Analysis: Blocking is commonality between Daytona victory, defeat
Brad Keselowski’s seething, on simmer for a few months, was brought to a boil on an early July afternoon two years ago in Daytona. He’d finally taken a stance on blocking and his adrenaline was churning, so much so that he was oblivious to the traffic flow in the Cup garage during practice for the Coke Zero 400. NBC Sports’ Marty Snider had to usher Keselowski out of the way of moving cars.
And then, camera on, microphone hot, Keselowski let fire.
“I’m trying to send a message. I’m not lifting,” he told Snider. “We’ve been wrecked in four of the last five plate races, quite honestly because I let people pull moves like that on me.”
The incident began when William Byron attempted a block. It wasn’t just any block, though; it was a last-minute block in practice. Keselowski’s refusal to lift out of the throttle was too complex to be considered a party foul.
Given the basic physics behind drafting — when the lead car (in this case, Byron) blocks the air, reducing the wind resistance for the second car (Keselowski), the second car travels faster, sometimes without its driver standing wide-open on the gas pedal — the only surefire way Keselowski would’ve avoided collision was to smash the brake pedal. That’s an action with different, potentially bigger ramifications.
Keselowski, never one to keep quiet on slights, was sloughed off by fans used to his antics. A few drivers disagreed with his stance.
“I don’t think he ‘sent a message’ to anybody. I think it was kind of careless,” said Jimmie Johnson, Byron’s then-fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver. “He feels pretty good about what he did. We’ll see how it all unfolds for him.”
It unfolded that night in Daytona’s driver motorcoach lot, when Byron confronted Keselowski. While the talk wasn’t totally amicable, it also wasn’t unproductive. Interestingly, Keselowski’s message resonated with its victim; Byron listened, learned, and quietly vowed to sharpen his blocking ability.
“I just kind of wanted to learn some things from him,” Byron told NBC Sports. “He was adamant that you’ve got to make those moves quickly and aggressively and not delay the reaction.”
“A lot of guys do it too slow.”
Hendrick’s drafting program is perennially speedy, but the incident with Keselowski and subsequent conversation prompted Byron to request more nimbleness in his car’s handling — a rapid response from the moment the steering wheel feels his input — in an effort to perfect this particular move on the racetrack.
“We worked a lot on my car to make sure I can do those moves quickly, with less effort,” he said, pointing out his desired goal. “As soon my eyes go there (to the spot in front of the car he wants to block), we’ve been trying to get the car to go there, too.”
His technique evolved: Gone were the sharp diagonals, in were the rounded edges. He also improved his timing, learning to respect the opposing driver’s run — aside from side-drafting, which scrubs his opponent’s speed but removes his own chance at a block, there’s not much he can actually do to thwart it — by reacting a few beats sooner than necessary to allow for wiggle room. For Byron, a block is a commitment. Haphazard efforts no longer suffice.
It’s fitting his first Cup Series win of any kind came in last year’s Duel qualifier at Daytona, following a successful defense of his lead with a well-executed, lane-changing block on Johnson:
Byron left plenty of breathing room for Johnson, whose inability to answer for the young driver’s tactics was misconstrued by some, including Byron, as playing nice with his corporate teammate, seeming content with the role of pusher while approaching the finish line.
“We talked briefly in victory lane and he said, ‘Thanks for pushing me,’” recalled Johnson. “I said I wasn’t trying to push him - ‘I was trying to pass your ass.’”
Blocking is equal parts necessity and skill.
The necessity, for Daytona and Talladega, stems from recent shifts within the rules packages, including the move to the current 9-inch spoiler height. Now, it’s a chore, as the leader, to keep the field at bay. Opposing runs are faster and too often inevitable.
“After the rules change … the race at Daytona, specifically the 500, turned into a crash-fest,” said Keselowski. “You had little to no ability to kind of control the race as the leader.”
Some of those leaders and frontrunners did what anyone would do in their situations: Block. But blocking is a skill requiring mastery, which too few drivers have achieved. Sloppy or bad blocks have not only defined recent Daytona races, but also transformed the front of the pack, once a safe haven, into a minefield.
“To me, definitely it used to be if you’re in the top 10, you felt safe,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a Daytona winner in 2017. “Nowadays, that’s kind of where the wrecks start happening, that fifth-to-10th range, versus I felt like back in the day, it was 15th-to-20th place where the chaos started.”
Stenhouse is spot-on with his estimation. A study of the Daytona accidents over the last eight years — 45 crashes involving four or more cars — confirms the danger zone’s location change:
From 2013-16, Daytona saw 19 eligible accidents. Its occupants running inside the top 10 saw, at worst, a 26% inclusion rate in crashes. That high-end number skyrocketed between 2017-20, a span including 26 similar accidents, to 54%, better than a coin flip’s chance. Third place went from Daytona’s safest spot (no inclusion in big crashes) to one of its worst (50% inclusion).
The leader’s risk for inclusion has increased from 5% to 27%, but the lead car’s movements are clearly affecting nearby positions. Sixth place has been caught in eight of the last nine multi-car crashes, dating back to the 2019 Daytona 500, while 13th place was included in each of the last five.
“Everyone has seen the leaders playing the lines, going back and forth, trying to block this line, that line,” three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin said. “Those (movements) end up having a chain reaction that starts right around that three-four-five-six spot.”
There are two preferred pathways to avoiding these large crashes. One involves riding near the rear of the field, as Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing did for large stretches of last year’s season opener. The other is to get out front and throw blocks — dangerous with redundancy, but perhaps the only way to play defense.
“You have to block, man,” T.J. Majors, spotter for Joey Logano, told NBC Sports. “How else do you keep the lead?”
Logano and Majors hunker down for video sessions before every race on drafting tracks, figuring they’ll have to adjust for any quirks within the rules that alter the timing needed to guarantee such dicey moves.
“The draft never stays the same. It evolves,” said Logano, who focused recent game-planning with Majors on the prospect of blocking in the era of bigger spoilers. “We used to have more of a bubble behind us where you can block cars and be able to block them without checking up the whole line or getting hit from behind.”
“Every time they make a package change, people don’t ever really think about it,” Majors said. “Maybe a lot of spotters don’t think about it. It changes your runs, it changes your closing rates. It changes everything, man. So, when they make the spoiler bigger, you gotta learn it again.”
“Now, shoot, two cars get linked up together and you’re two or three car lengths out? They’re coming. It didn’t used to be that bad, you know?”
Whereas spotters like Majors once were able to command lane changes and see immediate effect, the current closing rate has made the call-and-response dynamic between drivers and spotters difficult, bordering on impossible. Byron, for one, utilizes spotter Tab Boyd for getting through the field, but once he’s in the lead, it’s all mirror-driving and reaction time.
“Well, now the closing rates are so big,” said Byron. “Tab can’t do much other than suggest, ‘Hey, take that lane away’ or ‘That run is the biggest.’”
This leaves drivers to their own devices, a concern for competitors like Hamlin who typically find themselves questioning the decisions of those with mediocre blocking skills.
“Everyone thinks they know how to block and they have enough time to do it,” Hamlin said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to live to race another lap. I’ve seen guys do late blocks at the halfway point. It’s like, there’s no guarantee the guy’s even going to clear you. Just let him get beside you and y’all figure it out.”
It’s not difficult to identify a bad block. Timing is the tell, as is the ensuing response from trailing cars:
Ryan Blaney’s sharp motion in last year’s Daytona 500 caused him to lose the lead and momentum, forcing those behind him to check up or scramble, but it didn’t wipe out the field. He cut it close, sure, but there were no wrecked race cars, and ultimately, this fact is what places his maneuvering above the fine line between right and wrong.
“At the end of the day, you block because it works,” said Clint Bowyer, now with Fox Sports. “And it works until it doesn’t. The only unfortunate difference between one that works and one that doesn’t is a crash. It’s successful until it’s not, and then you’re the bad guy. You wrecked the whole field because it’s an untimely block and you wrecked everybody. But, if you didn’t (block), you should’ve, and you’re going to lose the race.”
Tyler Reddick’s attempt at a block in last summer’s Coke Zero 400 was a desperation heave, one he later lamented despite not wrecking himself. He had no support from a trailing car and didn’t properly account for the closing rate when making the lane change. The chain reaction arrived on cue:
The pileup was indeed Reddick’s fault, but a bid to maintain his position — a playoff spot was on the line with a win, after all — was the move expected of him. It’s a delicate situation for drivers balancing what they have to do with what their efforts could do.
It’s something Byron reckoned with, realizing he needed to get better at the only definitive method for retaining leads on NASCAR’s biggest tracks.
“When it comes time to go at the end, I mean, you’ve got to make those big blocks and the big lane changes to have success.”