Race Weekend Central

The Successor, Amelia and More Lost to Difficult Daytona Handling

Handling matters at Daytona.

Say it with me, everybody.

Handling. Matters. At. Daytona. 

Gee, didn’t that feel good? It’s been a while.

Going into Sunday’s 58th Daytona 500, the focus rested on the usual suspects. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. appeared to have another rocket ship. Chase Elliott took the pole as Jeff Gordon’s successor and won Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race. Joey Logano looked fast, as did Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

XFINITY Breakdown: Chase Elliott Chasing History at Daytona

However, 50 laps into the race, none of that mattered.

A race that had begun with the focus on drivers quickly changed its tune as handling became the chief issue.

The first glimpse of handling problems came in the early stages, as Kevin Harvick did everything but spin after getting loose while driving off turn 4. Meanwhile, six seconds behind the pack, 2014 Daytona 500 pole sitter Austin Dillon had lost the draft.

The cause? Simple: He was too tight to stay on the gas.

Harvick’s early issues in turn 4 would only be the beginning. The turn, known as “Calamity Corner” by fans and drivers alike, returned to old form Sunday, serving as the host to the majority of the incidents throughout the field.

The first to fall victim to “Calamity Corner” was the successor himself, Elliott. Running just inside of the top 10 in the early stages of the event, the rookie lost control of his No. 24 Chevrolet and was sent spinning into the infield grass – an unlucky twist that proved bad for Elliott’s day but good for a lucky race fan.

Some would chock Elliott’s spin up to a rookie mistake. Any wanting to prove that false could simply say, “Amelia.”

Ahh, yes, Amelia. Some members of Junior Nation speak her name with the same love and affection they would offer a spouse. The car, named after famous pilot Amelia Earhart, had proven to be nearly unstoppable for Earnhardt, earning three victories and five finishes inside of the top three in as many races since the 2015 Daytona 500.

There’s no such thing as a “sure pick” at Daytona, but Earnhardt and Amelia were as close as anyone could find. Earnhardt entered the day favored by media, fans and even drivers.

They would all prove to be glaringly wrong.

Earnhardt took the lead on the fourth lap of the day to thunderous applause from fans at the track, signifying to most that he was set to take the race over. However, a few laps later, Earnhardt was dispatched with ease by Busch and a train of Toyotas.

Amelia would fail to see the front for the rest of the day. Struggling through conditions described as “too loose to do what I need” by Earnhardt, the No. 88 Chevrolet was never again a threat in the race. Even when Earnhardt’s pit crew was able to get him up to third on the final round of pit stops, he was again quickly dispatched by Busch and sent to the back of the pack.

Handling difficulties finally came to a head for Earnhardt as the race approached the final stages. Looking to make his way to the front, Earnhardt attempted to side-draft and work his way through the field. At first, it worked. The two-time Daytona 500 champion was able to work his way past Hamlin and Logano with a bold move on the outside and work his way well into the top 10.

But any bump in performance was short-lived. Trying to pass the No. 3 of Dillon, Earnhardt pulled alongside him to attempt a side-draft. Suddenly, the air hit the nose of his machine in a way he didn’t expect. Earnhardt washed up the track, attempted to correct it, and hooked left.

The No. 88 car slid into the inside wall, came to a stop on the infield grass and the sold-out crowd of 101,000 froze. Amelia, Earnhardt’s excellent Chevrolet, had fallen, another victim of difficult Daytona handling.

Joining Elliott and Earnhardt with damage from these types of crashes would be Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Danica Patrick, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers, among others. Jimmie Johnson would require a great save to avoid a similar fate.

With a hot, slick track on a sunny “summer” afternoon in Daytona, handling proved to be everything. There was no “Big One” – the field made some great saves – yet multiple contenders still struggled to salvage a good finish in ill-handling machines.

In the end, the emphasis on setup would play to Toyota’s favor. Using track position and a dominant inside line to their advantage, the Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing worked together to dominate what was expected to be a highly competitive event. Challenges from Harvick, Logano and others fell by the wayside as handling issues plagued the outside line.

Even the finish – the closest in Daytona history – was aided largely by handling. Kenseth lost control of his No. 20 attempting to block Hamlin and slid up the track to set the eventual winner and Martin Truex, Jr. up for the mad dash to the line.

Kenseth would prove to regret not staying on the bottom lane, where his car handled well and he likely could have fended Hamlin off.

A quick glance at the headlines this week will likely yield a smattering of articles on the Daytona 500’s closest finish, Truex’s close loss, Hamlin’s greatest victory, and rightfully so. But if you’re looking for something to take away from this race, for the true story of the day, you need only say one thing.

Handling matters at Daytona.

Handling. Matters. At. Daytona.

And it’s a beautiful thing.

Humble Pie

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

As an aside, please allow me to eat some crow.

Last Monday, I published an article on Joe Gibbs Racing‘s inability to win the Great American Race – or any points paying race, for that matter – at Daytona International Speedway, despite leading the field in exhibition wins at the track.

500 miles and .010 seconds later, Hamlin and JGR put a bow on a dominant day with Coach Gibbs’ second Daytona 500 victory as a car owner. JGR and new pseudo-teammate Truex put on one of the most masterful performances by one team in the race’s history, and left no doubt that they were going to win in the closing stages. Between Hamlin’s win and the 2015 championship, JGR is on top of the racing world right now, and they absolutely deserve every bit of praise they receive.

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…Poor Amelia never reached her destination either. Maybe NOT the best name…. :)

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