There are numerous reasons race car drivers are paid enormous amounts of money to drive vehicles in circles.
One of those reasons will be evident in the twilight hours of Sunday afternoon when it comes time to decide who will win the Daytona 500 and have his name engraved on one of auto racing’s most prestigious trophies.
Although the 500 is a marathon and any number of incidents early in the race could impact which drivers have the best chances to succeed, it’s the final five laps of the race that tell the tale. Throughout a long season and across multiple racing disciplines, the final 10-12 miles of the Daytona 500 rank as some of the most intense competition of the racing year. There is no bigger trophy in stock car racing, and drivers will do almost anything over the 500’s closing miles to put their hands on it.
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The result, especially over the past decade or so, is that the Daytona 500 has become the Daytona 490 Plus 10 Miles of Chaos. Last-lap slingshot passes and pure horsepower land grabs are things of the past. Now to win the 500 a driver must be ready to bash and crash and smash and make sometimes wild moves that defy logic in the final miles.
- Four of the past seven 500s have been won by drivers who did not lead the white flag lap.
- Only two of the 18 most recent 500s had a final green-flag run longer than six laps.
- Three of the past six 500 winners led only the last lap of the race.
- Four of the past five 500s were decided in overtime after late-race accidents.
- Over the past six years, at least 24 cars in the 500 starting field were involved in accidents, many during the final 10-lap dash.
The bottom line is that late-race mayhem – not necessarily the talent and skill of individual drivers – often decides the winner of one of the most important events in motorsports.
Brad Keselowski has won virtually everything of significance in NASCAR competition except the 500.
“There’s the old Indianapolis saying I think that you don’t win the Indy 500, the Indy 500 kind of picks the winner,” he said. “Sometimes it feels that way here, that the winner of this race – if you go back and watch the last three or four laps, the winner is usually decided, at least for the Daytona 500, by the move that the third- and fourth-place car makes – almost every year, and you can’t drive the third- and fourth-place car and the first-place car all at the same time.”
Keselowski said the second row is the one to keep an eye on in the closing laps.
“If I’m a fan in the stands and I’m watching the field go under the white flag, candidly I’m not looking at the leader. The guy who is running third or fourth is going to decide who wins the race — the move he makes, who he goes with, what he does will impact or determine the winner. That’s just not something you can control.”
Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick said there is no “safe place” in the race’s final laps.
“We’ve got wrecked leading, running second, running 20th, he said. “You really don’t have any idea. It comes down to a little bit of luck.
“Most of the time your move needs to be coming off Turn 4 coming to the white and trying to get position. Half the time getting into Turn 1 on the last lap there’s already a wreck. When the white comes out it’s over with pretty much.”
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Kurt Busch won the 500 in 2017 in what now is an oddity – a fuel-mileage race that saw teams gambling with low fuel loads over the closing miles.
“That was one of the last true runs at the end,” Busch said. “Now it is circumstantial, but you have to get in position to be in that position to win. Bubba Wallace has done a great job of doing that and being in contention to win. Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin – you can see the patterns and the ones that position themselves for it. Then you have to have Lady Luck on your side.”
Typically, drivers from the same manufacturers team up to draft together through much of the race, but the final handful of laps turn the race into a raw and bitter badlands, a place where nobody has friends and everyone else is a snake waiting to strike. It’s sort of the opposite of a church social.
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“We know the deal,” said Chevrolet driver William Byron. “It’s a lot of good fortune, but you have to have enough bullets for the fight at the end to put up a good chance at it. For us, we need more chances at the end. We need as many Chevys at the end as we can have.
“That comes down to strategy, it comes down to decisions as a driver, making sure we don’t make any dumb decisions that put ourselves at jeopardy.”
Keselowski, who led Saturday’s final Cup practice, said a variety of situations have kept the 500 victory lane locked to him. “I could tick down the last 12 years here of this didn’t go right, there was nothing I could do different. Or, this didn’t go right and I maybe should have made a different move here or there, but that’s how it goes.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. often has fast cars in the 500 but hasn’t been able to reach victory lane, although he has won the 400-mile summer race at DIS. Last year in the 500, he led laps 180-193 (of 201), but Austin Cindric won the race in overtime.
“Our mindset going in is with 30 laps to go you have to be in position to where you need to be with five to go,” Stenhouse said. “Last year we put ourselves in that position. We were leading within 20 to go. I don’t know what lap we took the lead on, but I know the lap we got crashed on was like four to go.
“Those laps leading were nerve-wracking. We were inside 20 to go and we were leading the race. Actually we were inside 10 to go and still leading. Like we were riding around in a single-file line, but I was nervous. Knowing somebody is going to make a move and you have got to be ready to defend.
“Or if they do successfully get by you, like what happened on the restart with four or five to go, the 2 (Cindric) and the 12 (Ryan Blaney) got by us, and the 6 (Brad Keselowski) was behind me. So I went from being on defense to being on offense and I was like, ‘How am I going to get back to the lead?’ The scenarios change so fast, and you have to be able to adapt and go back and forth and make those right moves.”
Blaney is in the “almost but no” club in the 500. He’s been close but has been shuffled out of the “winning” position in the closing chaos.
In 2017, Blaney powered from seventh to second on the last lap but couldn’t pass Busch for the win. In 2020, he was passed by Denny Hamlin approaching the checkered flag. And last year Cindric blocked Blaney on the way to the win.
“You want to be aggressive and set yourself up toward the front to be there at the end, but you are kind of setting yourself up, honestly, with 30 to go to try to get yourself to the front,” Blaney said. “Especially with this new car because you can’t go forward like you did with the old car. You can’t go from 25th and pull a lane and get to the front. This car just won’t do it. It is just too draggy.
“You have to position yourself a little ahead of time than you normally would, but everything comes down to the last 10 laps of this thing and making sure you are in a spot. You would like to think you need to be in the first three rows to try to win it, but you could miss a couple wrecks and then you are up in the front two rows. You just never know.”
You just never know. That perhaps is the best description of the closing miles of the Daytona 500.