Long: Will 500 be Great American demolition derby (again)?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Let’s be frank. Blocking will continue at Daytona and Talladega. It will happen in Thursday’s Cup qualifying races and it will take place in the Daytona 500.

And yes, there will be wrecks because of it.

“Product of what happens when you get out front because you know if you can keep the lead, nobody can pass, so you just try to do what you can with all the blocks,” Kyle Busch said after he was blocked by Joey Logano before they made contact and crashed in Sunday’s Busch Clash.

Blocking has become hairier since the larger rear spoiler was added to cars last year. That gives trailing cars an aerodynamic boost to close faster on to the back of the leading car.

The increased closing speed decreases the reaction time a driver has to block. Even if they defend the spot, they often force the car behind to slow quickly, creating an accordion affect that can lead to an incident deeper in the field.

Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski collide in Turn 4 during Sunday’s Busch Clash. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

“By the time the spotter sees (a trailing car making a move), keys the mic, says it … it’s too late,” two-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports after Sunday’s Clash. “Live to race another lap in my opinion, but, hey, if they want to keep crashing, I just hope I’m not in it.

“There’s no guarantee that the guy is going to clear you. Let them get beside you, who cares? You’ve got a chance to stay up there, but it’s when we chop each other’s nose and stuff like that, you just continue to see it with a lot of the same guys who do the same things and they’re not successful with it.”

Brad Keselowski was livid at Logano after Keselowski was collected in the incident between Logano and Busch.

“You would think these guys would be smarter than that,” Keselowski said. “We all cause wrecks. I get in wrecks all the time and I cause them. … 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.”

Busch acknowledges there is a benefit to blocking, which is why drivers will do it despite the risks.

“If you can get the block done enough times, then that bubble of air (between the cars) pushes you out … and that’s what (Logano) was trying to do, but I was too close,” Busch said. “I was on him. You’ve got to accept the repercussions in those situations when you throw that many (blocks).”

Understandably there’s some concern about blocking after what happened in the Clash and recent Daytona 500s. Thirty-six of the 40 cars in last year’s Daytona 500 were in accidents, according to the NASCAR race report. In the 2018 race, 27 of the 40 cars were listed as in accidents. In the 2017 race, 33 of the 40 cars were listed as in accidents.

Put another way, 80% of the cars in the last three Daytona 500s were involved in an accident.

The Great American Race has become a demolition derby.

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Overlooked in Erik Jones’ dramatic last-lap victory in the Busch Clash was how teammate Denny Hamlin pushed him for most of the final lap, a la tandem racing — which was prevalent at Daytona and Talladega a decade ago until NASCAR rules made it unfeasible to do.

Teams started experimenting with tandem drafting last year but could only do it for part of a lap. A few teams tried it in Cup practice last weekend and saw benefits.

Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin in a tandem draft on the final lap of the Busch Clash at Daytona. (AP Photo/Darryl Graham)

“I think it’s typically a straightaway or half a lap that it seems to work,” Byron said of the tandem draft before the Clash. “Based on the radius of the corners at Daytona, it’s kind of hard to carry it through off the corners, especially as fast as we’re going, but I think there’s definitely some pushing that will influence the race.

“That’s what it’s going to take for the race win, honestly. I think it’s going to be about blocking that run and forcing them to push you and hoping they push you out and you guys can race it out. I think it’s going to come down to pushing, looking at how guys are doing it in practice. It’s only going to get more aggressive in the race.”

Hamlin was a lap down in the Clash so his only motivation was to stay locked on the back of Jones’ car and push his teammate to the win in the exhibition race.

Jones said the tandem is starting to return because “the cars just punch such a big hole in the air, you can get all the way to people’s bumpers with pretty minimal effort from both drivers.  As long as the lead guy gives you a little bit of a brake drag, you lock on, you stay locked on for a long time.

“If you’re in a situation late with a restart, you could see some tandem racing.”

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Daytona International Speedway made the surprise announcement Monday that the 2021 Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 14.

NASCAR has not announced the 2021 schedule and is not expected to do so until April. But with Daytona already selling tickets for the 2021 Daytona 500, don’t expect the date to suddenly change.

That leads to a bigger question. What happens to the Busch Clash?

Easy, it’s the weekend before the Daytona 500. Yes, but the Super Bowl will be Feb. 7 in Tampa, which is about two hours from the track. Maybe it could work running the Clash in the day and finishing well before the Super Bowl begins.

Or, with the possibility of bold changes for the 2021 schedule, would it make sense to shorten Daytona Speedweeks and have the Clash on Wednesday night, four days before the 500? That leads into the qualifying races on Thursday, Truck race on Friday, Xfinity race on Saturday and the Daytona 500 on Sunday. Certainly, there could be other options. Shortening Speedweeks has been a topic discussed before. 

Another question, though, might be is the Clash still necessary? With NASCAR seeking to help owners save money, has the Clash outlived its usefulness?

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David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, was adamant in an interview Friday on “The Morning Drive” that his cars wouldn’t be a contender for the Daytona 500 pole.

“I wouldn’t put us at the top of the board for qualifying at Daytona,” Wilson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It’s just not going to happen.

“I don’t know that many people appreciate what it takes to sit on the front row of the Daytona 500. I have an immense amount of respect for what the Hendrick camp does to that end and for what (Ford engine builder) Doug Yates does. It’s a massive effort just to sit there. We’ve been very intentional to focus our time and our resources and our energy on building cars that race well and that goes for the Daytona 500 and frankly goes for the rest of the season.”

The result last year was that Toyotas won 19 races and the championship but only four poles.

Even with such a strategy, what happened Sunday was interesting. Toyotas showed more speed. Toyotas were fifth (Denny Hamlin), sixth (Kyle Busch), ninth (Christopher Bell) and 10th (Erik Jones).

It was a marked significant improvement from last year. Only one Toyota was in the top 10 in qualifying at Daytona or Talladega last year.

“I think it goes back to Talladega last fall,” said Chris Gayle, crew chief for Jones, about the increase in speed. “We didn’t feel like we had as good of cars as we needed as a group.”

Jones qualified 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year. No other Toyota was in the top 15 that day.

We kind of found something we thought we could tweak on in the off‑season and improve,” Gayle said. “The faster cars win, right? They may not always win, but the numbers are going to show they win. They’re going to be in better positions in the race to use runs and clear somebody when they’re faster.”

It will be worth watching the Toyota cars in the qualifying races Thursday. Handling remains key at Daytona. The question will be did Toyota sacrifice handling in race traffic for single-car speed? If not, then watch out for those cars this week.

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Hendrick Motorsports saw its streak of five consecutive Daytona 500 poles end Sunday but the engine shop’s streak continued.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (right) celebrates his Daytona 500 pole with fellow front-row starter Alex Bowman. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Hendrick Motorsports supplies engines to JTG Daugherty Racing. So when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. grabbed the pole for Daytona 500, he ended Hendrick’s streak of having its cars on the pole but not the engine shop’s streak.

“I want to see those guys do well but they did a little better,” Hendrick said, laughing before he finished his sentence.

“Being on the front row and having them all up there is a great job for our company. I’m real proud of those guys (at JTG). They work hard. They’re good friends. We’ve worked with them on chassis and motors.”

Hendrick Motorsports will still have one of its drivers on the front row for the 500, though. Alex Bowman will start alongside Stenhouse.

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After being let down in the search for sponsorship often, Bubba Wallace is less prone to get excited about possible deals as Richard Petty Motorsports looks to fill out space on the No. 43 car this year.

Asked how optimistic he was of those gaps being filled, Wallace said: “I don’t carry optimism anymore. I’m just a realistic person, so we’ll get though Daytona and go on to Vegas and see how it goes.”

As for why he’s a realist instead of an optimist in regards to sponsorship, Wallace said: “I’ve been let down so many times in my life with sponsorship efforts, so just realistic. I told everyone at RPM, you work your tails off in the office but don’t call me with updates, call me when it’s done.”

Bubba Wallace seeks to recapture the magic of his runner-up finish in the 2018 Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Wallace’s runner-up finish in the 2018 Daytona 500 didn’t lead to the swell of sponsorships that some thought could happen. But Wallace has experienced that often.

“They told me winning a Truck race would get me sponsorship,” he said. “I’m still looking for a sponsor. That was (2013). You can carry optimism for that long, it will kill you.”

Wallace says his focus is on each day.

“It’s a new day every single day,” he said. “You try to give your 110% effort each and every day. Whatever happens, happens. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t meant to be.”

But Wallace does admit to having good vibes at Daytona. 

“I do get excited coming to the speedway stuff just because our program has been so solid,” he said. “For all the small teams, you get excited about these because anybody can win these races.”

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The World Series of Asphalt Racing at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida features nine nights of racing through Saturday, including seven nights of Super Late Models.

Fifteen-year-old Sammy Smith won opening night last Friday driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Super Late Model team. It was Smith’s first start with the team.

Busch will get to race with Smith next week at Las Vegas when Busch jumps into a Super Late Model and that will give a better chance to gauge Smith.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Busch said of the Super Late Model race in Las Vegas. “But what’s going to turn (Smith) and make him viable or successful to move on to the next level is going to be the same as it was with all the rest of the drivers. If they are running up front, if they are competitive and winning races, parts aren’t falling off the cars and cars are prepared well and they are fast, that will obviously show that they’ve got the opportunity to get to the next level.”

On Saturday night, the Super Late Model winner was Jesse Love, who, like Smith, is 15 years old and a Toyota Racing Development driver.

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Winners and losers at Indy

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickWins Indy for the second year in a row and third time overall. He’s only one Indy victory behind his hero, Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Placed three cars in the top five for the first time this season and fourth time in team history. Kevin Harvick won, Aric Almirola finished third and rookie Cole Custer was fifth. For Almirola, it was his fifth consecutive top-five finish. For Custer, it was his best Cup finish. Don’t forget about Chase Briscoe. He won the Xfinity race for the organization the day before on Indy’s road course.

Matt KensethWhile he had to settle for his fourth career runner-up finish at Indy, it was his best result since returning to the series and driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Also of note, the two oldest drivers in the field finished 1-2.

Brad Keselowski — Finished fourth for his third top-four finish at Indy in the last four years. 

Michael McDowellHis seventh-place finish was his best Indy finish and his second top-10 in the last three Cup races this season.

 

 

LOSERS

All those involved in the pit road crash — Brennan  Poole, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier, Martin Truex Jr., Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece were all eventually eliminated because of damage they suffered in a crash on pit road early in the race. Poole’s car hit Zach Price, a rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney’s team. The team stated that Price was treated and released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis but did not disclose any injuries.

Those who suffered tire problems — Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Newman and Alex Bowman all hit the wall after tires went down. Hamlin crashed while leading with eight laps to go.

Return to Indy provides another runner-up finish for Matt Kenseth

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INDIANAPOLIS — All around him, before one of the biggest restarts of his career, Matt Kenseth had no friends.

Maybe this was Kenseth’s final chance to win a Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three times before Sunday he had finished second at this fabled track but the former Cup champion — who was brought back after not competing in 2019 — had never kissed the bricks.

Before the race, the 48-year-old said he was more focused on week-to-week than looking ahead on if he will return to Chip Ganassi Racing or the series after this season.

As he lined up next to leader Kevin Harvick for an overtime restart, Kenseth faced the challenge of trying to topple one of the sport’s hottest drivers and the reigning race winner.

And Harvick had help.

Behind him was Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer. Behind Kenseth was Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola.

Kenseth was surrounded by SHR cars.

“Aric was great,” Kenseth said. “He was ready and pushed me. I didn’t do the best job taking off. I didn’t want to get a penalty for jumping the start. I started going, he pushed me. 

“Didn’t look like Kevin was going, so I hesitated just that beat that kind of got Kevin out there.”

Harvick was waiting on Custer to hit his rear bumper and give him a shove.

“Cole got a really good restart, was able to get attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “Being right on the front row, especially late in the race, everybody is going to try to push as hard as they can to put themselves in a position to have the best restart.”

Said Kenseth: “(Almirola) still pushed me up there pretty good. Couldn’t get going that fast.”

Said Harvick: “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

The result was a fourth runner-up finish at Indy for Kenseth.

But it was the previous restart Kenseth lamented. It came with 22 laps to go.

Denny Hamlin led and restarted on the outside lane. Harvick was on the inside of the front row. Kenseth was fourth and started behind Hamlin. The outside lane was the preferred lane and had allowed the car restarting fourth to move to second soon after the green waved again.

Kenseth could only manage one spot and ran third behind Hamlin and Harvick.

“Really the restart before that was our chance,” Kenseth said.

With Hamlin and Harvick ahead, they controlled the race. Harvick assumed the lead after Hamlin crashed when a right front tire blew with eight laps left.

Although he didn’t win, the runner-up finish was Kenseth’s best since he began driving the No. 42 after Kyle Larson was fired for uttering a racial slur during a sim racing event while the series was not competing.

Sunday’s finish followed an 11th- and 12th-place finish in the two Pocono races last weekend.

“I feel like we had done some stuff at Pocono that really seemed to work for me and directionally seemed to be better,” Kenseth said. “The car drove pretty good here the whole entire day, too. I’m hoping we can just carry that momentum into Kentucky, just keep moving forward with that. Hopefully get to the front like we did today, running up front where this team belongs.”

Kenseth said such finishes as Sunday’s helps confidence.

“Whenever you run well, you build more confidence, not just for myself but for the team and everybody involved,” he said. “Running bad has opposite effect. Certainly we had a good day starting off at Darlington. I was super sloppy and rusty, we still finished 10th.

“Just kind of downhill from there. We went back and were a little faster. I hit the wall, got a bad finish. Nothing was going really well. Like I said, we had a couple decent races last weekend with no mistakes, no problems, no issues, got decent finishes. Today we were able to be competitive, run up front.”

The question is was this his last chance to win at Indy or will he back next year?

Aric Almirola’s team ‘has been on it’ amid top-five steak

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While Kevin Harvick got all the glory with his win Sunday in the Brickyard 400, he wasn’t the only member of Stewart-Haas Racing who left the track with something to smile about.

Harvick led a team effort that saw three SHR cars finish in the top five for the first time this year and for the fourth time in team history.

Finishing third was Aric Almirola, who overcame an early unscheduled pit stop for a tire vibration that briefly sent him a lap down. He scored his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Almirola entered this season having never earned consecutive top fives in his Cup career.

“We had such a fast race car and we kept getting behind the eight-ball because we kept having to pit for vibrations, but so proud of (crew chief) Mike Bugarewicz and this whole race team,” Almirola told NBC. “Just really proud of our race team. Five top fives in a row. We’re so consistent and when you run that consistently in the top five we’ll win races. … We just ran five top fives in a row at racetracks that are probably my worst racetracks statistically (Miami, Talladega, Pocono and Indianapolis). We’re going to some racetracks that are really good for me — Kentucky, Loudon, Bristol for the All-Star Race, so I’m excited for these next stretch of races. This team has been on it.”

Rounding out the top five was rookie Cole Custer, who earned his first Cup Series top five in his 19th start.

His previous best finish this season was ninth at Phoenix.

“It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy,” Custer told NBC. “It is (co-owner) Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. … I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

Why are things starting to come together for Custer through 16 races in his rookie season?

“I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track,” Custer said. “It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

On the overtime restart to end the race, Custer restarted in the second row behind Harvick and helped push him to the lead.

“Cole had a great restart, got attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

Almirola said he was “really proud” of Custer.

“I think he’s been learning the ropes,” Almirola said. “He’s figured out that the jump from Xfinity to Cup is a big jump. He’s doing a great job. He’s learning. He’s bringing cars home in one piece. He’s continuing to build and get better.”

Sunday’s performance by SHR and Harvick’s win capped off a memorable doubleheader weekend for the team. On Saturday, Chase Briscoe won the inaugural Xfinity Series race on the Indy road course for his fifth win of the year.

Tire issues derail several competitors at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS — Denny Hamlin was among at least eight drivers whose cars had tire issues in Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saying “it’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not.”

Hamlin’s team was one of three at Joe Gibbs Racing that had tire issues or vibrations throughout the race. Hendrick Motorsports had two drivers suffer tire problems, and Aric Almirola had to pit out of sequence because of tire vibrations before rallying to finish third to winner Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman also hit the wall after a right front tire went down.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, explained in a statement what happened with tires Sunday: “The importance of air pressure, and getting it right, is something that we cautioned about before the race. With the high amount of downforce on the Cup cars down the straightaways, we asked teams to respect our recommended pressures so as not to hurt the tire. 

“Early in the race, without having the benefit of any practice, teams obviously had to be very mindful of that. Most of the race was run in the heat and teams were obviously searching for grip, while several issues happened later in the event when track temperature cooled off a bit and speeds picked up. We had our engineers on the ground all race, working with teams as we do every week, trying to emphasize the importance of right-front pressures.”

The 2.5-mile speedway is difficult on tires and has created challenges in the past, most notably in 2008 when cautions had to be called throughout the race to prevent tires from blowing.

Hamlin crashed when his right front tire went out while leading with eight laps left.

“I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all,” Hamlin said. “It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result.”

Hamlin’s teammate, Erik Jones, crashed earlier in the race after a right front tire went down.

“I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride,” Jones said.

Kyle Busch said he “had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers also had issues. William Byron blew a left front. Alex Bowman crashed after a right front tire blew.

“We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day,” Bowman said.

Almirola finished third despite tire issues.

“We kept having left front tires come apart,” he said. “They would start shaking and vibrating so bad, I could hardly see where I was going on the straightaway. We had to pit for that. We kept getting off our pit sequence for our strategy.”

Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, also had some tire issues.

I felt us have a problem one time and my crew chief confirmed we did,” he said. “Every time the tires would have an issue it was really concerning.  You blow a tire out here you wreck really hard and there’s no chance of saving it, so definitely concerned about that all race.”

Harvick said he had no tire issues in winning his third Brickyard 400.

“We had great tire wear today,” he said. “They hit the cambers and everything right on. I was able to really push my car hard, as hard as I could push it.”