Ryan: Dumping the Duels can return drama to Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Here is the long and short of how to address the conundrum hanging over this Speedweeks with the pall of a parade for past glory never to be recaptured.

Expand the racing. And shrink the field.

Entering the 60th edition of the Daytona 500, NASCAR has reached a crossroads with the qualifying races for the Great American Race that were once billed as “the largest weekday sporting event in America.”

In the halcyon days of what were known as the Twin 125s, there were few days during the NASCAR season that were packed with as much drama as setting the Daytona 500 field. Traffic was so congested for the 1 p.m. start, you had to arrive six hours early to beat it, and nearby schools made the second Thursday in February a holiday because buses couldn’t run on schedule.

Across the country, fans snuck transistor radios into their office cubicles to listen surreptitiously to races that lost none of their luster despite being shown on tape delay.

Naturally, there was a voracious appetite for an event that consistently delivered inspiring stories of triumph, a healthy dose of sobering heartache and a doubleheader sneak preview of the Daytona 500.

Unfortunately, the underdog storylines that once made Daytona qualifiers special are gone, disappearing into the cash-strapped ether that has crippled once larger fields in many forms of auto racing.

Only 40 cars showed up for the 40 spots in Sunday’s race, and even that seemed in doubt until BK Racing’s perpetual legal problems were put on a temporary hold a few hours ahead of Thursday night’s first green flag.

When a Chapter 11 filing is greeted as good news for The Great American Race avoiding a black eye, it’s time to reconsider the wisdom of making the Daytona 500 work in the charter era.

Since purses were restructured two years ago, the four “open” spots hardly are incentivized to make just qualifying for Daytona worthwhile anymore. As Kevin Harvick said this week, why not just limit fields to the 36 chartered cars?

But it’s also time to revamp the Duels, which can’t be retrofitted to produce the drama inherent from the days when 50-plus cars regularly showed up to fill 43 spots.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been through this with its crown jewel. Bump Day, once a nail-biting test of nerves with nonstop plot twists, essentially died an ignominious death many years ago when sponsorship dried up enough at the Brickyard.

But the speedway found a way to restore some glory in 2010 with the introduction of the Fast Nine and enhanced it in 2014 by moving it to the last hour Sunday, supplanting the spectacle of completing the field of 33 with a pressure-packed run for the pole position.

Daytona qualifying is no equal for the breathtakingly Herculean task of four laps at Indy, so there is no direct parallel but a similar solution.

Shift the focus.

Dump pole qualifying at Daytona, which always has been more of a PR exercise with little bearing on the race. Make starting positions (which, admittedly, still won’t matter much) dependent on the results of heat races spread over several days of continuous racing leading into Daytona.

Put up points, post a megabonus for winning multiple races … surely, there are ways to improve on the current attraction.

Thursday’s Duels – the first time cars were on track since Sunday — underscored there increasingly has been too much dead time added to the Daytona schedule.

Make Speedweeks into a Speedweek: Start Sunday with The Clash and run nonstop daily through the 500. Sprinkle in more daytime starts to mimic the racing conditions for the 500 and reignite some missing buzz (there are signs that already has worked with The Clash’s move under the sun).

This will benefit the racing as well (while obviously taxing crews, cars and engines, too — again, more drama).

Thursday night’s two races were only the second test of a new rules package, leaving many drivers spooked about rear suspension instability at 200 mph. With hardly any practice time, it was understandable that some (notably pole-sitter Alex Bowman, whose No. 88 Chevrolet was set up for qualifying speed instead of racing handling) decided discretion was the better part of valor.

Keeping cars racing daily in the draft will 1) give drivers the time to get acclimated to handling conditions; 2) give NASCAR a larger sample size to evaluate aero and engine specs and make aerodynamic improvements if necessary.

Yes, these are fairly radical changes for the most storied event in NASCAR, and history and tradition are taken seriously at the World Center of Racing.

So is drama, though. And in their current format, the Duels no longer can deliver it.

Jimmie Johnson to run Chicago Street Course Cup race

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LOS ANGELES – Jimmie Johnson says that one of his Cup races this season with Legacy Motor Club will be the July 2 Chicago Street Course race, which will air on NBC.

The seven-time champion will run select Cup races this season after spending the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. Johnson, who left NASCAR in 2020, will return in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway as a driver and part owner of Legacy MC. His No. 84 car does not have a charter and he’ll have to secure one of the four spots for non-chartered cars.

Johnson said on Fox before Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum that he looked to do more Cup races beyond Daytona and Chicago but did not announce any others. He will drive the NASCAR Garage 56 entry in June in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

 

Kevin Harvick to join Fox booth in 2024

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LOS ANGELES – Kevin Harvick will move from the car to the TV booth next year when he joins Fox Sports.

Harvick, who is in his final season driving in Cup, will join Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer in the booth for the NASCAR races on Fox in 2024.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Harvick said on Fox on Sunday. “We’re coming right to the booth. I couldn’t be happier. For me, the timing in life has just been absolutely perfect with everything on the driving side and now to have this opportunity to tell people about racing, there’s not anything I love more and I can’t wait.”

The announcement was made before Sunday night’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Harvick advanced to the Clash through his heat race.

RFK Racing drivers fail to qualify for Clash at the Coliseum

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After heat races and a pair of last chance qualifiers, RFK Racing drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher failed to qualify for the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum for the second straight year.

Former champion Chase Elliott led wire-to-wire Sunday to win the second last chance qualifier to move on to the feature. He was joined by second-place Ty Gibbs and third-place AJ Allmendinger.

Michael McDowell led all 50 laps in the first last chance qualifier race to advance to the feature. Also moving on to the 150-lap main event were Christopher Bell and Todd Gilliland.

MORE: Clash at the Coliseum starting lineup

Among those failing to advance from the first last chance race were Harrison Burton, whose late-race slide cost him several spots, and Ty Dillon.

Austin Cindric got the provisional starting spot and will be 27th — and last — at the green flag. The race is scheduled for an 8:20 p.m. ET start.

William Byron led all 25 laps in winning the fourth heat race.

Also transferring to the feature from the fourth heat were Bubba Wallace, Ross Chastain, Ryan Preece and Erik Jones, who took the fifth and final spot with two laps to go.

Denny Hamlin dominated the third heat, leading 20 of the 25 laps to win. Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney and Daniel Suarez followed in the top five to transfer to the main event.

The biggest loser in the third heat was Bell, who spun out after late-race contact and finished sixth.

Martin Truex Jr. took the lead from Kyle Busch late in the second heat and won easily. Busch was second, Austin Dillon third and Kyle Larson fourth.

Kevin Harvick, starting his final season in Cup, made a strong last-lap move and edged Elliott for fifth and the final transfer spot to the feature.

Aric Almirola, who failed to make the Clash feature last season, took the lead late in the first heat race and won the 25-lapper in front of Alex Bowman and Justin Haley.

“It was about being more prepared,” Almirola told Fox Sports. “There was no way to be prepared a year ago. I was really disappointed to watch this race from the grandstands last year.”

Rookie Noah Gragson and defending race and reigning series champion Joey Logano also finished in the top five to join the first three in the feature.

Burton spun out early in the first heat.

MORE: Heat race 1 results

MORE: Heat race 2 results

MORE: Heat race 3 results

MORE: Heat race 4 results

Last Chance Qualifier race 1 results

Last Chance Qualifier Race 2 results

Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!