said that it was and the race should have been halted. Justin Haley was one of the biggest critics toward the decision to not put out the caution flag.

“My spotter said, ‘don’t lift, it’s raining’, and then I ran another lap, and it was still raining, and then we all went to [turn] 1 and it was really raining,” Haley said. “They had about a whole lap to call caution and tore up a lot of racecars. That was pretty unacceptable.”

Denny Hamlin echoed the same sentiments on Twitter after the race.

Immediately after crashing in the rain, Chris Buescher let all of his frustration out in an angry rant:

“It’s f****** stuck, it’s f****** raining!” Buescher yelled. “Why do we keep doing this stupid s*** every week!?”

Furthermore, a fan video showed that it was raining in the grandstands as the field crossed the start-finish line right before the crash. Haley’s crew also came over the radio to say that it was raining in turn 1 as they were exiting the tri-oval.

In NASCAR’s defense, it has become common occurrence for drivers in the lead in these situations to say that it is raining for their own benefit, even if it isn’t. Holding the caution may very well have been a boy who cried wolf situation where the drivers weren’t listened to because they had given false rain reports in the past.

But with that said, radar technology has improved. The skies had grown ominous in the laps before the entire field wrecked and the racing could have easily been halted before it reached that point.

Obviously, it’s easy to say that in hindsight. But just as Hamlin said, it’s better to be proactive than reactive when it comes to driver safety; the race would’ve been able to resume if the caution had been put out prematurely. With two rain crashes in two years, something needs to change going forward.

The Big One wasn’t the only part of NASCAR’s worries, however. With Dillon in the lead, he was set to knock Ryan Blaney out of the playoff grid if the race was unable to be restarted. Putting playoff implications aside, the race ending in the rain on lap 139 would have been a disastrous finish, regardless of the winner. How does one explain a situation where the leader was the only one who didn’t crash in a rainstorm?

If the race was rained out the rest of the afternoon, reverting the results to lap 137 and declaring Daniel Suarez the winner would not have been an incredibly egregious decision. Any result would have been controversial, though, if less than 160 laps were completed during a finale that ultimately decided the rest of the postseason field.

Fortunately, NASCAR was determined to finish the race and it resumed after a three-hour cleanup. On the restart with 16 laps to go, Austin Cindric got by Dillon to take the lead. With just 10 lead-lap cars, 17 cars on track and roughly three undamaged frontrunners, the race quickly strung out single file.

Cindric continued pacing the field until three laps to go, when Dillon all but wrecked him heading into turn 1 to the take the lead. Cindric saved his car and recovered to third, but that was the deciding lead change as Dillon took the victory with Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick pushing him into the playoffs.

With Dillon’s win came the end of Martin Truex Jr.‘s playoff hopes. Truex was fourth in the regular season point standings after Daytona, but he will not be competing for a championship during the final 10 races.

Considering the circumstances surrounding this event, NASCAR will have questions to answer about the playoffs. Truex has the second-best average finish this season and the sixth-most laps led, yet he’s out. Even without a win, Truex has had the speed and consistency to be a title contender, which is something several winners this season can’t say.

For example, prior to this weekend’s race, Dillon had led eight laps all season. Truex had led 455. Yet according to the current playoff system, Truex is the odd one out. You be the judge.

The circumstances of the ending made it all the more controversial. How fair is it that Truex is out of the playoffs after Dillon was one of the two undamaged cars with race-winning speed to escape after the entire field suffered a 195-mph crash in the rain? I had written back in July about how NASCAR should give the top five in regular season points an automatic playoff entry; with Truex missing out from fourth, now would be the perfect time to implement such a feature for 2023.

Furthermore, if this race was run in its traditional Fourth of July slot, the field would have at least had eight races before the end of the regular season to understand the new playoff picture. With yesterday being the final race of the regular season, Dillon’s win threw everyone for a curveball. And it’s a curveball that likely would not have happened if the caution was put out in a timely manner before the field barreled into the rain.

Daytona should be moved back earlier in the regular season to prevent such a situation from happening again. The playoffs were greatly impacted by the rain and destruction of Sunday’s event; the regular season finale should not take place at a track where winning is often the equivalent of winning the Mega Millions Jackpot.

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud at Daytona: Rain Wrecks in the Playoff Cut Race Are Unacceptable

Finally, with concerns about the Next Gen car’s safety, there is once again an ethical dilemma involved in racing at superspeedways. Fans enjoy them and they are traditionally the most-viewed races of the NASCAR season. But with these tracks traditionally come the worst crashes of the year, which pose a health risk for drivers and a financial burden for teams.

With the dangers and costs involved in stock car racing, the parties involved in the races themselves need to be given first priority. How much weight should TV ratings have over the team employees and drivers making it happen in the infield? How many drivers, off the record, really want to play a part in these pack racing events?

This weekend’s races left everyone with far more questions than answers. Everything from the playoff grid, the rain and the crashes will have to be addressed going forward as NASCAR looks to navigate through its new Next Gen era.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf joined Frontstretch in September 2021. He is a staff writer and the Friday news writer. Stephen also pens the weekly “4 Burning Questions” column and contributes to “Friday Faceoff” and “2-Headed Monster.” A Texas native, Stephen started following NASCAR at age 9.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Matty

The NASCAR championship should never be won without a race win. Period.

Dale EarnHog

If you’re much more consistent than the rest of the field for the whole year it should. I much prefer a driver wins no wins but 28 top 10’s and 15 top 5’s as opposed to a guy with 5 wins but just 7 top 10’s and 5 top 5’s.

Last edited 3 months ago by Dale EarnHog
Jeremy

It’s never happened in the 74 years of NASCAR racing. Only 4 times has the Champion only won a single race (Bill Rexford 1950, Ned Jarrett 1961, Benny Parsons 1973, and Matt Kenseth 2003). Thus, I’d say the concern over a driver being crowned Champion without a win is insignificant to the black eye of the current system which crowns a Champion based on a 1 race crapshoot – which follows several rounds of crapshoots, not to mention the plate race crapshoots that allow lesser drivers to get lucky and snag a “playoff” spot from more consistent/competitive drivers. Basically, what I’m saying is the current system is (and has been since inception) – crap.

Bill B

Well said! You can’t use the word crapshoot enough when explaining NASCAR now days.

Kevin in SoCal

You have to be good in the final race as well. Just ask the 2007 Patriots who won 18 games and lost the Super Bowl.

I’d like to see the playoffs go back to the top 12 instead of 16. Sixteen is too many and includes the “lucky” winners.

Jeremy

Stick and ball team sport playoff systems don’t align well with racing. The Patriots won every game in their division. Lost to a team in another division (which they hadn’t played before in the regular season). Baseball works the same way. Not sure about NBA, never have been a basketball fan.

The Patriots never played all 30 or so NFL teams that year. Due to the nature of the sport, they just can’t play everyone in a season – so a divisional playoff system makes sense. In racing it’s the same competitors week in and week out – all on the same playing field at the same time. Thus, it makes more sense to gather cumulative points over the entire season to crown a Champion – basically, the Champion is the guy who outran more of the other guys the most often (thus points awarded by finishing position, often with bonus points for Qualifying Pole Position, Laps Led, Fastest Lap, Winning, etc.).

Last edited 3 months ago by Jeremy
Bill B

I’ve given up trying to explain that to people. It seems so obvious.

DoninAjax

How many teams are on the field for the championship Super Bowl GAME? How many drivers are in NA$CAR’S last SPORT event of their season?

kb

The Xfinity race was maddening. I noticed a frustration and anger with the tone of the talking heads in the both. And all of a sudden, their tone changed as if making excuses for NASCAR, drivers, etc. I was thinking watching this sheet show, who called the booth and told them to cut the crap and start putting a positive spin on this garbage people paid good money to see. I did not see Sunday’s sheet show, but it sounds and looks like it had its own sheet show bs. Courtesy of NASCAR.

Sally Baker

The number of cars able to compete in the final laps of BOTH races at Daytona was pathetic. The money wasted in wrecked cars is ridiculous. This ‘win or else’ attitude is making races more dangerous than ever.

Bill B

I was never happy with the win and your in format. The easy fix is that the top 5 in points should always be in the playoffs and the rest of the positions should be filled by those who have won a race. This would also remove the issue where someone knows they are in after winning one of the first few races.

With that said I think it’s also important to point out that most years anyone in the top 5 probably also has a win. This year was an outlier because the new car created a situation where there was more randomness in how the races unfolded and who was left standing when the music stopped. So maybe this problem (if it is a problem at all) will solve itself. I do expect the cream to rise to the top next year when everyone is more familiar with the car and for the randomness (which many call parity) to be much less.

RCFX1

The Chase created this situation. The last race and finishing just in front of your closest competitor is ridiculous in my mind.

burns

lightning 8 miles away everything stops raining in the stands keep going?

DoninAjax

NA$CAR got exactly what they wanted on Sunday, The problem was it wasn’t on Saturday night. But they’ll take it and flood the new ads with the wrecks.

Lowell Johnson

I am neither a Toyota nor Truex fan, but with their season-long records both he and Blaney deserved to be in the playoffs. I’m just a fan, but I’d bet if I listed four cars I though would be the first out, I’d be right on at least three. These “one hit wonders” don’t deserve a playoff spot over drivers that have run up front all season. Why even have a point system if the top point cars don’t make the playoffs?

RCFX1

If Kurt hadn’t backed out of the Championship, both Ryan and Martin would have been out without racing the guy that made it in!

RCFX1

Nascar should have people along the fence (they have security to keep people away). As soon as those people felt rain, they should have called it in. If it needs to be a Nascar official, then have them in the corners and along the stretches. Driving into a rain storm should never have happened.

DoninAjax

It’s time for the inmates to stop running the NA$CAR asylum!

Kurt Smith

NASCAR’s biggest problem by far for the last 20 years has been its leadership. It is the worst run sport on planet Earth (and that is saying something compared to MLB and the NFL).

wildcats2016

I’ve never liked restrictor plate races. They are always chaos and mayhem. Having it be the “deciding” race to get into the playoffs was an even more ridiculous decision IMO. I like close exciting racing but this isn’t it.

Charlie

First, the weather. We know it rains in the late afternoon in Florida in the spring, summer, and fall. Second, they scheduled the cutoff race in the middle of hurricane season. What possibly could go wrong with the fans descending on an outdoor arena in a hurricane. The late start didn’t help. How many rain issues have occurred BECAUSE they start at 3 or 4 instead of 1 PM? It is almost as if they could care less about the people who spent over $100.00 for a seat, rode a shuttle bus in, sat there all afternoon, and can’t come back. START EARLIER and I don’t care if TV covers it or not. The cable companies need content. They will pay. The new contract will not be as lucrative anyway, just look at the Cup Title Sponsor, oh, wait, there is not one.
The wrecks. First, I don’t care how much the drivers and crews complain, stop the race BEFORE the rain wets down a turn They make enough money and can stand it a little longer OR if the race extends six hours past start time, REFUND the ticket. Most of the folks in the stands work and have to buy their tickets and now it’s time to cater to them.
Let TV pay for them.
Now back to the wrecks: penalize aggressive driving. Penalize blocking and stop bump drafting all together. If you wreck someone on a track over 2-miles in length, other than a road course, five lap penalty and that includes for the lead on the last lap. OR, keep it up until someone gets killed. Drastic, yes. They will adjust.

Echo

Dillon knocks Cindric out of the way to win Daytona. Dillon rams Almirola out of the way to win the Daytona 500. Dillon then hypocrite that he is, thanks Jesus for helping him win. Is Ben running nascar with Brian slurring in his ear. It certainly seems like Brian never left to me.

Steve C

The team/ car owners should demand a larger percentage of the t.v. money at Daytona, Talladega, & Atlanta so na$car can help with the cost of replacing race cars which are now guaranteed to be destroyed because of the product they have created. Thanks Brian & co. – geniuses indeed!

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