Five things learned from the Daytona racing, so far
Restrictor plate racing is highly unpredictable, but some patterns seemed apparent after Saturday's Sprint Unlimited and Sunday's Daytona 500 qualifying session. Denny Hamlin started his season the right way with his Unlimited win and Austin Dillon helped write an early chapter in the storybook on the return of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevy. His 196.019 mph speed was just a tick faster than Martin Truex Jr.'s outside pole run. Both drivers are the only ones who know their starting spot for the season-opening race. That is about the only known for now in Daytona, but here are some things we learned this weekend.
Drivers can pass better with the 2014 package at Daytona: The Sprint Unlimited looked like a dud in the opening laps. Drivers seemed content to run single-file on the high line. That was until Tony Stewart, antsy in his first stint behind the wheel of the No. 14 since his leg injury, made several attempts to pass on the low line. Once others followed suit, the 17-car pack (sans Terry Labonte, who start-and-parked the No. 32), started passing left and right. In fact, the old slingshot move, a pass of restrictor plate days old, seems alive again in this umpteenth re-definition of plate racing in recent years. One big criticism of last year's Daytona 500 was the inability of the cars, or the driver's reluctance, to make hay using the bottom line. With Saturday's race as a microcosm, the 2014 Daytona 500 looks to be full of lead changes, passes, and - wrecks.
Side draft can speed you up and slow them down: The most entertaining part of the final lap of the Sprint Unlimited was not Denny Hamlin's pulling away to win or the charge of the Team Penske light brigade to try and run him down, but instead Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. Busch, who spun out across the No. 2 of Brad Keselowski's nose 14 laps before and recovered from losing the draft after lengthy repairs to vying for a win, used the side draft to pry apart Joey Logano and Keselowski and seal the win for Hamlin. It was obvious that was Busch's ploy, as the No. 18 had no help from behind to get a push to the front. Busch may have also been trying to get a boost in that side draft, too. The last caution of the race on lap 67, saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Marcos Ambrose tangle, with the No. 88 hitting the fence. Both drivers afterwards claimed that the boost from the side draft had an effect. As Ambrose was pushing Earnhardt Jr. and had a look inside, he got a boost off of his left-rear quarter panel. That gave the No. 9 a nose inside and when the No. 88 cut down, the contact sent him into the wall. This seemed to be the case also when Matt Kenseth spun across Joey Logano's nose in Segment 2, which eliminated half the field from the race. Kenseth took a peek up high and then looked low to hook up and push his teammate and leader, Hamlin. When he changed lanes, Logano had gotten a run faster than Kenseth expected (maybe due to the quarter panel side draft) and filled just enough of the hole that Kenseth made contact. These dicey characteristics could make for a very entertaining Daytona 500, but also a very long set of closing laps. Can someone say, "Green. White. Checkered?"
Cars can be fragile in the draft: The first caution of the Sprint Unlimited was on the last lap of Segment 1 when Jimmie Johnson looked high to try and pass Denny Hamlin for the lead. When he did, the air wedged between the back of the No. 48 car and the front of Kevin Harvick's No. 4 sent Johnson around and into the inside wall. Six-time champ Johnson, whose ability to drive needs no defining, lost control without contact from Harvick and said later on that the bigger spoilers on the cars seemed to keep him from gathering the car during the slide and keep himself from wrecking. This was a single incident in a short race, but the issue of cars spinning without much provocation popped up at Daytona last February. Add this facet to the things that could thicken the plot in the Duels and the 500.
Yellow stripes could mean more yellow flags: Eight rookies are vying to start the Daytona 500 and all could well race in and make it. With the above characteristics of the draft and their difficulties stated, these rookies will not only have trouble gaining partners in the draft, but could be the trouble themselves. The eight Rookie of the Year candidates are names many of us know, but only one has a restrictor plate win in any of NASCAR's three series - that would be Parker Kligerman (Camping World Truck Series, Talladega, 2012). Alex Bowman only has one season of Nationwide Series under his belt. Cole Whitt (who has no owner's points provisionals and will have to race in via the Budweiser Duels) has about one and a half years of NNS action and a full year in NCWTS on his resume and has a top 5 each at Daytona and Talladega in NNS racing. Michael Annett has several years in NASCAR, mostly at the NNS level, and no wins at plate tracks. Justin Allgaier has the most NASCAR experience of the class and some good NNS plate finishes, but no wins at Daytona or Talladega. Kyle Larson has zero plate wins and has one crash into the Daytona catchfence. Ryan Truex does not have a full season in any of NASCAR's top three series and zero top 10s at plate tracks. This leaves 500 polesitter Austin Dillon, who has three top 5s in four Daytona NNS races, two top 10s in three Talladega NNS races, and two top 10s in two Talladega NCWTS races. He has the best shot at success in the Daytona 500, but expect the pack to be a minefield with that much inexperience. Thursdays Duels and the drafting practices through the week will be good barometers for the Daytona 500 results for the strongest rookie class in years.
RCR and ECR engines look to have edge, so far: Not only did Dillon win the pole for the 500, but Truex Jr.'s No. 78 has the same power plant: Earnhardt-Childress Racing. Richard Childress Racing newcomer Ryan Newman sat 5th in Sunday's time trials and teammate Paul Menard was 10th. Brian Scott, who is technically driving for Circle Sport Racing in the No. 33, will have an RCR car and ECR motor and placed 13th. Casey Mears, whose Germain Racing team is another addition to the RCR satellite family, qualified 16th, making six ECR engines in the top 20 in time trials. Roush-Yates Ford motors also had six engines in the top 20 in time trials, with Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards clocking in 3rd and 4th. Hendrick Motorsports engines likely had to be dialed back, after three of them failed in Saturday's practices (Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, and Bobby Labonte will have to start in the rear of the field for the 500), but Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon did time in 7th and 8th in qualifying.