DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The fissure between veteran and younger drivers, which bubbled in the offseason over the sport’s marketing, has moved to the track and set up a juicy storyline for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Four days after veteran driver Brad Keselowski won the Clash, youngsters Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott won their qualifying races.
That Elliott and Blaney each won a restrictor-plate race — where cunning, courage and calm are often traits exhibited by older drivers — shows that these 20-somethings are as advanced as any generation and ready to challenge the status quo more consistently.
“I think from the time that Ryan started, he’s been good on the superspeedways and done a good job,’’ said former champion Kevin Harvick, who finished second to Elliott in the second Duel. “(Blaney and Elliott) are different because they have such a knack and have watched so many of these races. It’s not like they were racing on a computer, came through a different form of racing, whatever the case may be. Those guys had dads that were pretty darn good, … heard the lingo, heard the talk, watched the action on the racetrack.
“They’ve seen as much of the progression of how all this works as I have. They may not have been in a car, but they’ve watched and learned. I don’t think the progression has been very good because they started good.’’
There actually has been a level of progression. Elliott recalls with disdain how he lost control of his car 20 laps into the Daytona 500 his rookie year in 2016 and finished 37th after starting on the pole.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson said the change took place after that race.
“Since that point, I feel like really not even the next year, but really the next race at Talladega, he and I made leaps and bounds in understanding what he wants in the car to race,’’ Gustafson said. “Ultimately when we gave him what he wants to race, he was pretty instantly very, very competitive. I think we got 90 percent of it right away, then he’s just continued to work on it and work on it and work on it. We continuously try to evolve.
“You want to get a car that is ultimately very fast, but drives well. We’ve continued to evolve that. He’s continued to evolve his craft. I think we’re getting better and better and better.’’
They’ve worked so well together that Elliott was leading late in last year’s Daytona 500 before his emptying fuel cell caused his engine to belch momentarily and that was enough to end his chances.
“Last year was a bummer,’’ Elliott said. “Unfortunately the beginning of many bummers throughout the season. I hope that’s not the trend this year. I hope tonight is more the trend.’’
Former champion Kyle Busch, who finished fifth to Elliott in the second qualifying race, said Elliott ran a smart race in scoring his second consecutive Duel victory.
“Chase did a good job getting to the front,’’ Busch said. “(Denny Hamlin) was leading and (Elliott) was kind of pressuring him in some areas and doing some things to get up to the lead and once he got up there, he was able to hold on to it.’’
Blaney was joined by his Penske teammates Joey Logano and Keselowski in the first qualifying race. Penske again dominated. While Keselowski led the most laps in the Clash, Logano led the most laps Thursday night in their race. This time Blaney got by even if it wasn’t as he planned.
“That’s the same spot I made the move in the Clash and it didn’t work,’’ Blaney said. “Almost didn’t work tonight. I was coming with such a head of steam, I had to. Brad laid back so much from whoever was behind him, I kind of laid back to Brad off of four because I didn’t want them to get a huge run. It just propelled me so fast to Joey, I had to turn left or I would have ran him over.
“I didn’t really want to make my move right there because it didn’t work. It really shouldn’t have worked. I was trying to plot where to do the move better. I was thinking about that all week after it didn’t work in the Clash. That was not the spot I wanted to do it. I was coming with such a head of steam, I had to turn left or run (Logano) over.’’
Blaney has shown he’s willing to be aggressive and has a fast enough car to do so. That can be a combination that is hard to beat.
It was Thursday for him and Elliott.
Now, they have to make the right decisions for the 500 and put themselves in the right place in the final laps while trying to fend off many others.