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Race of survival at Daytona: Will drivers keep blocking despite risk?

NASCAR America details what drivers may have been able to glean during the Clash at Daytona in preparation for the Daytona Duels on Thursday and Daytona 500 on Sunday.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Taller spoiler, larger closing rates, brand-new aero ducts.

Same wrecks.

Sunday’s caution-plagued Busch Clash offered a preview of how Sunday’s 62nd running of the Daytona 500 and Thursday nights’ Duel qualifying races likely will unfold under a new speedway package introduced last year.

Though the rules were in place for both races last season at Talladega Superspeedway, its implementation at Daytona International Speedway was delayed until July in a caution-plagued race that was shortened by 82 miles because of rain.

So Speedweeks 2020 will be the biggest test yet at Daytona International Speedway of a package that already has produced calamity on the much wider surface at Talladega.

With 80% of the cars in the past three Daytona 500s having already been involved in crashes, Sunday’s race in particular could be more about attrition than ever – even drivers have become well aware that blocking is a much riskier strategy.

“You are going to have to survive,” Kevin Harvick said. “I think survival will be more talked about this year than any year in the past. We have all been programmed to block and do things with the old package for so many years, and this is not the old package. The runs are happening faster. The cars are kind of lining up and spin out really easy to the right when you push them wrong. They are fast compared to where we were before.”

The increased speed has come with the virtual evaporation of the so-called “air bubble” that drivers said existed between the leading and trailing car is gone.

That makes it much more difficult for the leader to control the two lines of cars because blocking is much less effective in blunting the momentum of a charge through the field.

“It’s changed a lot since last year,” Chase Elliott said. “Then the guy who got the lead with 20 to go was probably going to be your winner. Now the runs come fast, and the lead car will have a much harder time controlling the race.”

Said Kyle Busch: “The runs are not the same as what they used to be. So the old package, there used to be this bubble. You’d catch up to a guy and then half a car length away, you’d start to push him back away. That bubble is less. … The leader has to be careful about what he’s doing, especially when you’re on older tires.”

Though blocking has been a hot topic since Brad Keselowski criticized teammate Joey Logano for a multicar wreck in The Clash, it likely will remain prevalent in the last 50 laps of the crown jewel race of the season because so much is at stake.

“I don’t think it’ll change for the Daytona 500,” defending winner Denny Hamlin said. “This race is just too big, and people think they have to make the bold move to win the race. I think differently on it. I think you can get to the finish in a different kind of way and stay at the front in a different kind of way.

“With this package, we’ll continue to get smarter and evolve on how to manage these races to get to the finish but right now, people are trying to use the same technique they’ve used for many, many years, and it just isn’t working.”

Said Clint Bowyer: “At the end of the day, you block because it works. It works until it doesn’t. That’s the only unfortunate difference between when that works and one that doesn’t is a crash. That’s successful until it’s not, and then you’re the bad guy. You’ve wrecked the whole field because it was an untimely block, and you wrecked everybody, but if you didn’t, you should have, and you’re going to lose the race.

“So it’s a tricky thing to judge. It puts you on the spot. And it’s do or die, and it’s a decision that has to be made that fast.”