Parity — A year after Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing won 19 of 36 races, all three manufacturers have a win in the first three races of the season. Chevrolet was the last to join the group with Alex Bowman’s win. It wasn’t until race 10 last year that a Chevrolet won a Cup race.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.”
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?
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.
Hendrick Motorsports saw its streak of five consecutive Daytona 500 poles end Sunday but the engine shop’s streak continued.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
The biggest remaining piece to the puzzle that was the 2019-20 NASCAR silly season has been put into place with the confirmation that Daniel Suarez will compete full-time in the Cup Series with Gaunt Brothers Racing.
Suarez moves from Stewart-Haas Racing over to GBR to drive its No. 96 Toyota. This will be the first full-time Cup campaign for the team.
Here’s a recap of all the major headlines from silly season.
Blaise Alexander always beat Johnson across the finish line.
Alexander and Johnson got to be close friends when they raced against each other in what is now the Busch Series. As good of friends as they were, it made them want to beat the other that much more.
Alexander was killed in a crash during an ARCA race Oct. 4, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 25. Earlier that night, Johnson qualified for his first Cup race.
When Johnson drove his Busch car that weekend, one of his crew members, who was also was friends with Alexander, drew flames and Alexander’s initials on the front left bumper of Johnson’s car. That way Alexander would always cross the finish line before Johnson.
Johnson’s cars have paid homage to Alexander since. For a while, the design was drawn on to each car with a marker. Eventually, a decal was made and affixed in the same spot below the left front headlight sticker. Later, the tail number for the Hendrick plane that crashed and killed 10 was added to Alexander’s tribute.
During Thursday’s press conference, Johnson’s emotions remained steady as he explained the reasons why 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season.
But when asked about Alexander and how next year would mark the final year of the tribute on Johnson’s cars at NASCAR tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson was taken aback.
He closed his eyes briefly, turned his head and was momentarily silent before saying, “wow” and shook his head.
“He was a very special friend,” Johnson said, taking a deep breath.
In previous years, if a team or manufacturer was behind in one season, they could count on rule changes to possibly give them a better chance the next season. That won’t be the case next year.
So it leads to the question of what is to prevent a repeat of this season with Joe Gibbs Racing winning more than half the Cup races and putting three of its four cars in the championship race and winning the title?
“I would just say it’s all about optimizing all of your testing time and your simulation time to give the drivers the best chance of unloading quick, adjusting quickly and then executing in the race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “I think that’s really what it’s about. There’s limited on-track testing, so it really comes down heavily to simulation, driver loop activity.
“There is some aero testing. We’re limited, so we have to make sure every minute of those aero tests is productive, so that’s what we’ll do as a team. We have three major teams and we have a number of affiliates that we’ll use that to our best advantage. But it’s going to be about execution.”
Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, said he feels his teams can continue progressing with the package that will be used again next year.
“The rules changes for 2019, it took us a while to get our teams and our own heads around what those changes were and the aerodynamic effects especially, and I think we’ve seen some stronger performance in the latter half of the year, which we hope to continue into 2020,” he said. “I would also say that there are still rule changes for 2020, although the packages aren’t changing, some of the things like reduced wind tunnel time will be in place, and the effectiveness of your tools like aero, computational fluid dynamics will come into play more than wind tunnel testing is today. There’s still going to be, I think, some balance shifts. Maybe we’ll see who has the best aero CFD tool.”
But Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that it is not as easy as that. He explained, describing what makes Homestead-Miami Speedway such a good track and why it’s hard to replicate that elsewhere.
“The variable degree banking is a terrific design,” Stucker said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It creates racing in multiple grooves. The surface itself is pretty worn now, so that’s really what promotes the (tire) falloff that we see at Homestead over the course of a fuel run, about 2 1/2 seconds through the course of those runs.
“You have to be very careful to say that we can go in and design a tire that is going to produce that kind of falloff at any given race track. The falloff you see at Homestead is because of that race track and the worn surface. The same would be true of Darlington. The same would be true at Chicago and Atlanta. Those are worn surfaces that have lost some of their mechanical grip. … You have to be very careful (to) say we want to do that at every race track because at some places it’s just not possible. The surface itself just has enough mechanical grip that it just won’t work.
“We don’t want to artificially influence falloff or tire wear because that leads to not a good situation. You want something that is a natural progression from a wear and a falloff perspective.”
4. Who will be the fourth?
Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and moderator for Jimmie Johnson’s news conference Thursday, noted that few would question Johnson’s place on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore of drivers. Kelley raised the question of who would be the fourth.
It leads to an interesting debate. Presuming NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore features its three seven-time champions — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Johnson — there could be quite a debate for the fourth spot.
Is it David Pearson? His 105 victories rank second on the all-time list. He rarely ran a full season but he did win three championships. Petty has said that he considers Pearson the sport’s greatest driver.
Or is it Jeff Gordon? His 93 victories are third on the all-time wins list and he has four championships in an era that was arguably more competitive than Pearson’s era.
Or is there a case to be made for Cale Yarborough? While his 83 career wins are one less than Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip each, Yarborough won three consecutive championships, a record that seemed unbreakable until Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10.
Or is it someone else?
5. Moving on
Overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s news this week was Justin Marks’ announcement Thursday that he was “hanging up the helmet.”
His one win came in the rain at Mid-Ohio in the 2016 Xfinity race there. No one could match him in the downpour there.
After 20 years, 400+ professional starts, 20+ wins, and the experience of a lifetime, I’m hanging up the helmet. Deeply appreciative of the amazing friendships I’ve made. I have not deserved this journey. Onwards and upwards. Time to reinvent. pic.twitter.com/vpTybtt5Pz
Marks has always looked at the sport in a different way with his background in multiple racing series. After finishing second in the inaugural Roval Xfinity race in 2018, Marks lauded the new way Charlotte Motor Speedway was used and said NASCAR could do more, suggesting a street course event.
“I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people,” Marks said that day. “In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.
“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a race track camping are numbered.”
While he admitted there would be challenges with a Cup street race, he said: “I think it could be a hell of a show if they did it, especially if they went to a market like Detroit or LA or South Florida, or if they managed to pull something off in Nashville or Austin or something like that, great cultural hubs and great markets.”
As NASCAR looks to alter its schedule in the future, Marks’ words could prove prophetic.
PLANO, Texas — Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs to tell drivers that there will be a “huge penalty” for intentionally causing a caution after spins the past two weeks in Cup playoff races raised questions about such tactics.
Wallace’s spin came during the middle of a green-flag pit cycle. Larson’s team was among those that had pitted and caught a lap down. While Larson took the wave around, he could not make up the lost track position in the final 90 laps and finished 12th. He trails Joey Logano by 23 points for the final transfer spot to the championship race heading into the season’s penultimate race at ISM Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)
Hamlin has no doubt that Wallace’s act was intentional but doesn’t blame the driver for doing so.
“Bubba’s (spin) this weekend was pretty obvious and obviously it hurt some people and helped others,” Hamlin said Monday morning at Toyota Motor North America Headquarters. “He’s just following in everyone else’s footsteps. It’s been going on for a long time. Especially this time of the season, it can potentially change a lot of things in the playoffs that it shouldn’t.”
A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Sunday that series officials reviewed Wallace’s spin and determined that it did not warrant a penalty.
Hamlin said officials should make it clear to competitors how significant the penalty for intentionally causing a caution could be.
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that officials may have to react.
“Well it’s going be a judgment call, for sure,” O’Donnell said. “I think that’s something, you know, as momentum builds or you see a trend and you’ve got to react, you do.
“We tend to trust the teams out there and the drivers maybe too much at times. But we’ll certainly take a look at that. Obviously, didn’t make a call during the race Sunday. If it’s something we’ve got to address, we’ll talk to the drivers and race teams over the week. If we need to address it, we will in the drivers meeting ahead of Sunday’s race (at ISM Raceway) and make sure we’re staying on top of that.”
In a rules card given to each crew chief, it states: “Any driver who, in the judgment of NASCAR Officials, intentionally causes or attempts to cause a caution period by stopping or spinning out or any other action will be penalized at NASCAR’s discretion.”
Hamlin also called out Logano’s spin last weekend at Martinsville. Hamlin and Logano had contact and it cut one of Logano’s tires. He spun, bringing out the caution.
“The 22 spun on purpose at Martinsville,” Hamlin said of Logano. “Everyone knows that.”
That spin was cited on Larson’s radio as he and his team vented after Wallace’s spin Sunday.
Logano defended his actions in the Martinsville race.
“I had a flat tire last week,” Logano said Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. “What do you want me to do? I’ll try not to spin out. I’m not that good. I wish I was that good. That would be really good. I was good enough to spin out and not hit anything so that was good.”
Kyle Busch noted that Logano’s spin at Martinsville impacted his race.
“There’s countless times that you could look at guys that cause cautions and brought out cautions purposely,” Busch said Monday at Toyota Motor North America Headquarters. “It’s frustrating for sure, especially for us at Martinsville, I think, actually the Logano one ruined our day.
“Either (NASCAR is) going to get involved and fix it or it is going to continue on. If guys get flats or whatever, they’re going to spin themselves out to try to draw a caution so they don’t go laps down. I’ve tried not to do that.
“I can look back at Kansas earlier this year, we got a bad tire rub and I knew I had to come to pit road otherwise it was going to go flat and cost ourselves two laps and finish 30th. Could have spun myself out and stayed on the lead lap and probably finished 10th or eighth or ninth or whatever. It’s NASCAR’s job to figure it out.”