Restrictor plate racing is an acquired taste. Some do not enjoy it, not all (including some drivers) look forward to it, yet most everyone is willing to pay attention to the last lap to see who will be crowned Daytona 500 Champion. For firsthand experience of this maxim, I observed that my wife, ever the casual fan, sat down to take in the last lap and was cheerily surprised by what she saw.
With a great last lap move to pull out of line from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Toyota, committed to the top and chased down teammate Matt Kenseth, brushed off a block and bump, and then wedged between Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. to squeak out the tightest finish — 0.010 seconds — in the 58-year history of the Great American Race.
How often do we get a photo finish where we must slow down the tape to see who won? Bottom line, this Daytona 500 finish will be remembered for years.
No doubt, certain racing purists see sheer boredom in superspeedway cars that have been “restricted” since 1988 from reaching their upper limits at Daytona and Talladega in the interest of safety, where stockers are confined to running in large packs and no one can generate a serious performance advantage over the duration of the race.
Yet, Sunday’s Daytona 500 delivered in abundant ways for the start of the NASCAR season:
- Hamlin wasn’t content to get a top 5 finish and solid points day, but gambled for the win. Hoisting the Daytona 500 trophy has always been a dream of this 35-year-old driver, with Hamlin’s mother Mary Lou tweeting out the essay that Hamlin wrote when he was in 2nd grade, declaring he would win the February 1998 Daytona 500. A dream realized, albeit 18 years later than planned.
- We had genuine sportsmanship among the drivers at the end. Martin Truex Jr. wasn’t sure who had won when he and Denny Hamlin crossed the start-finish line, but maintained perspective. “I feel like we were in really good position just doing what we did,” Truex acknowledged. “Circumstances didn’t work out quite as well as they should have…I felt like I should have run Denny up the track a little bit. Two years ago I would have been sitting here with a sourpuss on my face. Today was (still) a great day.”
- The validation of the $400 million DAYTONA Rising project was a crown jewel redevelopment, with all 101,500 stadium seats spoken for in the self-proclaimed World Center of Racing. Some on social media commented that they could see open seats in the aerial shots, but plentiful fans mingled on the interior concourses throughout the race. The new Daytona Rising stadium has captured the spirit that fans now look to attend social events centered around sports, given that tracks most offer something beyond the pure HD experience of watching on one’s home theater.
- The weather was perfect, with no rain throughout Speedweeks to inflict havoc on scheduled race events.
- We did not get the typical carnage of the “big one” associated with many superspeedway events, and cars remained on the track and not in the catch fence. Just once, it was a relief to not have to hold our breath after the finish with anticipation as to whether drivers would emerge safely from scattered sheet metal. Gratifyingly, there was no spectacle of jet dryers exploding from impact with an errant race car.
- Strategy calls were evident throughout the race. Teams struggled with grip on the high banked corners. Handling was at a premium in the draft, as the daytime weather and slick track contributed to cars being tight in the corner. New rubber was at a premium, as teams had to speculate on whether to take two or four tire pit stops.
- At plate tracks, the top drivers now rise to the top and have demonstrated sharpness and shrewdness at this time of racing. Leaders must showcase the command of the draft and which line is working best, often maintaining their position by taking the air off one lane, then moving to the other, thereby stalling out potential moves by the competition.
- This year, we saw several of the sport’s top drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, and pole sitter Chase Elliott engage in epic slides on their own coming out of Turn 4, showcasing that cars were indeed on the handling edge. Elliott completed 18 laps Sunday before his Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet was taken to the garage with heavy front end damage, the result spin and infield nose-dive.
- And if you wish to recreate multicultural last lap drama, check out the Fox Deportes Spanish language telecast of the finish. Victorioso is exciting in any language, and this clip will surely leave you smiling. https://twitter.com/FOXDeportes/status/701524567190171649
Plate races are a limited, distinct piece of the NASCAR schedule, but a legacy component of what NASCAR is. Daytona Speedweeks was a stellar start for the season, with fans at least talking about what happened on the track. The NASCAR show now moves forward to the real heart of the season. Bring on the new low downforce race pack for Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.
By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano