1. Good race? Bad race? Regardless of your answer, the Daytona 500 left us with plenty of talking points
After a challenging couple of years for NASCAR, the one unmistakable feeling as the green flag flew this past Sunday (Feb. 20) was that stock car racing was back. A packed house at Daytona International Speedway goes a long way toward inspiring that kind of attitude.
Sure, plenty was different. The much discussed Next Gen cars were hitting the Florida tri-oval for the first time in points-paying races. Brad Keselowski was leading the way for big chunks of the afternoon in a Ford, but it was the No. 6 and not his familiar No. 2. And those numbers were in a new place on cars with one-lug wheels.
Yet for all that had changed since the past time the Cup Series hit Daytona, plenty turned out to be the same as the 64th Daytona 500 played out. Drivers tended to look for their teammates or cars from the same manufacturer in the draft. A few teams made critical mistakes on pit road. Multi-car wrecks took out a number of contenders before the finish. A driver or two you wouldn’t have expected snuck into the top 10 at the end (take a bow, David Ragan). The race went to overtime (almost an annual occurrence at this point), and just like last year, the eventual champion, Austin Cindric, was a first-time Cup Series winner.
Was it an all-time classic? Probably not, given the long periods of single-file racing, especially in the second stage. But fans did seem to enjoy it overall, as evidenced by the unofficial temperature gauge of the sport, Jeff Gluck’s “Was it a good race?” poll, sitting at more than 85% yes as this is being typed.
Even if you disagree, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who watched this Daytona 500 left it without (h/t to the great Bonnie Raitt) something to talk about. We’ll get to some of them before the end of this column, but as far as a start to a NASCAR season can go, this was about as effective as a race can be in giving everyone from fans to teams to officials plenty to discuss before the next race.
2. No NASCAR race hits the drivers who had a shot to win and didn’t harder than the Daytona 500
This perhaps falls into the category of common sense, but while it’s common to hear some pangs of regret among drivers who finish with top-five results at most races, they generally circle back around to “hey, at least it was a good run and we had a great points day.” At the Daytona 500? Not so much.
If there was only one word allowed to describe this year’s runner-up, Bubba Wallace, it had to be “tortured.” He’s been here before, coming home second in 2018, and seemed thrilled with that outcome at the time. This time, he told Frontstretch’s Davey Segal it was “not awesome” coming up just feet short of becoming a Daytona 500 champion.
Aric Almirola was similarly wistful after finishing fifth, a great result considering his mostly miserable 2021 campaign. His regrets stemmed mostly from the fact that unlike Wallace, who will likely get a number of additional shots at a win, this was his final start in NASCAR’s most famous race, at least as a full-time competitor. That’s the kind of remorse that’s hard to shake.
That’s not even counting Keselowski, who entered the Daytona 500 11 times in the No. 2 for Team Penske (plus one more in the No. 12), then, despite leading the most laps of anyone, watched that car win the race while he settled for ninth.
Coming close without winning is always tough, but as common parlance puts it these days, it hits different at Daytona.
3. Will the Next Gen wheels be an ongoing concern?
No one expected the Next Gen superspeedway to come off without a hitch, and there certainly appear to be some bugs to work out. In the case of the wheels on this year’s cars, those might be some rather large cockroach-style pests.
Wheels caused problems for a few teams during the Daytona 500. It didn’t matter if they were upstarts (Kaz Grala of The Money Team lost one that ended up bounding down the track) or powerhouses (Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney had issues just getting a right-rear changed at one point). The idea that the wheels might not fit right on Next Gen cards is suboptimal, to say the least.
It’s also one that some teams might have known about ahead of time. Roger Penske ended up publicly admitting that his teams modified some wheels due to inconsistencies with the holes where the drive pins fit. The Captain claimed that his organization wasn’t trying to hide what they were doing, and only did it because of the feeling that it was necessary.
Again, some kinks in the Next Gen cars were to be expected, but wheels are kind of a big deal, and NASCAR teams needing to tinker with them just so they, you know, fit on the vehicles properly is a bad look. This has the feel of an early season storyline that isn’t going away.
4. Did Mike Joy throw some subtle shade at Danica Patrick?
The reviews for Tony Stewart in the FOX booth have been pretty good, and he’ll be returning to join Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer at COTA. One problem: There are several Cup Series races between now and March 27, and the two regulars need another analyst for those.
(Well, not need, exactly, but FOX seems pretty determined to stick with a three-person booth.)
During the Daytona 500, Joy noted that Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick will be subbing in for those weeks, before telling Stewart to “hurry back.” Naturally, that could have been all in fun, but considering they spent some time talking up Kenseth and his combination of knowledge and wit and barely any on Patrick, it’s hard not to read that as at least a semi-jab at the latter, especially considering Patrick’s previous announcing stints have garnered mixed reviews.
Since Joy is the kind of broadcaster who probably appears if you look up a definition for “consummate professional,” he’ll undoubtedly make anyone FOX puts with him this season look as as good as possible. But it’s something to file away, even as he’s busy defending the art of race broadcasting from fans who were irked at other aspects of this past weekend’s TV presentation.
5. How high can Cindric fly the rest of this season?
It’s not unprecedented — Cole Custer managed to pull it off just two seasons ago — but winning a Cup Series race in your first full-time season isn’t easy. Cindric did it in not just any race, but the Daytona 500.
What can he do for a season-long encore? As he pointed out in his post-race interview, he’s already locked into the playoffs, so if that was a top goal for Cindric and his team, they’ll be racing with much less pressure knowing that’s checked off.
He also figures to be a contender in the road course races on the 2022 schedule, proving his mettle by winning multiple times on road courses while in the Xfinity Series. If he can nab another trip to victory lane this year, this season figures to be a wild success by any standard.
Most of all, the 23-year-old Cindric is a refreshing addition to the Cup Series landscape, mixing the enthusiasm of youth with an impressive amount of perspective. He always figured to have a promising future ahead of him at the highest level of NASCAR, and it’ll be fun seeing if his Daytona triumph mashes the accelerator to realize it that much faster.
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