The 2018 edition of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 measured up to its self-proclaimed “Great American Race” moniker, with a dramatic, chaotic, and enthralling race decided by a stirring finish, with Austin Dillon slinging the Richard Childress Racing (RCR) #3 Chevy Camaro back to Daytona’s Victory Lane 20 years after Dale Earnhardt scored his only Daytona 500 win.
The Daytona 500 exemplifies that racing appeals to our carnal senses and is best devoured in person. Sold out for the 3rd consecutive year, fans came for the complete spectacle: From the pre-race flyover, to the smell of scorched tires and the sounds of engines cranking, to the maddening chaos of 40 cars racing separated by inches in a pack at ridiculous speed, to the unpredictable last lap finish. TV attempts to capture all this action, yet being there ultimately gratifies the senses.
Although dazzling, Superspeedway racing on high banks in tight packs is not the core of the NASCAR season; still, several takeaways were evident coming out of the Great American Race.
Daytona 500 Should Be Celebrated for its Cinderella Story
Consider that Penske Racing driver Ryan Blaney, dominant in leading 118 of 200 laps on his way to winning stage 2, only managed a 7th place finish. Blaney was leading in the final laps, but a caution at lap 11 led to a stacked-up field; after the restart, Blaney was a pinball bouncing in the pack to a mostly unremarkable finish.
Austin Dillon led just the final lap on Sunday, taking the lead by holding the throttle down through contact with leader Aric Almirola, who conceded that he was using every move possible to block a run by both Dillon and Denny Hamlin at a track where the leader can’t escape the pursuing pack.
Blocking Has Become the Expected Norm
Aggressive blocking was visible throughout the day, which was not surprising given the similarity of the competitive aerodynamic tolerances among manufacturers. Notably, Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse, engaged in aggressive blocking early in the race, wreaking havoc on innocent racers, along with the downfall of several instigators when blocks were mistimed.
Cheering on his fellow Penske Racing teammates, 2017 IndyCar Champion Josef Newgarden was terse with his in-race Twitter post: “Not a fan of this type of blocking at the #Daytona500.”
Given the knockout playoff format and importance of stage racing wins, expect to see this theme reappear throughout the season. Ideally, drivers eventually will police themselves so that NASCAR does not need to intervene.
Pursuing drivers will have a short fuse for the blocking tactic as the season progresses; the offender will likely only get a couple of opportunities to throw the block before the pursuing driver uses the “chrome horn” to spin the offender aside.
Stage Racing Escalates the Competitive Urgency This Year
Martin Truex, Jr, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Champion, imparted the playbook to the title, relying on stage point racing success to build a “point bank” that weathers the playoff elimination format.
Competitors have embraced this lesson that amassing stage points and wins are critical. Look no farther than the Stage 1 finish at Daytona, where aggressive racing took out several big-name drivers who were battling for stage points.
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Lowe’s Chevy and in pursuit of his potential record-setting 8th Cup Championship, was exasperated: “It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only Lap 59 coming to 60…I’m not sure everybody was thinking big picture and really using their head through that.”
The elevated stakes bring drama to race segments that historically lacked action; yet it will be fascinating to see how far teams will go to garner extra points during the course of the race.
Overtime Finish Rules Gives Fans What They Want
Indisputably, fans do not wish to spend two to three hours watching a race that ends with a parade lap finish under the yellow caution flag.
To ideally ensure races end under the green flag, NASCAR overtime rules now allow for unlimited attempts at a green/white/checkered finish, with drivers racing back to the start/finish line.
Saturday’s XFINITY Series season opener showcased this rule revision in a marathon session. Featuring five overtimes, victor Tyler Reddick made a move to the outside off turn four and won a drag race with JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler to the stripe as their cars bumped coming to the finish line.
Fans saw the closest finish in NASCAR history, with a photo finish separated by inches, although the victory margin was officially as 0.000 seconds, given NASCAR timing doesn’t measure beyond thousandths of a second.
NASCAR’s Ambitious Youthful Talent Will Spice Up the Sport
The Young Guns are coming and are backed by the established powerhouse teams of the sport. Many of these Gen Z drivers backed by the established superteams, including Chase Elliott and William Byron at Hendrick Motorsports, Ryan Blaney at Penske Racing, and Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez at Joe Gibbs Racing, and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr at Richard Petty Motorsports.
Their social media storytelling occurs in multifaceted forums, such as Wallace’s chronicling his Cup exploits, including his inspirational 2nd place finish in the Daytona 500, in “Behind the Wall: Bubba Wallace,” on Facebook Watch.
Daytona 500 winner Dillon showcased his wild streak when he and several RCR crew members acquired tattoos Sunday evening after Dillon’s monumental win. The 27-year-old racer elected to get “Daytona 500 Champ” inked on his posterior. Let’s see if Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus outdo that, should the Lowe’s Racing team secure its record 8th NASCAR Cup Championship at the end of 2018.
By Ron Bottano
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