Through the Gears: Five things we learned in the Daytona 500
Lined up single file at Daytona. (ASP, Inc.)
The Great American Race, for the first 180 laps, looked more like the Great American Parade. Cars ran single-file for much of the Daytona 500, content to ride in packs for fear that pulling out for a pass would leave them slower than the street cars the new Gen-6 models are supposed to resemble.
Just don’t expect Jimmie Johnson to complain. “Five-Time” saved his best for last, when the field bunched up inside the last 20 laps and the racing finally resembled some semblance of Sprint Cup competition. Out in front on the white-flag lap, he slammed on the gas pedal when cars wrecked behind him, easily outlasting teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the second Daytona 500 of his one-day Hall of Fame career.
This day, however, will never come close to those lofty standards, a disappointment for NASCAR during a time where plenty of extra eyes were paying attention. Their missed opportunity leads off this week’s “Through The Gears,” bringing you up to speed on the storylines that simmer following the 55th running of the Daytona 500.
First Gear: The Gen-6 needs work at Daytona. Serious, serious work
Daytona is NASCAR’s Super Bowl; but Sunday, the challenge for fans was nothing more than staying awake. That’s problematic. NASCAR’s Gen-6 model, while expected to improve the competition on intermediate tracks, sterilized it on a plate track. Strategy and track position — the latter an ugly word that’s castrated competition elsewhere — made its way into the restrictor plate world most thought it could never touch again. Whether or not NASCAR should be using the plates as a form of parity is a separate discussion. The fact this package caused cars to run single-file, repeatedly, with only 19 lead changes in the first 172 laps (mostly during cautions, restarts and green-flag stops) is a fact not easily ignored.
Some of that, whether NASCAR likes it or not, can be attributed to the plate package it built for the Gen-6 chassis. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin tweeted the single-file racing was “frustrating,” attributed to the weakness of the inside line. Meanwhile, winner Johnson had another take – that the drivers themselves, sick of wrecking out of so many Russian Roulette, keep-the-pack-together-like superglue races had grown tired of actually trying to compete until the end.
“When we’re running single-file, we’re just trying to get to the finish,” Johnson said. “We’ve all crashed so many times and have torn up so much stuff … I feel for NASCAR, they’re trying to create a very competitive car.”
There’s a point to be made here, along with Saturday’s carnage that left 28 fans injured and many drivers clearly shaken. After 25 years, no matter the rules, these drivers know the name of the game. Did you know there has not been a plate race without a yellow (or several) within the last 20 laps since Daytona’s July 2004 Pepsi 400? Some of the drivers today hadn’t earned their high school diploma when that happened. That means the same type of pattern has been repeated, over and over; no matter what you do, no matter where you are on the track, as long as you stay on the lead lap a caution will bunch up the field with 20 to go (or less). After that … the real racing starts.
Competitors are smart and they adapt. So NASCAR needs to come up with a way where there’s a clear reason to race hard, from start to finish even in the sport’s Super Bowl, otherwise, drivers will just do it when it counts. NASCAR also needs to take a hard look at Johnson’s other point, how side-drafting permanently disabled the inside line Sunday. By all accounts, drivers pulled out of line and got railroaded because the Gen-6 car is so sensitive to that method of manipulation. Perhaps adjusting the spoiler will help? If NASCAR does that, it’s believed some form of tandem drafting would be the result. But as the Nationwide race showed us — before all hell broke loose — some hybrid version of that format isn’t all bad.
What NASCAR can’t have, whether the drivers like it or not, is a parade the likes of which was seen on Sunday — especially when the fan base is used to the heart attack that is Daytona’s last 20 laps. They say people are enthused about a style of racing that closely matches the early 1990s? Check the ratings: 1990 and ’91 were the two lowest-rated 500s since the race received full-time coverage in 1979.
Second Gear: Danica is the real deal … sort of
OK, raise your hand if you thought Danica would be a flop. She wasn’t. In truth, Patrick’s day surpassed most peoples’ expectations, becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the Great American Race and following it up with the best ever finish (eighth).
More importantly, Patrick remained consistent, running in the top 10 for the duration in a performance that she described perfectly: “steady.” If not for making a rookie mistake, in failing to follow Earnhardt with one lap left, she may have been on the podium.
“I definitely was a little uncertain how I was going to be able to do it pass for the win),” she said. “I think Dale did a nice job and I think he taught me something.”
What she needs to learn — much quicker — is how to get off pit road. At tracks where she won’t make track position back, like the intermediates, those mistakes could destroy a solid run. I do expect more Danica-mania to develop now, as the momentum train heads to Phoenix, where she was in position for a top-15 performance last November before a late wreck.
Third Gear: Johnson sets another milestone … to the detriment of Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson, taking advantage of track position opportunities, ran a smart, clean race. That’s expected when crew chief Chad Knaus can take center stage. He successfully kept the No. 48 out of drafting practice, gambling that this race was about who could stay in line, use pit strategy to stay up front and then make a calculated move when it counted.
The victory gives Johnson a victory in his 400th career start. In a weird quirk, five others have accomplished the feat, including Hall of Famers Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt. As if Johnson needing another notch on a resume that may see him reach 100 career wins (he’s at 61 now) before his career is complete.
You can’t say the same for Earnhardt, runner-up in this race for the third time in the last four years. It’s a huge win for Hendrick Motorsports, which runs the 48 and 88 out of the same shop. But you’ve got to wonder if the restrictor plate drought, now at eight-plus years, has Earnhardt wondering when it’ll finally be his turn again.
“Running second over and over is great and all for our team,” Earnhardt said. “But it’s been too long. I would love (to win), even having to go through all that (media) hassle that Jimmie is about to go through this week. It’s worth it.”
It was a tough Speedweeks for Edwards (ASP, Inc.)
Fourth Gear: Ford is behind the curve
Fusion? “Fusing” is a better descriptor of the week ahead for Blue Oval teams after Ford’s fleet left Daytona filled with enough busted pieces to fill a local junkyard. To say the Speedweeks has been disastrous for its main star is an understatement. Carl Edwards, from January testing through Sunday, wrecked a total of five times, although an innocent victim in each one, and was a complete non-factor in the 500.
Penske Racing, while fourth with Brad Keselowski, saw new hire Joey Logano stub his toe to the tune of 19th. Both drivers limped home with race cars Bondo’d together. In all, the beefed-up Ford fleet — with 15 Daytona entries, its largest number since 2002 — posted just three inside the top 10 while leading for just 17 laps.
But where you’ve really got to feel for this crowd is the bottom tier. Front Row Motorsports, which barely has money to compete, wiped out all three primary cars in the 500. The Wood Brothers, running a part-time schedule, wiped out two with Trevor Bayne over the course of Speedweeks. The parts shortage is bad enough for the big teams, for the small ones, it’s critical.
Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Daytona's Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car gave way to a new style of drafting in the Great American Race, while newcomer Danica Patrick once again made history. The ultimate result, though, was all too familiar. Jimmie Johnson scored career Cup win No. 61 by holding off a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a frantic final lap to win the 55th Daytona 500.
“This Lowe’s Chevrolet was so fast,” said Johnson, a two-time 500 champion. “Chad (Knaus, crew chief) did an amazing job. We stuck to our plan all week long, kept the car straight through the practice sessions and the Duel and knew it was a fast car that would race well. We got that done here today.”
Johnson led 17 laps on the afternoon, but took the lead for good with 10 laps remaining, just prior to the event’s final caution.
“My lane was bunched up tight and helped me surge by the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) at the start-finish line when the (final) caution came out,” Johnson said. “That was the move that set things up for us.”
Leading the high line on the ensuing restart with six laps to go, Johnson, Greg Biffle and Patrick shoved their way out front. With Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer in tow, Keselowski attempted to pull the low line alongside Johnson, but three-wide racing took over as drivers scrambled for position, breaking up the run.
That’s when Earnhardt made his move — a move that would ultimately come up short.
The 2004 Daytona 500 winner lurked in fifth when the field took the white flag, but hooked up with Mark Martin in a sleek, two-car draft. Slicing low on the backstretch, the pair drafted under Patrick and Biffle, nearly pulling even with the leader.
“Once we came off of (Turn) 2, we just mashed the gas and got a run on Danica and side-drafted a little bit,” Earnhardt said of the last-lap move. “Once we come to (Turn) 4, we kind of ran out of steam. We didn’t have enough to get to Jimmie.”
“The end got exciting,” Johnson said. “The 88 (Earnhardt) got a big shove and was up the inside and I moved down to defend that.”
That move, combined with Earnhardt’s momentum stalling in Turns 3 and 4, allowed Johnson to shut the door. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates ran nose-to-tail through the tri-oval, with Johnson winning by .129 seconds. Martin, Keselowski and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
“There’s no better way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500,” Johnson said. “I’m a very lucky man to have won it twice. I’m very honored to be on that trophy with all the greats that have ever been in our sport.”
Passing was at a premium over the course of the 200-lap, 500-mile race — and that suited Patrick, who qualified on the pole. She became the first female to lead a green flag lap in Cup competition — she led five laps total — and rarely dropped out of the top 10, backing up the speed her Chevrolet showed in qualifying.
“It was nice to lead laps in the race — just to have done that,” said Patrick, who finished eighth. “It was a steady day.”
A clean start to the race evolved into a largely single-file procession that was punctuated by a nine-car accident on lap 34 that eliminated many of the favorites. Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart were among those forced to the garage when Kyle Busch got into the back of Kahne, turning him in front of the field.
“The cars in front of us slowed up, so I was just slowing up right on Jeff Gordon’s bumper,” Kahne said. “I got hit from behind. Kyle was probably getting pushed and it all happened so quick.”
“To hell with the season,” a frustrated Stewart said. “I wanted to win the 500.”
The three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas took over at that point. Matt Kenseth led 83 of the next 115 laps with teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin neatly tucked in behind. But the complexion of the race changed on lap 149, when Kenseth — while leading — and Busch retired due to engine issues within two laps of one another.
Hamlin led the next 23 laps until Keselowski and Johnson began swapping the lead over the final 26 circuits.
The win was Hendrick Motorsports’ seventh Daytona 500 triumph and came in Johnson’s 400th career start. Johnson joins Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dave Marcis, David Pearson and Lee and Richard Petty in having won in their 400th starts.
“It’s a huge honor,” Johnson said. “There’s no other way to put it. Any time you’re mentioned with those greats, it’s a huge honor.”
Sunday's Daytona 500, the 55th in the long, storied history of The Great American Race, officially has the field set. There are endless stories emanating from NASCAR's biggest event, but here are the five that will most impact Sunday's race.
No horsing around: Harvick is the favorite
There's just one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver batting 1.000 with trophies on the line in 2013: Kevin Harvick. Both of those trophies, of course, have come in the last week at Daytona where NASCAR's resident "lame duck" has scored impressive wins in the last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited and the first race of Thursday's Budweiser Duel at Daytona.
But statistics aren't the only thing supporting Harvick's case as the head-turning favorite before Sunday's race. Instead, it's the manner in which Harvick has taken control at the end of both races and held on with the grip of a vice.
In the Sprint Unlimited, Harvick first moved to the lead on lap 34 of the 75-lap, three-segment race. Just twice, and for two total laps, did the No. 29 not cross the start-finish as the designated leader. And when the heat turned up on the final lap, Harvick was able to play both lanes and make a bold, sweeping block of Greg Biffle on the backstretch of the money lap. He wasn't pressured again before the checkered flag.
Thursday was much the same in his 150-mile qualifying race, except Harvick was better. A savvy move exiting pit road pinned Trevor Bayne — the only other driver to lead Duel No. 1 — against the infield grass and then behind him as the two rushed through the gears to get up to speed. Bayne never recovered and eventually ended up in a crash while Harvick maintained his position. Even the restart wasn't a hassle for the No. 29, as Harvick managed the high then low line to keep competitors at bay and the Budweiser victory lane bath in sight.
Afterward, many of his competitors noted handling played a huge role in their ability to challenge. Harvick seemed almost incredulous at the thought.
"We never experienced any of that," Harvick said. "I think it's a matter of how you came down here with the balance of your race car."
Translation: the No. 29 is good. You can bet the field has taken notice.
Follow the leader
One factor playing into Harvick's hand as he has dominated so far is the apparent advantage held by the leader in the Gen-6 chassis when drivers form the long, snake-like lines of cars. Just seven different drivers led in the qualifying races Thursday, with just four of them leading for more than one lap.
"It's hard to pass the leader," Kyle Busch said after winning the second Duel race. "Just stay out front when you can get out front and you can run pretty good and just try to hold everybody off behind you."
That showed on the final lap of Busch's race when Kasey Kahne, with a push from Austin Dillon, edged under Matt Kenseth in second but couldn't punch past Busch. Kahne never even got alongside Busch.
"It's really tough to pass. When another car gets near your rear tire, it's like you threw the parachute out," Jimmie Johnson said.
Harvick and Jeff Gordon said Daytona now requires more planning to make a pass for position — not just finding someone to push like the recent years of tandem racing at restrictor plate tracks. The consequences can be dire.
"You've just got be precise in your moves," Harvick said. "If you get yourself in the wrong spot like we did at the beginning of the race in the middle, you just can't go anywhere. The only place you're going is backwards. It's hard to get yourself into the hole that you need when you make a mistake."
Gordon agreed, saying Daytona in 2013 feels like the Daytona of old.
"This is a real thinking race now. It comes down to the way it used to," Gordon said. "You get yourself in position. Everybody kind of rides, and thinks about what they have. You have to have your car handling pretty good, which is tough to do further back in traffic."
But Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, doesn't think passing the leader will be completely impossible come Sunday”
"You have got to have somebody go with you; you can't do it by yourself. But you can get a run, definitely. No doubt about it.”
Handling the unexpected
In order to get the kind of run Gordon is talking about, and to time it at the point where it'll put a driver in prime position to walk away with that coveted Harley J. Earl trophy, a driver has to first be in the position to make that move. In a 500-mile race, that's no easy feat.
No, the Daytona 500 isn't the same test of attrition that it once was. Parts last longer. Teams hit setups with more regularity. Drivers, typically, are smarter.
But 500 miles is still 500 miles — especially with a new car putting drivers more on the edge than they were with the stuck-to-the-track Car of Tomorrow chassis. Ryan Newman found that out during Wednesday's practice, and Denny Hamlin found it out late in the first qualifying race Thursday. Both suddenly lost control of race cars that weren't handling particularly poorly before they encountered a set of aerodynamic variables strong enough to send the car into a spin quicker than a blink of an eye. That will happen again Sunday and a driver (or drivers) in contention will pay the price.
It's a measure of the new car that has several, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., searching for answers in the two days of practice left before the 500.
"I didn't anticipate really the balance being a big deal because the car does have a good downforce package; we thought the balance would be pretty close," Earnhardt Jr. said. "(I) figured we would be fighting loose a little bit. We have to work on it."
Should drivers withstand that challenge, they'll have to be ready to execute flawless pit stops, too. Kyle Busch took the lead in the second qualifying race thanks to a call for no tires during his pit stop. Trevor Bayne lost his lead in the first race partially because he locked up his tires coming to pit road under green, necessitating a change. Busch wound up winning his qualifying race; Bayne wrecked.
"Pit crews are going to make a huge difference on Sunday," said Tony Stewart. "That's going to be the difference between which pack you come out in. You're going to have to have good stops to stay up there all day."
Like Gordon said, Sunday will feel more like Daytona of old. Carl Edwards, despite wrecking four times at Daytona, is looking forward to that.
"There will be groups of cars that separate themselves, some pit strategy and some guys that slide around and can't keep up," Edwards said. "I think it will make it a really dynamite, fun race."
Not everyone will leave Daytona Sunday night using the words Edwards did, but you can bet one of NASCAR's three competing manufacturers will be celebrating well into the night.
For the first time since the 1990s, cars in the Sprint Cup Series actually resemble their showroom counterparts. It's been a concerted effort by NASCAR, after pressure from those manufacturers, to make those comparisons easier.
It also introduces the realistic potential of Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota having a slight advantage come race day thanks to their body design. NASCAR has worked to prevent the issues, but competitors are competitors, and competitors like to complain.
Just look at the starting lineup for Sunday's race: seven of the top-10 are Chevrolets. If the finishing order resembles that, Jack Roush's comments won't be far behind.
Danica Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson. (ASP, Inc.)
And of course, especially at the start, all eyes will be on the most historic moment Daytona has seen in years as Danica Patrick leads the field to green as the first woman to ever win the pole position of a Daytona 500 — or any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Patrick, 17th in her qualifying race, didn't do much to turn heads in the one dose of racing experience she's had at Daytona this year. Her team's goal Thursday was to play it conservative and finish with the green No. 10 intact.
Mission accomplished — even if Patrick didn't feel she gleaned much from the racing.
"I'll be really honest, I didn't feel like I got a lot of experience on how to pass or the draft so much. I was able to hang with the group," Patrick said.
Patrick and Co. were worried about the car being too loose during the race and tightened the car up more and more leading to Thursday's 150-miler. She did later confirm that turning 60 laps in race conditions did prove at least somewhat valuable.
"I guess I did learn that being too tight is pretty detrimental here," Patrick said. "If you can't keep your foot in it and run up behind cars, then you're going to struggle to make moves. It looks really hard to pass, to be honest."
Patrick, who crashed on lap two in her first Daytona 500 start one year ago, should drastically improve her showing this time around. Expecting a win, though, is way too much.
by Geoffrey Miller. Check back each Friday, as Geoffrey Miller examines the five storylines to watch entering each NASCAR weekend. And follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
The theme of NASCAR Speedweeks in Daytona thus far?
New cars that do not line up square and are volatile in the draft; a supposed lack of quality body parts back at the team shops in North Carolina; valued information gleaned on specific cars that crew chiefs don’t want sacrificed.
For these reasons — and possibly because there’s no need to show one’s hand just yet — the action has been relatively staid at Daytona International Speedway.
In Thursday’s Budweiser Duel No. 1 — historically the crazier of the two — the much-ballyhooed No. 10 car of Danica Patrick led the field to green and, with teammate Tony Stewart, promptly drifted to the rear of the pack — part strategy play, part over-adjusted car.
Trevor Bayne inherited the lead and the field largely ran in formation in the high groove until lap 32 of 60, when Kevin Harvick led a train on the inside that propelled him to the lead with 14 laps to go. Like Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, when Harvick grabbed the point with 13 laps remaining en route to the win, it was a lead he would not relinquish.
He was forced to fight for it, though.
On lap 52, Denny Hamlin’s Toyota abruptly broke loose off of Turn 2 and collected Bayne, Carl Edwards and Regan Smith, setting up a four-lap dash when the green flag waved.
But with Jimmie Johnson planted on his bumper, Harvick held the lead, again utilizing the high groove after the restart. Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya tried in vain to mount separate assaults, but as in Saturday’s event, the No. 29 Chevy was too strong out front.
“Today, both lines were side-by-side and you were able to kind of feed each line a little bit of air (while leading) and try to keep ’em even,” Harvick said. “That's the best way to keep them at bay is keep them side-by-side.
“If we can get to that point and be able to dictate whether you need to block, move up, move down, side draft … you have options as the leader. That's the position I want to be in.”
Harvick, for certain, looks strong. In his final year with Richard Childress Racing, he’s started the year off by leading 40 of 75 laps in the Unlimited and 23 on Thursday, making him a favorite entering Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’ll do his best to downplay it, though, knowing the unpredictable nature of restrictor plate racing.
“We've been fortunate to win the first two races of Speedweeks," Harvick said. "We just got to keep a level head on our shoulders, not get too high over what we've done, just do the same things that we've done. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I think we definitely have the car and team to be in contention to do that.”
Kyle Busch celebrates Duel No. 2 win. (ASP, Inc.)
Duel No. 2 provided an even more docile 60-lapper. Jeff Gordon started on the pole and led the first 38 laps as the field, once again, largely flew in single-file formation.
However, a wacky round of pit stops on lap 39 shuffled the deck, as Gordon was penalized for speeding on pit road. It was a mistake from which he would not recover.
And that was when Kyle Busch took over.
Antsy running fourth prior to the stops and with no partner willing to work to make something happen, Busch’s crew chief obliged, making a call for no tires and a splash of fuel. That brief stint on pit road allowed the No. 18 Toyota to emerge second. When Gordon ducked to pit road to serve his penalty, the lead was handed to Busch — and that was that.
Busch led the final 19 laps, holding off a charging Kasey Kahne as teammate Matt Kenseth ran cover in the waning laps to capture the fourth starting spot for the 500.
“Our original plan was two tires, but he (crew chief Dave Rogers) called it,” Busch said. “They were just harping on me to make sure, don’t slide your tires. Because you don’t want to slide a left front (tire) and then have to take four.
“So, I felt like I got a really good pit road entry. I felt like I ran good pit road speed all of the way down pit road and getting into my box was great. The guys just filled the tank for five seconds. It’s all we needed and we ended up back here. We got out front where it mattered most and got teamed up with a couple of Toyota’s which was great."
So have the Unlimited or the Duels given any insight as to what Sunday’s 500-miler may provide? Possibly. Passing is at a premium, but it seems that if the race runs unimpeded for any number of laps, the giant packs of four-wide racing may not be as prominent. Drivers are complaining — quietly — that the Gen-6 cars are frightfully unstable in the draft and have them weary of taking unnecessary risks.
Therefore, the high groove acts as a cruising line of sorts, where drivers can click off laps. And with that in mind, the first half of the 500 may resemble Thursday’s Duels, as teams play it conservatively to be assured of simply seeing the finish.
Alternately, the low lane is a power groove to be utilized when it’s time to make a move. Harvick and Tony Stewart have demonstrated that a strong car can pull two or three others along if the drivers are willing to work together. If the Great American Race is to get crazy in the final laps, this is where the challenge will come.
And lastly, who are the favorites now that an exhibition race, pole day and two qualifying races are in the books? Harvick, obviously, has made the biggest statement with two wins in two races. And Biffle, with two runner-up showings in two starts, can’t be overlooked.
Neither can Stewart, whose name has been on most everyone’s lips in the garage since the Unlimited. And then there’s Busch, Gordon and Kenseth, who have all shown strength at one point or another.
All that said, an unknown rookie won the 500 in 2011 and another rookie is on the pole now. And with as many questions that remain concerning the behavior of the cars, the unexpected is almost assured.