Proving your worth: NASCAR drivers seek to show this week they’re good Daytona 500 drafting partners

(Photo by Getty Images)
2 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR’s version of show and tell begins today and could play a role in who wins Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Today’s two practice sessions mark the first time all 44 cars will have a chance to run in the draft. Today through Thursday’s qualifying races, Friday’s practices and Saturday’s final session, drivers will show how good their cars are in the draft, providing a clue for competitors on who they should follow in the 500.

For former Daytona 500 champions Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jimmie Johnson, among others, there isn’t as much at stake. Their cars are typically fast and competitors are likely to follow them to the front.

But for pole-sitter Chase Elliott, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and others, these practice sessions could be significant.

“I know our car is capable of winning, I just need to learn what to do behind the wheel,’’ Elliott said.

It’s one thing to have a fast car alone on the track in qualifying as Elliott and Stenhouse (fifth) did, but it’s another to prove the car is good in the pack. That’s what they’ll have to show this week.

“All of the teams and drivers are looking at qualifying and saying which cars are fast, but to show them in the Duel … if you can push (a) car to the lead, then I think that says a lot about how fast your car is,’’ said Stenhouse, who has one top-10 finish in seven points races at Daytona International Speedway. “That shows those guys that run up front that you can run well up there.

“We have had top-10 cars here and been able to hang around there and get top-10 finishes on these speedway races, but I have never felt we had a really good car to go win.’’

Patrick has two top-10 finishes in seven Cup points races at Daytona, but says she’s still learning. During Speedweeks last year, her car was too loose and she crashed with Denny Hamlin behind her in their qualifying race. That marked her second crash with Hamlin behind her at Speedweeks last year. Patrick confronted Hamlin after the second incident. Part of the conversation included this exchange:

Hamlin: It’s because you’re loose. It’s not my problem if you’re loose, Danica.

Patrick: Nobody else did it to me.

Hamlin: Nobody else is getting close to you. But we have to get close to you to get you going forward. I have to get close to you. I know it got you loose. But I didn’t hit you, Danica.

Patrick said Saturday that her car was more stable in the Sprint Unlimited and she felt more confident, but she knows she has much to prove to her competitors.

“The best thing that you can do is to have people want to help you or follow you if you pull out of line and make a move,’’ Patrick said “When I restarted sixth in the Unlimited, Kurt (Busch) was behind me. He … got a run and went high, everybody followed him. I don’t think that would happen to me.

“But Kurt has been around a long time and he’s won a lot of races and he’s won a championship. You just have to earn that position where people want to follow you because they believe in you and they trust you.

“I don’t think there’s a huge substitute for time. I think that’s just what you have to do. Time and proving yourself. Getting up to the front, at times it means muscling your way a little bit. But you can’t be someone that’s a squirrel that people don’t want to be around either.

“There are those drivers out there where people don’t want to be around them because it’s dangerous and you don’t want to crash out of the race. You just don’t want to be that person either.’’

Over the next few days drivers will be determining who they’ll want to follow and who they’ll want to avoid in the Daytona 500.