Ryan: The inside story of the secret deal that changed the Daytona 500

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The communication was inherently awkward because how often do these guys talk anyway? They race in the same series, but they certainly aren’t buddies.

Yes, they might share the goal of winning the Daytona 500, but the agendas for how to achieve that were quite different. It was understandable a powder keg of emotions might be triggered by the typically capricious chain of events set off by a restart at Daytona International Speedway.

How surprising instead that it turned out so well.

Who would have thought Chevrolet and Toyota would work harmoniously together Sunday?

Oh, wait: You thought we meant the postrace contretemps between quasi-teammates Michael McDowell and Joey Logano?

Yes, that was among the most delicious subplots to emerge from the 61st running of the Great American Race. The fact that the only two Ford Performance drivers left didn’t play nice in the closing laps of the season’s biggest race had tongues wagging. Ford’s cohesion had been the key to its success.

But while those allegiances fell apart, an unholy alliance between unlikely bedfellows thrived.

In a Saturday morning meeting, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing (with help from Toyota Racing Development) hatched a plan to battle Ford’s 12-car squadron that had dominated Speedweeks (sweeping the top three of most qualifiers Thursday) and much of restrictor-plate racing for the past year.

Though some of the key players declined to be identified, it isn’t difficult to glance at the rosters for Hendrick, JGR and Toyota and find some obvious ties. There are several names who have worked in at least two or all three camps (in some cases).

And it was those previous liaisons that helped lay the groundwork for Hendrick and Gibbs drivers drafting together in the Daytona 500 – even if it felt weird for many of the principals.

“I’m texting HMS crew chiefs the night before and we’re talking about strategy, and it’s like, ‘What in the world is going on here?’” Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long during his Monday morning champion’s breakfast at the track. “It’s just crazy that you’re sleeping with the enemy.”

It was by necessity.

Though Chevy actually had more drivers in the field than Ford, Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing never have been simpatico at plate races. Toyota has only five drivers – Gibbs’ foursome of Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones – and Matt DiBenedetto of Leavine Family Racing.

Denny Hamlin leads a pack of cars during the 61st Daytona 500. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

And it seemed to work: Unlike the Thursday qualifying races and The Clash (and many plate races last year) when Ford drivers seemed to control the draft at will with long lines of cars, their fleet of Mustangs couldn’t get organized as well Sunday.

In Stage 2, a six-car train of three Toyotas (DiBenedetto, Busch, Jones) and three Chevys (Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, William Byron) went long on pit stops to control the pace. The pack was two- to three-tenths of a second faster than the field and put some good cars a lap down.

Though several late crashes effectively defused the teamwork in the closing laps, the strategy was a huge disruptor. Hendrick and JGR/Toyota teams communicated through spotters and other channels to help make life more difficult for the Fords.

“We both understood that there were powers in numbers and the disadvantage that both of our organizations had had, us being the manufacturer and them being just the four of them,” Hamlin said. “It was tough for them to have enough Chevrolets that are competitive to go up and run with them that the best bet for us was, ‘Look, we’re not going to go out of our way to help each other, but we’re not going try to screw each other either. Work together with strategy.’

“They had a great strategy plan in play that was going to be working great until a few cautions fell here and there. Certainly, it was good to work with those guys and not only that, those were all drivers and crew chiefs I trusted, so when we put that plan together to work together, I was confident that it would play out well.”

The result was the JGR Toyotas notching the second 1-2-3 team finish (Hamlin, Busch, Jones) in Daytona 500 history and the first since … Hendrick Motorsports in 1997 (Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Ricky Craven).

It appears they had more in common than they realized.


The restrictor-plate era ended with a literal bang – too many bangs, actually.

In the final race with the plates that had been used for 30 years to choke down airflow to the engines and reduce speeds at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway (where cars are more inclined to sail into the grandstands), there were three multicar pileups and two red flags in the last 20 laps as world-class drivers made inexplicably poor decisions and maneuvers. The 40 minutes of stoppage time helped ensure a larger audience in prime time but also an excruciatingly choppy finish as the final 15 laps took nearly 90 minutes to complete.

“I was actually looking at the (clock) on the dash,” Hamlin said about sitting in his No. 11 during the first red. “It was 5:40 (p.m.), and I’m looking at the scoreboard, and I’m like, ‘Wow, at 6:15 we’re going to know the end of this race.’  And I look, and I’m like, ‘At 6:30 we’re going to know the end of this race.  We’re sitting under red flag, and I just see the ticker just going, like, ‘At 6:50 we’re really going to know who won this race.’

“It was crazy how long it took.  I’ve seen five laps take an hour before, but the track was just an absolute mess.”

This is partly something to address for NASCAR and the track because long cleanups have been a problem in past Speedweeks.

But the biggest takeaway from the final demolition derby plate race was underscoring the unavoidable mayhem – and colossally dumb mistakes — as the checkered flag approaches.

“Pretty much,” Kyle Busch said when asked whether a wreck-filled ending was inevitable after the relatively clean 475 miles before it. “Brains come unglued.  That’s all it is. The brain connection to the gas pedal foot doesn’t quite work the same anymore.  There’s a lot of give and take throughout the beginning portion of the races, and then it comes down to the end, and somehow some way there’s always that caution within 30 or 40 to go that sets everybody off pit road and then it’s chaos after that.”

Said Logano: “Yeah, you know it’s coming.  And especially this race, you know what’s on the line.  It’s the Daytona 500.  No one is really worried about points or getting themselves into the playoffs yet.  Everyone is thinking, I want to win the biggest race of the year, and like Kyle said, the brains come unglued.”

So, farewell – or maybe good riddance for some — to the plate era … but this is only a nominal change. With tapered spacers still being used to keep horsepower in check, it’s extremely likely the April 28 race at Talladega Superspeedway will look familiar. And if not, NASCAR will tweak the rules to ensure it does (as it did with tandem racing in 2011).

Stuck with those parameters, it might be too much to ask NASCAR stars to be mindful that memorable races are built on sublime driving, and provided that no one is hurt, it probably is better to have too many crashes than too few (based on the reaction to the single-file racing prevalent at Daytona the past 10 days).

But it would be nice if the end of the plate era also put a period on the absurd displays of driving witnessed during crunch time Sunday.


Both NASCAR and some of its manufacturers are optimistic the Gen 7 car can be rolled out by the 2021 season.

There is some industry skepticism about that timeline for the new model. Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson told NBC Sports there needs to be blueprints for the Gen 7 “within the next 30 to 45 days” and track testing needs to begin by the end of summer.

“I think we’re behind as an industry,” Wilson said Sunday. “NASCAR is in the process of collecting feedback across the industry. They’ve systematically been talking to every team in the garage this weekend. They’re assimilating that feedback. We’re putting together an action team with NASCAR. We had a meeting early (Saturday) morning (with the manufacturers) from a process perspective about how we work together. The good news is we have a bit of a template that we use for Gen 6.

“We’re still behind. We’ve got to make up the ground somewhere. If you look at everything you have to contemplate with this car – safety, testing, manufacturing. The scope of the change to the hardware is going to be massive.”

But the benefits will be worth it. Wilson, who said momentum began for the project in August at the beginning of CEO Jim France’s reign (“The biggest driver and clear leader behind this is Jim France. He has a quiet, understated passion for making this happen.”), believes the next car could bring a bevy of new automakers to NASCAR.

“In 10 years, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t have six or seven manufacturers,” Wilson said. “You look at sports car racing. Our Lexus program is we’re racing against seven to eight manufacturers. We compete in the showrooms every day. Why can’t it be the same thing on the racetrack?

“But it’s going to be a journey. I’m not absolutely certain we’ll get there by ’21.”

For a frame of reference, the Gen 6 car made its debut in 2013 season after NASCAR and manufacturers begin discussions in early ’10.


In a SiriusXM interview during Daytona 500 Media Day, NASCAR president Steve Phelps framed the 2020 schedule speculation in a new way. Phelps said the tracks won’t change, but the focus will be on whether races “will be in the same order” and when the season will begin and end.

Track presidents met with NASCAR executives for more than three hours last week at Daytona and were given some basic parameters for a robust schedule discussion: The Daytona 500 must be in mid-February, the Coca-Cola 600 will remain on Memorial Day weekend, and the Southern 500 stays tied to Labor Day weekend.

Virtually anything was considered fair game after that. There were throwback ideas being considered that could move a warm-weather race or two to late January or early February, ahead of the Daytona 500. The Great American Race has been the opener since 1982 but was the season’s second or third race for the first 23 years of its existence (1959-81).

Though Daytona will maintain its traditional calendar regardless of whether there it’s preceded by other race, there has been recent conjecture about a Speedweeks shake-up (which certainly could use fewer “dark” days at the track).

Here’s the view from this corner last year on that front with one addendum: It might be time to rethink the truck series at Daytona, and this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to last Friday’s race that set a record for yellow flags (11) and caution laps (55).

Of the 20 truck races held at Daytona since 2000, 15 have been run under caution for at least 25 percent of the race. Though 26 of 32 trucks were involved in crashes last Friday, it was the fourth time in eight years more than two dozen trucks sustained damage. In 2012, 29 of 36 trucks were in wrecks.

New Smyrna Speedway is just down the road … again, it’s just a thought.


While NASCAR’s top three national series kicked off this past weekend, the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series remains nearly two months from starting its eighth season with the April 13 opener at Valencia, Spain. Its 2019 schedule of seven events is drawing a bevy of attention, though, after 2000 champion Bobby Labonte competed last year in the series (which was won by two-time Cup champion Alon Day, who also has made two Cup starts.).

Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 F1 champion, will run full time this season in NASCAR Whelen Euro.

The series also has drawn serious interest from a recently retired former Cup champion and many drivers in lower series for the 2019 season.

“We don’t have anything finalized, so we can’t announce who we’re talking with yet,” series executive Joe Balash told NBC Sports. “But we’ve had conversations with multiple drivers from multiple garages who want to race in the series.”

The Whelen Euro series also had a driver exchange last year with the Pinty’s Series in Canada and is exploring a similar arrangement with the Peak Mexico Series. The European circuit, which also races in England, Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium, is an attractive option because it’s relatively inexpensive.

As a spec stock-car series, it costs roughly $100,000 US to run the full slate, which features two divisions of two races per weekend. Teams also can field two drivers of different rated skill levels (similar to the GTD division of IMSA).


Chase Elliott’s Speedweeks was mostly forgettable as far as results (eighth in a Thursday qualifier was his best). But as far as living up to his persona, no one was more a man of the people than the reigning most popular driver.

Hendrick Motorsports’ emerging star gave the fullest effort to spice up action that often was single file on the 2.5-mile oval.

Whether futilely trying to gain positions in the Xfinity race (he gave a wave to the crowd and said “Sorry” after finishing 10th), furiously battling for positions in the qualifier, or aggressively trying to stay toward the front in the Daytona 500, Elliott was the lone driver who refused the groupthink that had cars hugging the wall for much of Speedweeks – and proudly proclaimed he did it for the legions wearing his gear (while subtly throwing some shade at those he was racing).

“Hey, if they are going to ride around the top all day long, I’ll be happy to try the bottom and at least make something happen for the great people that are watching up here in the stands,” Elliott said Thursday.

Last month, crew chief Alan Gustafson said even he didn’t realize how much a 98-race winless streak had worn on Elliott until he broke through last August with the first of three victories in 2018. Elliott, 23, seems more comfortable in his own skin than ever, and Daytona was a good example of how.

The pressure is off, and now the public is seeing more of an emerging star it can’t seemingly love enough. That’s a good sign for NASCAR – particularly if Elliott can develop a more defiant and outspoken public side that his father never embraced.


To get an understanding of why Jim France’s leadership style has been so widely praised, contrast his brief message to drivers before Sunday’s race with the last time a NASCAR CEO issued a similar directive at a Daytona 500 drivers meeting.

It probably wasn’t as long ago as you think.

Before the 2017 Daytona 500, Brian France admonished the field for 90 seconds about blocking in a curious rant that even his executive team struggled to explain. It also was unusual because Brian France (who stepped aside for his uncle last August after being arrested for a DWI) usually avoided addressing competition. When he did, it sometimes lacked for clarity (seemingly because his marketing background sometimes got in the way).

Jim France’s simple and succinct ask (“I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today.”) was indicative of his understated style that has drawn raves and resonated around NASCAR.

This might have been another example: Roughly two and a half hours later, the green flag dropped on an action-packed Stage 1. Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said Tuesday morning on SiriusXM that the hard racing probably would have happened anyway, but the drivers “listened to (France) like he was God.”

Did France’s words have an impact on how drivers raced the Daytona 500, which opened with the best 60 laps of Speedweeks?

It’s impossible to know for sure.

The only thing that probably matters is that he said it.

Power rankings after Bristol: Brad Keselowski is new No. 1

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Kevin Harvick is out and Bristol winner Brad Keselowski is the new No. 1 in this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Keselowski was the unanimous pick of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers. Harvick had been the unanimous No. 1 the last two weeks. He falls to second in this week’s rankings.

Kurt Busch made the biggest climb, going from 10th last week to No. 4 in this week’s rankings. Three drivers dropped out of the top 10 from last week: Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr. and Tyler Reddick.

Here’s how this week’s rankings look:

1. Brad Keselowski (30 points): Right place, right time at Bristol, taking advantage of contact between Chase Elliott and Joey Logano to sail on to victory lane for second time in last three races. Last week: second.

2. Kevin Harvick (26 points): Saw his streak of 13 consecutive top 10s end at Bristol with an 11th-place finish. Last week: first.

3. Chase Elliott (25 points): Won once in the past week and was in contention for a second win until he hit Joey Logano late at Bristol. Last week: tied for third.

4. Kurt Busch (20 points): The elder Busch brother has gone from third to 10th and back up to fourth in the last three power rankings. Last week: 10th.

5. Jimmie Johnson (14 points): The seven-time champ has been knocking on victory’s door for each of the last four weeks, including finishing a season-best third at Bristol. Is that 104-race winless streak ready to end? Last week: unranked.

(tie) 6. Kyle Busch (13 points): Rebounded from a cut tire and 29th-place finish at the second Charlotte race to take fourth at Bristol. Last week: tied for third.

(tie) 6. Austin Dillon (13 points): Eighth at second Charlotte race and followed up with a strong sixth at Bristol. Last week: unranked.

8. Denny Hamlin (11 points): Much like the rest of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, his streak of up-and-down results continues. Runner-up at second Charlotte race and 17th at Bristol after a late incident. Last week: seventh.

9. Ryan Blaney (4 points): Continues his search for consistency. Finished third at second Charlotte and was strong at Bristol until spinning while running second and then was hit, ending his race. Last week: unranked.

10. Christopher Bell (3 points): After rough first five races of rookie season, has bounced back with three finishes of 11th or better in his last four races. Last week: ninth.

Others receiving votes: Austin Cindric (2 points), William Byron (1 point).

Nashville Superspeedway to host Cup race in 2021

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The NASCAR Cup Series will race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

No official race date was given in the announcement, but The Tennessean reported Tuesday that a “very tentative” date of June 20, 2021 has been set for the Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tennessee.

The 1.333-mile oval is owned by Dover Motorsports Inc., which also owns Dover International Speedway. One of Dover’s two race dates will be moved to Nashville.

“Thanks to the collaboration of Dover Motorsports and our broadcast partners, we are excited to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville, a place where the passion for our sport runs deep,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in a release. “The Nashville market is a vital one for our sport, and bringing NASCAR Cup Series racing to Nashville Superspeedway will be an integral building block in helping us further deliver on our promise in creating a dynamic schedule for 2021.”

Such a move likely means that Speedway Motorsports’ efforts to bring NASCAR back to Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville will not take place in 2021.

“The news that NASCAR will bring a Cup race to Wilson County and the greater Nashville region in 2021 is a positive move for the sport of NASCAR and for NASCAR fans,”   Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said in statement. “In recent years, we’ve made it very clear that we think Nashville is a place where NASCAR should be for the future and not just the past. Our efforts to work with state and local government officials to revive the historic Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway will continue. We believe that the beloved short track in downtown Nashville provides tremendous opportunity to be a catalyst for year-round tourism and entertainment development.”

Nashville Superspeedway hosted Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Series races from 2001-11.

“Our company is excited about the terrific opportunity to not only host a NASCAR Cup Series race weekend but opening our Nashville facility will enable us to host other exciting forms of racing and entertainment options,” Mike Tatoian, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Dover Motorsports, Inc, said in a release. “We are also proud that our long history with NASCAR will continue at the Monster Mile in 2021, and we also look forward to hosting the 9th Firefly Music Festival next summer.”

Nashville will be the first new track for the Cup Series since it began racing at Kentucky Speedway in 2011.

The Associated Press stated that the idea of Nashville Superspeedway hosting NASCAR races again came after the city hosted the Cup Awards in December for the first time.

“Especially after the awards banquet, it was, how do we get to Nashville as soon as we possibly can?” Tatoian told The Associated Press. “It made it a fairly easy discussion that it was through Dover Motorsports.”

Tatoian told the AP that updating the track would cost $8-10 million. He also stated that capacity would be between 25,000-50,000.

Dover has hosted two Cup races a year since 1971. It has had a race weekend postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dover is expected to host a Cup doubleheader Aug. 22-23.

“It looks more and more like we’ll be hosting a doubleheader,” Tatoian told the AP. “That’s a strong scenario and that’s what we’re focused on.”

Penalty report from Bristol Motor Speedway

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NASCAR has issued its penalty report for the Bristol Motor Speedway race weekend.

The only penalty was a $10,000 fine for Chris Gayle, crew chief on Erik Jones‘ No. 20 Toyota, for having one unsecured lug nut after Sunday’s Cup Series race.

 

Stats, Quotes and Moments: The NASCAR Cup Season So Far

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The first nine races of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season have been a long, strange trip.

Beginning with the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 16 – a race that concluded the following Monday due to rain – and ending with Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, it took 106 days to conduct nine races at seven race tracks. That was after NASCAR endured a 71-day COVID-19 imposed break from action.

Here’s a look back at the first quarter of the season and where the series stands ahead of race No. 10 Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

Key stats

– Through nine races there have been six different winners and three repeat winners. Not among them are three of the last four Cup champions: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.  Since Truex’s rookie year in 2006, this is the first time all three have been winless through the ninth race of the year.

– Due to COVID-19, the Cup Series held a Wednesday race for the first time since 1984.

– The three races on 1.5-mile tracks have seen three different winners: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott. They are part of a stretch of nine different winners in the last nine races on 1.5-mile tracks. The last time there was nine in a row was in 2008-09. The last time there was more than nine was 2001-02 when there was 10.

– Elliott, who has just one win, has the best average running position: 7.748.

– The driver with the best average average finish who hasn’t won yet is Kurt Busch: 11.6

– Only four out of 19 times has a stage winner finished in the top 10 (Hamlin won after winning Stage 2 at Daytona, Alex Bowman won after winning Stage 1 at Auto Club Speedway and Harvick finished second at Phoenix after winning Stage 1 and Logano finished sixth after winning Stage 1 at Charlotte 2).

Chase Elliott after winning Thursday’s Cup Series race at Charlotte. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

– The Stage 2 winner has finished 11th or worse in each of the last eight races.

– Hendrick Motorsports has led the most laps this year (780) and won the most stages (10), but has just two race wins.

– 21st: Matt Kenseth‘s average finish in his five races driving Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 car after replacing Kyle Larson. Larson was fired by CGR in the aftermath of his use of a racial slur in an iRacing event in April.

Key Moments

– Daytona 500: After a push from Ryan Blaney gave Ryan Newman the lead on the last lap, a violent wreck coming to the checkered flag resulted in Denny Hamlin earning his third Daytona 500 win and Newman being taken to the hospital with a bruised brain. He walked out of the hospital two days later with his daughters. Newman missed the next three races and returned at Darlington on May 17.

– Las Vegas: Ryan Blaney was leading late when a caution came out for a Ross Chastain spin. It set up a two-lap shootout for the win. When pit road opened, Blaney and Alex Bowman, who was running second, both went to pit road. Joey Logano, running third, stayed out. Logano went on to win and Blaney finished 11th.

– Darlington 1: Denny Hamlin stayed out under a late caution due to having run out of fresh tires. Hamlin held onto the lead for one lap until a caution came out for an incident between Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. During the caution, it began raining and the race was made official, giving Hamlin the win.

– Coca-Cola 600: Chase Elliott was three laps away from winning when the caution came out for his teammate, William Byron, spinning after cutting a tire. Elliott’s team chose to pit for tires as a majority of the leaders stayed out. After restarting 11th, Elliott could only race back to third place (before Jimmie Johnson’s disqualification) in overtime as Brad Keselowski won.

Key quotes

“We were in a position to finish it off, and we got destroyed for no reason. You would think these guys would be smarter than that. We all cause wrecks. I get in wrecks all the time and I cause them. The same one over and over again. It’s the same thing. Somebody throws a stupid block that’s never going to work and wrecks half the field and then goes ‘eh’. Maybe we need to take the helmets out of these cars and take the seat belts out. Somebody will get hurt and then we’ll stop driving like assholes. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out I guess.” – Brad Keselowski after he was eliminated in a large wreck in the Busch Clash, which began when his teammate Joey Logano threw “a stupid block.”

“I thought it was warranted, and he was deserving.” – Chase Elliott on the middle finger he displayed at Kyle Busch following the contact between the two drivers that wrecked Elliott late in the May 20 race at Darlington.

“Imitation is the strongest form of flattery or something, I don’t know what it is. Huh, that’s cute.” – Kyle Busch upon being informed Chase Elliott performed his trademark bow after beating him in the May 26 Truck Series race at Charlotte, which earned Elliott (and a COVID-19 relief effort of his choice) a $100,000 bounty for beating Busch.

“He wrecked me. He got loose underneath me. The part that’s frustrating is that afterwards a simple apology, like be a man and come up to someone and say, ‘Hey, my bad.’  But I had to force an apology, which, to me, is childish. …  I passed him clean. It’s hard racing at the end, I get that. It’s hard racing, but, golly, man, be a man and take the hit when you’re done with it.” – Joey Logano after Sunday’s race at Bristol, when contact from Chase Elliott while racing for the lead took them out of contention