Daytona 500 Daytona International Speedway

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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.

Season-opening exhibition renamed ‘The Clash’; Daytona seeking title sponsor

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In a nod to the event’s origins, the season-opening exhibition race in NASCAR’s premier series has been renamed “The Clash at Daytona International Speedway.”

The event was known as the Busch Clash from 1979-97 before Anheuser-Busch rebranded it as the Bud Shootout from 1998-2012. Sprint held the title sponsorship for the exhibition (which was renamed “the Sprint Unlimited”) for the past four seasons.

Track spokesman Andrew Booth said the race’s sponsorship entitlement is available, and Daytona is having “a number of discussions with potential sponsors.”

The Clash rebranding drew a positive response from Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has lobbied for the return of the name for years.

The Clash will remain a 75-lap event split into two segments by a designated caution after the 25th lap.

NASCAR announced a slight tweak to the eligibility list that will limit the field to 20 drivers – 2016 pole-sitters, former Clash winners, former Daytona 500 pole winners who competed full time last season and 2016 Chase drivers. There had been a minimum 25-driver requirement the past two seasons.

Here are the eligible drivers for the 2017 event, which will be held Saturday, Feb. 17:

–2016 pole-sitters (14): Greg Biffle, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Carl Edwards, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr.

–Former Clash winners (2): Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart.

–Former Daytona 500 pole-sitters (1): Danica Patrick.

–2016 Chase drivers (3): Chris Buescher, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray.

Among the notable drivers who won’t be in the event: AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon.

Joe Gibbs Racing looking for first Daytona points win since 2008

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Joe Gibbs Racing first appeared on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit in 1992 and its first taste of success came with Dale Jarrett’s win in the 1993 Daytona 500.

Since then, JGR has claimed 118 points victories, with eight coming at restrictor plate tracks, four each at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

But Joe Gibbs has been in a drought when it comes to points wins at Daytona, the 2.5-mile track that hosts Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 which airs on NBC.

The last came in 2008, when Kyle Busch won the Coke Zero 400. That year, JGR won three of the season’s four restrictor plate races with the exception of the Daytona 500 (won by Ryan Newman).

The only JGR points win on a restrictor place since is Denny Hamlin’s in the spring Talladega race in 2014.

However, this doesn’t indicate the true nature of JGR’s plate program. JGR has won the last two Sprint Unlimited exhibition races at Daytona, with Hamlin in 2014 and Matt Kenseth this year. Last year, Kenseth and Hamlin also swept the Budweiser Dual qualifying races and Busch took a victory in one in 2013.

“Really our superspeedway program in general has been on point for the last two years,” Hamlin said in a release. “I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at superspeedways and I always find a way to kind of finish well at them, so hopefully we’ll keep that trend.”

In his last three Daytona points races, Hamlin has finished, second, sixth and fourth while leading 20 laps.

Kenseth has two Daytona 500 wins, but those came with Roush Fenway Racing. In his last five points race there, he has finished better than 20th just once (sixth, 2014 Daytona 500).

“It’s a lot harder to pass at plate races than it used to be,” Kenseth said in a release. “So I don’t feel that it’s one of those races where you want to lay back, because you can never guarantee you’ll make it back up to the front. Our plan for Daytona is always to go there and race hard because hopefully we have great speed.”

Busch makes his return to Daytona after recovering from injuries sustained in the Xfinity Series race there in February.

In his last six Daytona points races, Busch hasn’t finished better than 12th (2013 Coke Zero 400) and has two DNFs.

“Daytona is not a place that I think owes me one or anything like that,” Busch said. “It’s just that I want to be able to go back there and conquer it again one day, whether that’s this weekend or not. I’ve won races there in just about everything.

“I’ve won ARCA races, Camping World Truck races, Xfinity, and Sprint Cup points and non-points races there. I look forward to getting back there, though, and back on the racetrack. Hopefully one day we’re able to win a Daytona 500 and, of course, put all the rest of those bad memories in the rear-view mirror.”

Then there’s Carl Edwards. The newest addition to JGR after coming over from Roush for the 2015 season, Edwards has yet to visit victory lane in the Sprint Cup Series at Daytona, in either points or non-points events. He’s been the runner-up once in both the 500 and 400-mile races, but in his last five races there, he’s failed to finish better than 17th.

“We’ve got all four cars with a win, so hopefully we can all stay out of trouble and one of us can get another win in Daytona,” Edwards said in a release. “The whole organization has been on an upswing. It’s fun to be a part of it.”

JGR and Team Penske are the only multi-car teams in 2015 where every full-time driver has won a race. That means JGR can afford to take risks to extend the upswing ever further.

Tony Stewart’s Daytona 500 woes continue with 42nd-place finish

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tony Stewart’s quest for a Daytona 500 victory will last at least another year.

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion saw his hopes for his first Daytona 500 win end early when his car shot up the track, hit Ryan Blaney’s car and slapped the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 42.

“Just my fault, I let it get away from me,’’ Stewart said in the Daytona International Speedway garage after exiting the race. “We were fine as long as we were two-wide, and then when it got three-wide that particular lap, it got away from me. I got out of the gas and couldn’t even get the front end caught up. I’m not sure if Ryan wasn’t there that I still wasn’t going to hit the fence.’’

While Stewart’s team made repairs, he eventually dropped out to finish 42nd in the 43-car field. He completed 72 laps. It marked the third consecutive year he’s placed 35th or worse in this race.

“It was fast enough stay with the pack there,’’ Stewart said. “I actually stayed with Mike Wallace to help my buddy out. We ran as many laps as we could. We couldn’t run any more laps and gain anything. The biggest race of the year, the last thing you want to do is stay out there and have something else happen and get in the middle of something else.’’

Asked about the frustration of not winning this race, Stewart said: “Just part of it. It’s not what we had planned. We stuck with the plan from the start of the race and that was to stay up front as much as we could. We knew the first two runs of the race we were probably going to have to adjust to the car. I just didn’t make it far enough to the second run to adjust it there.’’