DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The Daytona 500 was not the race many of us expected.
It was better.
Following a week of carnage and mayhem peppered throughout Speedweeks, it felt as if the tone had been set and the Great American Race was going to be a battle royale.
Instead, the 40 best stock car racers in the world put on a clinic of speed and discipline — executing three-wide close proximity maneuvering that surely made even the USAF Thunderbirds squeamish.
At its most imtense, the 500 actually resembled the racing at Talladega, remarkable given the space constraints at Daytona compared to its sister track In North Alabama.
While parity remains a theme of restrictor plate racing, it’s hard to make a case that the best team didn’t win.
While others led more laps, Joey Logano clearly had one of the five best cars, remaining near the lead all afternoon. And once his rivals shoved him to the front, there was no looking back, even as both of his teammates, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, dropped out with similar oil pan issues.
The Daytona 500 is the most important race on the schedule but it isn’t always the most exciting. That distinction is typically reserved for short tracks and road courses.
But with this particular package, NASCAR has found the perfect blend of competition and legitimacy in that this format doesn’t feel like a crapshooot or random number generator.
On Sunday, teams and drivers were forced to get creative in order to earn track position, be it on pit road or by forcing risky three-wide situations at a track that has seldomly welcomed it.
Once in the lead, a driver could control his own destiny, weaving left and right to stall oncoming pursuers and protect his hard-earned track position.
That’s racing — and truthfully it was the best non rain-enhanced event at the Speedway in quite some time. Fingers crossed that the status quo remains in place for July when the temperatures and conditions should be quite similar.
Sliced Bread Rises to the Occasion
Meanwhile, Sunday represented the completion of Logano’s Gibbs to Penske rebirth. By winning the Great American Race, Logano transcended his tenure as “Sliced Bread,” the outmatched top prospect who never really fit in at Joe Gibbs Racing and has become “elite” at his new home according to former teammate and long-time rival Denny Hamlin.
It’s remarkable just how much a change of pace and comfort can do for an athlete. At Gibbs, he was given every resource afforded to Tony Stewart but just didn’t mesh with Hamlin or Kyle Busch. In Roger Penske and Brad Keselowski, he’s found a family and he’s gifted them the Harley J. Earl.
While plate racing is definitely an outlier, expect another championship level performance from the No. 22 team, especially provided that they can now look ahead 25 weeks and completely prepare for the Chase for the Championship.
Proactive not Reactive
Much ink has been spilled over the incident in the XFINITY Series race on Saturday that sent Kyle Busch into a portion of the inside retaining wall at Daytona that was not covered by SAFER Barrier.
A decade after the soft wall was developed, there is no excuse for what happened.
NASCAR and CEO Brian France continually prides itself as an innovator with a overwhelming ambition to be ahead of the curve in all aspects of stock car racing business.
It’s track record towards safety is spotty at best as the sport continues to react instead of pre-emptively adhering to the demands of its participants as they continue to call for additional SAFER Barriers.
As a statement, NASCAR itself should rise up and aid its partner facilities in funding the development of a universal soft wall system rather than put the onus solely on track presidents.
For what it’s worth, NASCAR and Daytona president Joie Chitwood III reacted quickly on Saturday promising to cover the track in the protective padding.
But again, it’s time to get proactive and not reactive when it comes to the matter of driver safety.