Nearly 75% of last week’s Daytona 500 field was collected in a crash, continuing an alarming trend for NASCAR’s showcase event.
In the last five Daytona 500s, 79.5% of the field has been involved in an accident. The five Daytona 500s before that saw 44.8% of the field collected in crashes.
While this year’s Daytona 500 had its fewest number of cars wrecked compared to the previous two years, there were still 29 of 40 cars damaged in accidents.
“I definitely tug on the belts a little harder at Daytona and Talladega, more so than Martinsville, I can promise you that,” Corey LaJoie said.
He finished ninth in the Daytona 500 — one spot worse than last year when his car slammed into Ryan Newman’s and catapulted Newman’s car across the finish line. Newman was hospitalized for two days with a bruised brain.
That Newman is the only driver to be severely injured in the last five Daytona 500s despite the high crash totals attests to the safety of the cars.
“I know John Patalak just from working with him through the development with some of (Randy LaJoie’s) seats over at the R&D Center,” Corey LaJoie said of NASCAR’s senior vice president of innovation and racing development, who oversees the sanctioning body’s safety efforts. “He is one of the sharpest guys that I know. And he’s trying to make these race cars as safe as possible.
“We’re looking forward to the Next Gen car (in 2022), which is considerably more safe than what we have now. So, when you get in, you know that NASCAR is doing everything they can to keep the cars as safe as possible.”
Still, the number of cars wrecked at Daytona raises questions about if the risk will become too great.
“At the end of the day, we’re in control of our race cars,” said Ryan Preece, who finished sixth in the Daytona 500 after he bounced off the wall on the last lap. “We’re paid to take these risks and to put ourselves in position to win these races. So, that’s the name of the game. It comes down to who is willing to risk it all, I guess.”
This year’s Daytona 500 marked the fifth consecutive year the event has had at least a 12-car crash. There were 21 cars collected in a crash in the 2019 Daytona 500, the highest total in the last five years. Sixteen cars wrecked shortly before lightning and rain delayed the race for more than five hours last weekend.
“I was shocked that there was as much pushing and shoving going on as there was there at the beginning,” Chase Elliott said after his runner-up finish.
LaJoie said it’s part of the aggressiveness that has become standard in speedway racing.
“You see guys making runs or throwing blocks because they know to protect their track position they’ve got to be aggressive with those blocks,” he said. “I think where some of the speedway racing product has changed over the past couple of years is because the cars are tighter (and) the drivers are being a little more aggressive.”
Car owner Rick Hendrick saw Alex Bowman, who started on the pole, eliminated in the Lap 14 crash. William Byron, who was in a backup car after being in a wreck in his qualifying race, had his hopes of winning end with a damaged car in that melee.
Hendrick didn’t have it as bad as car owner Roger Penske. Ryan Blaney was eliminated in that early crash. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Austin Cindric all wrecked on the last lap. Keselowski was in a backup car after he was involved in a wreck in his qualifying race.
“You put so much work into those cars to make them as aerodynamic as can be,” Hendrick said before the Daytona 500. “They are like a fine watch, and when the race is over, they look like they raced at Martinsville. It’s just something we live with and it’s the Super Bowl for us.”
This year’s race also featured the third last-lap crash in the last four years. Keselowski was going for the lead when contact with Logano triggered a fiery eight-car incident. No one was injured. The accident marked the fourth time in the last five years Keselowski has failed to finish the Daytona 500 because of a crash. Only Daniel Suarez has had as bad a fortune as Keselowski in that stretch.
It’s why before Daytona Keselowski said: “I’m just so hopeful I can make it through the whole race without getting destroyed.”
He fell about a mile short of reaching that goal — and winning his first Daytona 500.
The accident finished a week at Daytona International Speedway that saw 93 vehicles in wrecks among Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series events. The total is down 8.8% from last year but the decline is because the Busch Clash was held on the road course this year instead of the oval.
The Busch Clash had three cars involved in incidents this year, including Ryan Blaney and Elliott as they raced for the lead through the final chicane. Last year’s Busch Clash had all 18 cars involved in at least one incident. Erik Jones won the race despite being a part of three accidents.
2. A bonus of more than $1 million
Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 victory provided a nice payday for him and the team last week but that win will continue to pay the team over the next few years.
A source with knowledge of the charter system estimates that Front Row Motorsports should collect an additional $1.6 million over the next three years because of the win — with more than $1 million being paid to the team next season.
Chartered teams are paid a set amount per race. They’re also paid based on where they finish and receive money based on the performance of the charter over the past three seasons.
By winning a race and making the playoffs, the team will finish at least 16th in the car owner points this season. In the last three years, McDowell’s car finished 28th (2018), 28th (2019) and 25th (2020) in car owner points.
A source with knowledge of the charter system said that Front Row Motorsports could receive about $30,000 extra per race next year just by finishing last among the 16 playoff teams this year. The money could prove significant as teams transition to the Next Gen car next season. While car owners anticipate a cost savings with the car, that won’t come next year with the need to replace all the cars run this season with the Next Gen car. An extra million dollars won’t hurt any team.
Jerry Freeze, general manager of Front Row Motorsports, is hopeful that the win can help the team’s search for sponsorship.
“It all has to do with partnerships for us, and it’s always just trying to marry the driver with the partner and the program to make it all fit and make it all work,” he said after the victory. “Unfortunately, Front Row just hasn’t been in a position to do multi-year deals with sponsors, so we’ve been on single-year deals with them, just like we have been with the drivers.
“Maybe with (last week’s) success, hopefully that might change some things, but I think we have to prove that we’re a solid team week-in and week-out to be in that position.”
3. Building momentum?
Ryan Preece’s sixth-place finish doesn’t guarantee how things will go this season, but he’s already ahead of where he was fives races into last year.
Preece heads into Sunday’s race on the Daytona road course (3 p.m. ET on Fox) with 46 points. He didn’t reach that total until the fifth race last year after finishing 29th or worse in three of those events.
Preece said among the ways last year proved challenging was that there was very little practice once the season resumed in May. That limited on-track time with crew chief Trent Owens in their first season together.
“We didn’t have that opportunity every week when the practice dropped,” Preece said. “So I really felt we started to excel the final 10 races, and I think that’s carried over into Daytona. I’m looking forward to going to the road course and just keep executing and having solid days.”
Preece had eight top-20 finishes in the final 10 races of last season.
Car owner Tad Geschickter also is hopeful Preece’s momentum from the Daytona 500 continues. The No. 37 team, which does not have a charter, has sponsorship for the first two-thirds of the season only.
“Admittedly, his first two years in Cup has been a steep learning curve, but we believe he can do it,” Geschickter said of Preece. “He’s figuring it out week by week. It just takes time. Ultimately, the best way for us to give him the best equipment we could every week is run when we’re funded. He understands that. We could try to stretch 25 races worth of money into 36. I don’t believe we’ll have to do that.
“We’re not giving up on selling sponsorship for him. Finishing sixth and getting all the TV time he got last week created interest of the people we’ve been talking to.”
4. Back at the track
Chad Knaus was not at last week’s Daytona 500 in his new role as vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports. He’ll be at the track this weekend.
With his role, he will split time at the track with Jeff Andrews, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports.
“I’m just going to sit back and try to help the guys where I can,” Knaus said of going to the track this weekend. “Be a resource for them, observe. Obviously, we’ve got amazing crew chiefs, amazing teams. These guys don’t need a whole lot, so I’m just there in a support role.”
As for not being in Daytona for the season-opening weekend?
“For qualifying, it was really odd,” said Knaus, who won seven Cup titles as Jimmie Johnson‘s crew chief. “It was tough. … I was sad that I couldn’t participate, but I was really excited when we got the front row. It’s a different thing, for sure.”
5. Rumble strips added
Drivers said last week that NASCAR needed to do something to the backstretch chicane after dirt and mud got kicked up on the track and contributed to Martin Truex Jr.‘s wreck in the Busch Clash.
The track has added rumble strips and curbing to prevent drivers from getting off course and into the grass.
“It was strange because last year in the Xfinity race I didn’t feel like the chicane, at least dirt-wise, it wasn’t a big deal,” said AJ Allmendinger, who is entered in both the Xfinity and Cup races this weekend for Kaulig Racing. “I was actually quite surprised how much dirt was on the race track during the Clash because I didn’t remember that even in the Cup race last year being that big of an issue.
“I’m not sure if it was because it had rained so much at that point last summer that everybody was afraid to drop a wheel and do damage to the race car. It’s something that we’ll have to all figure out. … It will be the same for all of us. I don’t see it being that big of an issue.”