Ryan: Four drivers had a Daytona 500 win in reach. Here’s how it got away
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – There’s only one winner of the Great American Race, and technically up to 39 losers annually.
But the number of drivers who lose with legitimate shots at a Daytona 500 victory -- but watch them get squandered, snatched away or simply vanish in the capricious draft -- varies every season.
Sunday’s race seemed one of the longest list of “woulda coulda shouldas” in recent memory.
No fewer than four drivers in the final 10 laps made decisions while leading that they desperately would have wanted back.
A few flicks of the wheel in other directions, and the course of history instantaneously could have resulted in someone other than Austin Dillon hoisting the Harley J. Earl trophy.
This has been a theme lately in the Daytona 500. Sunday marked three straight last-lap passes for wins, and the 2016 finish might have been the cruelest of all for Matt Kenseth.
Nearly a year after his bid at third Daytona 500 victory vanished in the final corner with a split-second call to block an outside charge (if he stayed put, he probably wins), Kenseth still wasn’t over the agony entering last season. “All I can remember is losing one,” he told NBC Sports a year ago.
How many times will this year’s class of the heartbroken say the same after rewinding the video and replaying the memories of the moves they didn’t make?
Here’s what could haunt them until at least their next shot at Daytona – and possibly long afterward.
Aric Almirola: In his first start at Stewart-Haas Racing, he seemed to be lamenting the finish the most among the contenders – and it wasn’t only because he had the lead until being moved by Dillon entering the third turn on the last lap. Almirola was “devastated” by the knowledge of what was left on the table – “a career changing race.”
It’s difficult to second-guess many of the maneuvers by the No. 10 Ford in crunch time: Almirola did well just to position himself for the win. But he probably would rerun the last lap, when he had Denny Hamlin behind him on the inside while Dillon was on the outside with a heavy push from Bubba Wallace.
The situation was similar to Kenseth’s – instinctually, it’s difficult for a driver to stay calm and in the inside lane when a competitor is coming with a full head of steam on the high lane.
But the trend Sunday was the outside was faster on the straightaways while the inside was quickest in the turns. If Almirola stays put, does Dillon’s momentum stall in the last two corners? The outcome probably is the same because he had little help, but that might have been what kept Almirola up Sunday night.
Denny Hamlin: With Hamlin in the lead on an overtime restart and only seven winning-caliber cars on the lead lap behind him, this certainly seemed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s race to lose.
The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is regarded as one of the two or three best restrictor-plate drivers by his peers, and he certainly was the most adept and experienced contender left in the field.
But the lack of a Toyota drafting partner (JGR’s other three cars were long out of the running) ultimately took the decision out of Hamlin’s hands. He had to choose to restart ahead of Buescher or Dillon, both in Chevrolets, and after a debate on his team radio, he went with Buescher – but not because of the JTG Daugherty Racing driver.
Hamlin had his eye on Paul Menard’s Ford in fifth, which he felt was better than Bubba Wallace’s Chevy in sixth. “Obviously, I’ve been doing this long enough that I know that it’s made or break by the fifth‑ and sixth‑place drivers,” he said. “It’s not really who’s directly behind you, and I felt like (Menard) was probably going to be one of the best pushers. I saw how strong his car was. So we tried to get on the radio and get (Buescher) behind us, (Menard) to try to buy in on whatever line gets organized the most is going to win the race. Those are the cars that’s going to battle it out for the victory.”
Buescher committed, but Menard didn’t, blunting the momentum of the inside and leaving Hamlin in the wake of Almirola, Wallace and Dillon. “So just a 50/50-coin flip and chose the wrong lane,” he said. “Honestly feel like there was nothing else I could have done (other than) just made a different decision there on lane choice.”
One other call Hamlin might be reconsidering? The decision to make the last green-flag pit a lap later than the lead pack (for a clean entry and exit, perhaps after Hamlin nearly lost two laps on a penalty for sliding through his box on the first stop). Hamlin dropped from third to eighth after a stop that he said was “almost too good” because he rejoined the track too far ahead and got gobbled up by the draft of the cars that pitted together. “They took us out of control of the race,” he said.
Ryan Blaney: He led a race-high 118 laps in another example of plate-racing excellence in his short Cup career, but Sunday showed the Team Penske driver still lacks experience. His No. 12 Ford seemed in control with the lead and Kurt Busch’s Ford behind him on a restart with seven laps left, but Hamlin just snookered him from fifth on the inside lane.
Blaney made an impressive recovery to lead the next lap briefly over Busch but lost the lead again. When Busch made a mistake going low two laps later, Blaney took the lead again but dropped from first the next lap when Hamlin went by with Busch in tow. A third shot at redemption for Blaney was eliminated by a multicar crash triggered by a block from Busch.
The main takeaway for Blaney, who had the strongest car in the second half, is learning how to be more strategic and less emphatic with his blocking.
Kurt Busch: He had a couple of shots at becoming the first winner of consecutive Daytona 500s in more than 20 years. But he landed in what he described as a “Bermuda Triangle” on the move in which he apparently delivered an inadvertent push that propelled Hamlin’s Toyota past Blaney’s Ford (Busch has been emphasizing his ties to the Blue Oval, which might present a landing spot in sports cars when his NASCAR career ends).
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver seemed to be second-guessing whether he should have used Dillon’s winning strategy – drill Hamlin and hope he could drive past him without crashing.
“It seemed like when Hamlin blocked us, I hit him pretty hard, and that killed a lot of my momentum,” he said. “Maybe I should have just flung the 11, but you have to treat guys with respect and you’ve also got to throw your elbows out, and you have to hold the hits when you get hit. We were close to going back-to-back in the Daytona 500, but I don’t have anything to show for it.”
Dillon’s victory came on the 17th anniversary of the last-lap Daytona 500 wreck that killed Dale Earnhardt, the most recent NASCAR fatality at Daytona International Speedway.
It’s easy to forget that Dillon also cheated death at the 2.5-mile oval after an airborne crash in the July 5, 2015 race that ripped a 60-foot swath of the catchfence and left Dillon sitting helpless in a stationary, mangled shell of his No. 3 when it was hit at speed
Sunday he admitted that, despite his Lane Frost impression after exiting the car with no injuries, the wreck stayed with him 30 months later and admittedly still makes him nervous.
“When it happened, I didn’t know how big it was, and then you see videos of it, and you’re like, ‘How did I like walk out of that like with nothing?’” he asked. “I get nervous coming here. I think everybody does. Especially like the first race in the Clash, I remember before the race, I was like, ‘Man, there’s something about this place that just makes you nervous.’
“But once you get in the race car and you settle in, the belts are tight, you’re like, all right, it’s time to go racing. It’s fun again. This place is just cool because of that. If it didn’t make you nervous, something would be wrong, I think.”
Close your eyes and ignore the Piedmont accent, and it would be easy to pretend you were hearing that being said in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Chase Elliott’s wicked head-on collision was cringeworthy to witness on such a fateful day in NASCAR history, but it was another reminder that Earnhardt’s greatest legacy remains that it sparked a safety revolution that is the longest period without a fatality in NASCAR national series history.
Yet it still is jarring to hear Joe Nemechek say after last Friday’s truck series race that “it’s pretty tough to get hurt in these cars anymore with all the safety innovations that have come through, soft walls, the carbon seats.”
Nemechek is a veteran who speaks from painful experience – his brother, John, died in a 1997 truck crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And he was giving a candid answer to what it’s like to watch his son, John Hunter (named for Joe’s late brother), involved in a caution.
But it feels like whistling past the graveyard to imply that Earnhardt’s death might be NASCAR’s last. History shows it won’t be, and with blocking becoming part and parcel to plate racing, the brutal wrecks Sunday at Daytona probably will become more of the norm.
It’s possible for NASCAR to legislate blocking through wholesale rule changes, but it was striking that seemingly no one was lobbying for limits during and after 500 miles of incessant aggression.
Contrast that with Speedweeks in 2006 when Tony Stewart sternly warned someone would die if measures to restrict slam-drafting weren’t taken, or the 2002 Talladega race that prompted a virtual revolt among veterans.
Not anymore. A mix of acceptance and resignation about blocking as an accepted part of doing business colored the words of many drivers Sunday. It was particularly true in interviews with Almirola, who didn’t seem the slightest bit miffed about being punted by Dillon (conceding he would have done the same). Almirola’s boss, the guy nicknamed “Smoke” who once bragged of meting out retribution for any young turks daring to impede his progress, might have had a different opinion.
Wallace and Hamlin exchanged some barbs in postrace interviews, but they also had a heated exchange of words in the garage after Hamlin left the media center and Wallace was headed there.
It apparently was caught on camera by the crew that is following Wallace’s rookie season for a Facebook Watch documentary. That might be worth watching for over the final two episodes airing this week.
Though it was another tantalizing example of youth vs. establishment, it’s hard to see things lingering between Wallace, 24, and Hamlin, 37, who often play golf and basketball together.
Counting Dillon, the top three finishers at Daytona are members of Hamlin’s “Hoop Group”, where the trash talking might get a little fiercer.
While NASCAR still is waiting to hear if Monster Energy will pick up a two-year option of its title sponsorship beyond 2018, there was another sign the beverage company has made some headway on getting its requests met. The branding on the flag stand made Daytona International Speedway the latest track to more prominently display Monster logos (which were more visible at several tracks last fall).
Because its deal with NASCAR was signed so late before beginning last season, Monster still has been ironing out details with tracks on guarantees of exposure. It’s hard to predict which way its extension could go, but branding similar to Daytona only can help improve NASCAR’s chances.
The first true test will come this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it’s rare that a NASCAR initiative such as the optical scanning system is as well received as the new inspection process was at Daytona.
If a full complement of cars is on the grid as early for qualifying and the race at Atlanta, NASCAR really might be on to something.
Also, credit to NASCAR for announcing penalties on team members during the course of last weekend rather than waiting until midweek. NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell explained in his weekly SiriusXM spot Monday that this is part of a laudable effort to get out of the game of announcing midweek penalties.
That hopefully goes for postrace inspection, too, eventually, though it’s unclear where NASCAR will land on that (and there were no inspection problems after the Cup and Xfinity races at Daytona).
The author of this column headline will concede it might have been taken the wrong way (though the text below it was intended as elucidation).
While the Duels are becoming antiquated creatures in the charter system, the concept of hosting warmup races for the biggest race of the season is more important than ever. This is an opportunity to reimagine Speedweeks in a throwback way.
Teams will complain about putting too many cars at risk. Even some fans will protest having “too much” racing.
Ultimately, the complaints should be weighed against reality, which is that racing cars is the most surefire way to ensure a buildup of compelling storylines for the biggest race of the season. Even if they are just 20-lap dashes a la The Clash of yesteryear.
If NASCAR removes the “open” classification holding four slots for non-charter cars every week, that would free up some extra cash to post, too, for bonus events.
It’s understandable that the Duels, which have been run in some form since the track’s 1959 opening, would be viewed as sacred cows. There also has been much discussion about giving NASCAR fans too much “change” to digest. This has been true when the “change” isn’t necessarily warranted but is intended more as a leap of faith toward something better.
That is not the case in this instance. Under the current economic, purse and team structure, the Duels (nee Twins) aren’t going to look the way they did in the halcyon days. It’s something that will need to be addressed by necessity.