DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — This was supposed to be the stage at what people look to when they point of the moment in which the rise of NASCAR came back. After years and years of numbers hemorrhaging, NASCAR had appeared to finally stop the bleeding last year.
New leadership at the top had stabilized the sport. Changes to the schedule came for 2020. There was a lot of anticipation heading into Daytona Speedweeks this year.
The Busch Clash saw a 7-percent increase in viewership. A few days later, it was announced that President Trump and his First Lady would not only be coming to the Daytona 500, but he was giving the command too. A day later, the track announced all 101,500 grandstand seats would be sold out for a fifth consecutive year, but factor in the camping and you get what Daytona International Speedway officials called the largest attended Great American Race in years.
A day after that, DIS officials announced a record setting purse totaling over $23.6 million being distributed in prize money.
The buzz surrounding the race was large. We witnessed the closest finish in NASCAR Truck Series history on the high banks of Daytona on Friday night when Grant Enfinger narrowly beat Jordan Anderson by just .010-seconds to the finish line.
Saturday say NASCAR’s future shine in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race.
Sunday, Air Force One came in over the speedway and landed at the airport behind the backstretch for all fans to see. It was time to witness history.
As the belts were pulled tighter inside of the race cars, the fans hearts thumping and the voices cheering, hats waving just as the 40 starters were about to take the green flag for the 62nd Annual event on Sunday, the skies opened up for a quick rain shower. Instead of taking the green, the took the red.
A 62 minute rain delay followed but we’d get going at 4:20 p.m. ET not 3:18 p.m. ET. 20 laps would go by before a second rain delay. Just as we about had the track dried to resume the Daytona 500, a third rain storm hit ending the night early and postponing the Daytona 500 to the next day for the second time in 62 years.
Monday would go better. We’d see frantic racing and shaping up for a good finish. Then, five crashes in the final 24 laps wadding up 29 cars in total showed up the ugliness of this racing too.
Superspeedway racing is both exhilarating and dangerous. It creates close action and promotes photo finishes, but can quickly go awry in the matter of seconds.
Joey Logano was doing what you need to do on a superspeedway in pushing the car in front of him on the backstretch on Lap 185. Unfortunately, the car in front of him, Aric Almirola by the way, had no where to go but to run over the car in front of him, Brad Keselowski. That sparked a 19 car melee on the backstretch.
“The random roulette wheel took our number today and we didn’t get to the end,” Kurt Busch said as he was one of the 19 collected in Monday’s late race crash. “Lady Luck was not on our side. There were a lot of cars on the lead-lap and there was a really big instability with side-drafting. With 15 laps to go, do you ride still or do you go for it? I went for it.”
That’s the nature of superspeedway racing. The crashes after all were a byproduct of this. Then, the final crash of the night, the most frightening, saw Ryan Newman move low to block Ryan Blaney’s run.
Blaney, had been getting pushed in tandem by eventual race winner Denny Hamlin. He moved low to make his move and Newman blocked it. That caused Newman to crash violently and end up in serious condition in the hospital with non life threatening injuries as a result.
In hindsight, you can easily say Newman shouldn’t have blocked, but that’s the nature of this beast. You have to block moves to stay out front. Blocking, tandem drafting and pack racing is superspeedway racing.
Newman did what he was supposed to do to win the Daytona 500. So did Ryan Blaney. Neither did anything wrong via the way that these rules are.
“We pushed Newman there to the lead and then we got a push from (Hamlin),” Blaney said of the incident, visibly shook. “I kind of went low and he blocked that and so I was committed to pushing him to the win and have a Ford win it. I don’t know. We just got the bumpers hooked up wrong and I turned him. I hope he is alright. It looked pretty bad. I was trying to push him to the win. I don’t like saying that things just happen because I feel really bad about it. It was a close one. I just hope Ryan is alright.”
Hamlin, said that the way that these moves are made in races like this are in fact dangerous and due to the closing rate of the car behind.
“I mean, it’s just all numbers when you get somebody pretty close to — in proximity behind you or pushing,” said Hamlin after winning his third Daytona 500 in the last five years. “It’s like once they break that bubble of being connected, it really shoots that lead car out, and it’s just kind of a product of the race package that we have.
“But overall, I thought the racing was pretty good, and obviously the closing rate is so drastic with this package that you’ve really got to time your runs out and figure out where you want to be.”
The racing package shows that it’s actually really smart to ride around the back until the very, very end. If you can do so, you can get a top 10 finish.
Just look at the names in the top 10 this weekend – Jordan Anderson (best career finish), Natalie Decker (best career finish), David Ragan (fourth), Brendan Gaughan (seventh), Corey LaJoie (eighth).
They all did what they needed to do to walk away with good results.
“We did exactly what we wanted to do,” said fifth place finisher Kevin Harvick. “We just got a little bit of bumper damage and abandoned stage points to be around at the end to have a chance. We did at the end; we just ran out of pushers. I knew we needed to be fourth on that restart. The bottom wasn’t where we needed to be. We didn’t get a good shove and then everything jumbled up and we were able to get back close to the front. It was a solid night for the Busch Light Ford.”
“Abandoned stage points to be around at the end to have a chance,” is what stuck out to me. He’s not wrong either. Why race and get locked into the middle of the pack and risk getting caught up in a crash when you can ride around in the back and ensure you’re there for the end. After all, winning the Daytona 500 is far better than scoring stage points and getting collected in someone else’s mess.
Even if that means riding in the back all race. But I caution, how fun is that to race that way? That’s how we see so many underdog racers scoring top 10’s in Daytona. They don’t get in the thick of things until the end. They can’t afford to.
Hamlin, won in a photo finish, just like Friday night’s race ended. He beat Blaney in the second closest finish in Daytona 500 history (.014-seconds).
We should be celebrating two photo finishes in a span of three races. We should be celebrating the sell out, the President coming, the largest purse in race history, the buzz. It all lived up to its glory.
But, the crashes, the last one in particular, is making celebrating what should be known as a big Speedweeks, tough.