Wait, perhaps that’s not quite truthful, after what transpired on the track. Fans were baffled and pondering why no driver tried to break away from the follow-the-leader racing over the final 37 laps.
Billed as a 75-lap exhibition race, the Advance Auto Parts Clash, broadcast on Fox Sports 1 opposite primetime Olympic Coverage, didn’t really offer a compelling reason for fans to devote a couple of hours of viewing time, even allowing for the pre-race NASCAR promotion.
“A double-header, featuring The Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying, is a great way to start the 2018 season,” asserted Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “The urgency created by the non-points race sets a tone for the season, providing a strong preview of the competition we expect will be a mainstay all year long.”
Again, not quite, given this Clash race was anything but spellbinding over the final two-thirds of the race, with fans treated to a mostly single file procession around the track with little passing.
Not surprisingly, there appeared to be an absence of fans in the stands, despite a delightful 80 degrees sunny day along combined with the earlier Daytona 500 qualifying session.
Relying on NASCAR’s race rundown, Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Penske Ford, “triumphed at Daytona in the Clash.”
Certainly, Keselowski won his first Clash race at Daytona and has proven to be a skillful restrictor plate racer, having won six points paying races on the banks of Talladega and Daytona over the course of his career. Still, this race victory hardly seemed glorious, but instead felt like a glorified practice session.
As a showcase for the sport’s best talent, the Clash field is intentionally exclusive, with eligibility limited to 2017 pole winners, former Clash race winners, former Daytona 500 pole winners, and drivers who qualified for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoffs.
Yet, this year’s paltry car count diminished the energy normally generated by pack racing on this high-banked oval.
Regrettably, this year’s edition of the Clash included only 17 drivers, less than half of the 40-car field that starts the Daytona 500 next weekend. The Clash entry list was shortened by the exodus of several formerly eligible stars at end of 2017, including the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr, as well as departure of Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick, both of whom failed to secure full-time rides in 2018.
Patrick, although she will compete one final time in the Daytona 500 next weekend, chose to skip The Clash and not risk damage to her backup car. Once again, she is crafty in all pursuits, preferring to concentrate her quest for the checkers on next weekend’s main event.
Moreover, the Clash seldom foreshadows who will be in the Championship hunt during the regular season. Just ask Keselowski’s teammate at Penske Racing, 2017 Clash winner Joey Logano, who failed to qualify for last year’s playoffs. Or seven-time Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, who extended his streak by crashing out in the past seven Clash events, including Sunday when he was turned around after being bumped from behind by Kyle Larson.
With the new 2018 aero package, these cars were a handful in the draft, resulting in several crashes and leading drivers to play it safe towards the end, given the limited upside of a race where no playoff points are earned, and no advantage is gained in qualifying position for the Daytona 500.
“Who would have thought they would run single-file for 30 laps?’’, critiqued former Cup Champion Kevin Harvick, after his ninth-place Clash finish. “In an exhibition race, there really shouldn’t be any strategy to it. That was a little bit surprising to me. I was trying to be aggressive and do things in the back and the next thing I know I’m losing the draft because everybody is single-file.”
The result was disappointment among fans, with a common thread across social media wondering what the heck they had just watched, with a few sarcastically asking whether these drivers really get paid to race in this snooze fest.
Frankly, driver reluctance to make risky moves is sensible. After 25 laps, most drivers likely collected the pack racing data needed to help reshape their strategy and adjust setups for the Daytona 500.
However, if drivers and crew chiefs truly see the Clash as a test session, isn’t it unfair to limit that data to the 17 teams that are on the track, while relegating the other 23 teams to scramble for third-party insights?
As for The Clash, Sunday’s tame finish isn’t the first time we’ve seen this result. However, elimination of the ride-height rule has reduced straightaway drag that previously aided big side drafting moves to the front of the pack.
“Everybody loses confidence and they fall in line and they don’t make as risky of moves, and then they don’t wreck”, explained Keselowski after his victory, “which is, it seems, completely backwards and counterintuitive for sure, but I think that’s what you saw today.’’
In the end, Clash competitors were unwilling to take big risks with a twitchy car, or at least couldn’t find enough support to make the bold move.
Optimistically, the Can-Am Duel Qualifiers on Thursday evening will provide teams with deeper insight on how to attack the Daytona 500 on Sunday. After this past weekend, fans will surely be craving something more eye-catching than a single file conga line to the finish for the Great American Race.
By Ron Bottano
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