In NASCAR, restrictor plate races, even under ideal circumstances, are quite unpredictable. The draft allows almost anyone that can spark their engine and afford tires ($2000 a set these days) a chance to win if they can play their cards right. But, all plate races are not the same.
Even with the repave prior to the 2011 season at Daytona, races on the older 2.5-mile tri-oval still tend to be less competitive than at Talladega. Why is that? The fact that the track is narrower likely plays a role. Also, you see some on-track behavior that is a little different than at Talladega.
While it was not as noticeable on Sunday as it was last year, often times the leader will attempt to manipulate the race by driving in such a fashion that he/she could block up both lanes. For many fans and viewers, it’s not exactly the most exhilarating type of racing out there. In fact, it’s quite frustrating. Jamie McMurray used that strategy to perfection in last year’s Coke Zero 400, dominating much of the middle stages of the event. On Sunday, Matt Kenseth attempted to replicate it early on, before Tony Stewart was able to take the lead away.
With the draft being the way that it currently is, there isn’t necessarily an incentive to be extremely proactive in your positioning until late in the race. Normally, the last few laps are off-the-wall, while the first 150 are much less so.
However, this past weekend added rain to the equation. All of a sudden, no one knew when the race would end. The result was what we got on Sunday: Pure aggression – even early on in the race. Aggression likely caused both of the big wrecks on Sunday, especially the 26 car crash on Lap 97.
Aside from the wreck, you saw drivers willing to take chances to get to the front of the pack. You just don’t see it often enough. The fans that did actually travel to Daytona on Sunday (the crowd in the stands wasn’t great) saw a pretty good show when they weren’t getting drenched.
Tony Stewart was none too pleased with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., after Stenhouse caused the first big crash.
“[Stenhouse] got sideways on the lap that we’re all getting a competition caution,” Stewart said in the garage after the crash. “I don’t know. I guess Ricky thought it paid something to get to Lap 20. I guess it was just Stenhouse being an idiot. It didn’t make much sense when we’re coming to the caution, we’re like a quarter of a lap from getting to the caution and he does something stupid.”
Greg Biffle thought the early part of the race was possibly the wildest part of the day.
“The beginning of [the race] was crazy when the 40 [Cassill] and 36 [Sorenson] and 38 [Gilliland] were dicing for the lead,” Biffle said. “I saw one guy kind of get hooked similar to that and went up and kissed the wall and came back down. I thought we were all wrecked but we all kept going like nothing happened. Then it calmed down and we had green-flag pit cycles.”
Throughout the race, drivers noted, just how aggressive the racing actually was. Denny Hamlin would co-sign, and add a rejoinder.
“I think most everyone [pushed] the button from Lap 1,” Hamlin said. “Some people have been a little overzealous and caused some big wrecks simply because you can’t control your car when it gets this hot, so you got to allow for that.”
Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 was the first July race run during the daytime since 1997, when John Andretti won his first Cup race under cloudy skies. A grand total of four drivers in Sunday’s race were in that event (Terry and Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip and Jeff Gordon). Shortly afterwards, Daytona International Speedway embarked on the largest project ever undertaken to illuminate a race track. The project was more or less complete by Speedweeks ’98 and Dale Earnhardt was chosen to take the first laps on the track. The first race was supposed on be on July 4th, 1998, but the infamous wildfires that affected Central Florida forced the race to be delayed to October.
With only four drivers in the field with experience racing in the heat and humidity of Daytona in July, it seems that a lot of drivers simply didn’t realize that they had to pace themselves. Not pacing themselves likely led to some physical issues later in the day, noticed by Brian Vickers.
“When we went back green [after the debris caution on Lap 97], I told the guys…’Man, there’s a lot of guys that seem really dehydrated. See a lot of hands out the left side window,’” Vickers said after the race.
Granted, with pavement that’s only in its fourth year of use in Daytona, there’s still a fair amount of grip in the track. Aric Almirola talked about going nearly 100 laps on his left side tires. Cassill drove the first 85 laps of the race on the four tires that he started with. However, by the end of those runs, drivers weren’t necessarily flat-footing it anymore.
“…At the beginning of the race, I could tell our car drove better and I could tell a lot of guys were having to lift. And I wasn’t,” McMurray said after the race.
In the 112 laps that were actually completed before the race was declared official, there was only about ten or so laps in which the cars were single-file on the high line, a tactic that is exclusive to the Sprint Cup Series on restrictor-plate tracks. Only Kurt Busch was able to control the pack so that it was even possible. The rest of the race saw constant battling for position. While there were only 21 lead changes, that number could have been quite a bit higher.
The 280-mile Coke Zero 400 was an interesting race. You didn’t really see the hang-back strategies being used all that much because of the sense of urgency to get to the front. That made for a better race for the fans both at the track and on TV. However, the high temperatures likely played a role in some of the decisions made on-track. They weren’t necessarily the best. However, to drive in Sprint Cup takes more than just talent. It takes fitness and fortitude. Perhaps the best car didn’t win on Sunday. But, the best driver and team for the conditions did.