NASCAR’s summer return to Daytona International Speedway began with plenty of anticipation. The 2022 regular season finale was supposed to be a celebration, the peak of a year filled with parity and playoff drama surrounding the Next Gen car.
Instead, the sport leaves Daytona with more questions than answers, a weekend that led to serious concerns about officiating, safety and whether this track is the right spot to hold the regular season finale.
Mother Nature, more than anyone, took center stage right from the start; both the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup series races suffered through hours’ worth of rain delays. Sadly, once the events finally began, both teams and drivers were saddled with perhaps the most destructive race weekend on record.
All in all, 36 of the 75 cars crashed out of this weekend’s two events. Roughly about 10 of them were left in one piece, avoiding wrecks or suffering minimal damage.
Cost-saving measures have been important for teams in NASCAR this season, yet 650-plus miles at Daytona collectively destroyed millions of dollars of equipment in less than 48 hours. And with Atlanta Motor Speedway being reconfigured to serve as a de facto superspeedway, the teams have to face this pack racing gauntlet six times every year. Is it really worth it?
For the Xfinity race, the first 70 laps were clean, with just one car out of the event. But as the pressure ratcheted up, the final 48 laps turned into a glorified demolition derby. A total of 19 of the 38 cars crashed out of the race, and just about everyone else was crippled from damage. After 118 laps, all but five cars were involved in an incident at some point throughout the night.
Now, look: Accidents are a part of racing. To hope for a crash-free race anywhere — let alone at Daytona — is foolish. Drivers are pushing their cars to the absolute limit, and they are only human. Mistakes will be made.
But in recent years, it has become almost an expectation for multiple Big Ones in the closing laps of superspeedway races. And when drivers can’t go one lap without crashing on multiple overtime restarts, what message does it send?
The carnage wasn’t always this bad. Yes, the Big One is not a recent occurrence. The term was coined in the early 2000s, and NASCAR has had its share of large accidents back in the 20th century, including the scary Bobby Allison wreck at Talladega that spawned modern pack racing back in 1987.
But what’s different now compared to even 10 years ago is the majority of Big Ones happen during the closing laps, sparked when all the money is on the line. In the current win-and-you’re-in era of NASCAR, second place means nothing. Everyone needs the trophy to earn that coveted playoff bid, and drivers are willing to take more risks, block more runs and give more pushes at the end of these races to get it.
The result has been numerous races at Daytona and Talladega that have become a battle of surviving crashes in the final laps. These days, the fastest car almost never wins; the fastest undamaged car is the one that survives and wins a battle of luck to reach victory lane.
That’s exactly what happened early Saturday morning in the Xfinity Series. With 10 laps to go in the scheduled distance, 34 of 38 cars were still running. But with eight laps to go, a wreck took out several frontrunners. On the restart, the field made it two laps before another big crash happened with two laps remaining in the scheduled distance.
Then, we hit NASCAR Overtime, producing the biggest carnage of the night. During the second overtime, the field endured another frightening incident. It was only after three overtime periods and 18 extra laps that the race finally ended.
Ten cars were totaled in crashes that happened past the scheduled distance, and countless others were crippled on their way to the finish. In an effort to give fans a green-flag ending that ultimately did not happen, sheet metal was twisted, hours of hard work were thrown out the window and millions of dollars got wasted.
For the sake of the teams, the race should have ended after the first attempt. If the drivers are unable to keep their cars straight for one lap at a superspeedway, the race deserves to finish under caution.
Several drivers have been open about their disdain for superspeedway competition, and third-place finisher AJ Allmendinger did not mince words after the NXS race. His main concern?
Staying safe among the chaos.
“I’m just happy to get out of this place alive,” Allmendinger said. “I absolutely f****** hate this race. Anytime I can walk away and feel my legs and my arms and be OK and have a top-5 finish, I’m OK any day with that.”
AJ Allmendinger on the contact with Noah Gragson.
"I absolutely fucking hate this place. Anytime I can leave here with feeling in my arms and legs, I'm satisfied." pic.twitter.com/dtlHcaUjer
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverRA) August 27, 2022
With the end of the Xfinity race, attention turned toward Cup. And while it was expected that the Coke Zero Sugar 400 would have some chaos, it would be a tall hurdle for that Cup race to surpass its predecessor in destruction.
Against all odds, it happened anyway.
The Cup race was delayed to Sunday morning, and the first half of the race was clean. By lap 100, only two cars were out of the race via crash damage (sound familiar?).
Unfortunately, just like the Xfinity race before it, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 turned into a crashfest. There were two multi-car incidents near the front on laps 102 and 125, then another multi-car spin at the front of the field on lap 131. Around this time, rain and lightning became a serious threat to end the race early. After a restart on lap 135, the drivers went all out knowing a popup shower could end the race at any moment.
And then, on lap 138, came the rain.
In one of the most surreal and unusual moments in NASCAR history, six cars at the front of the field simultaneously lost control and crashed. The entire field crumbled, wadded up in turn 1 after a deluge of rain poured down on the racetrack. With almost everyone taken out in the pop-up shower, Austin Dillon made his way through the carnage unscathed to take the lead.
As the field barreled into a wet racetrack, race control took considerable heat for the decision. It wasn’t the first time that the field crashed in rain either; weather wiped out the top two cars last year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. With viewers wondering why the race wasn’t put under caution sooner, Scott Miller —the NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition — even went on CNBC (who was broadcasting the rain-delayed event) to address the situation.
There were mixed responses from drivers. Some said that it was not raining in turn 1 the lap before the shower, while others said that it was and the race should have been halted. Justin Haley was one of the biggest critics toward the decision to not put out the caution flag.
“My spotter said, ‘don’t lift, it’s raining’, and then I ran another lap, and it was still raining, and then we all went to [turn] 1 and it was really raining,” Haley said. “They had about a whole lap to call caution and tore up a lot of racecars. That was pretty unacceptable.”
Denny Hamlin echoed the same sentiments on Twitter after the race.
Thinking about how we avoid circumstances like we had today. Maybe we should be more proactive instead of re-active? If we wait until the track gets wet isn’t it already too late?
You can’t hold off because of the “threat” of rain but when you see it then we should probably stop.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) August 29, 2022
“It’s f****** stuck, it’s f****** raining!” Buescher yelled. “Why do we keep doing this stupid s*** every week!?”
Furthermore, a fan video showed that it was raining in the grandstands as the field crossed the start-finish line right before the crash. Haley’s crew also came over the radio to say that it was raining in turn 1 as they were exiting the tri-oval.
— Francisco Bacallao 🏁🏁 (@bleachmonster54) August 28, 2022
In NASCAR’s defense, it has become common occurrence for drivers in the lead in these situations to say that it is raining for their own benefit, even if it isn’t. Holding the caution may very well have been a boy who cried wolf situation where the drivers weren’t listened to because they had given false rain reports in the past.
But with that said, radar technology has improved. The skies had grown ominous in the laps before the entire field wrecked and the racing could have easily been halted before it reached that point.
Obviously, it’s easy to say that in hindsight. But just as Hamlin said, it’s better to be proactive than reactive when it comes to driver safety; the race would’ve been able to resume if the caution had been put out prematurely. With two rain crashes in two years, something needs to change going forward.
The Big One wasn’t the only part of NASCAR’s worries, however. With Dillon in the lead, he was set to knock Ryan Blaney out of the playoff grid if the race was unable to be restarted. Putting playoff implications aside, the race ending in the rain on lap 139 would have been a disastrous finish, regardless of the winner. How does one explain a situation where the leader was the only one who didn’t crash in a rainstorm?
If the race was rained out the rest of the afternoon, reverting the results to lap 137 and declaring Daniel Suarez the winner would not have been an incredibly egregious decision. Any result would have been controversial, though, if less than 160 laps were completed during a finale that ultimately decided the rest of the postseason field.
Fortunately, NASCAR was determined to finish the race and it resumed after a three-hour cleanup. On the restart with 16 laps to go, Austin Cindric got by Dillon to take the lead. With just 10 lead-lap cars, 17 cars on track and roughly three undamaged frontrunners, the race quickly strung out single file.
Cindric continued pacing the field until three laps to go, when Dillon all but wrecked him heading into turn 1 to the take the lead. Cindric saved his car and recovered to third, but that was the deciding lead change as Dillon took the victory with Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick pushing him into the playoffs.
With Dillon’s win came the end of Martin Truex Jr.‘s playoff hopes. Truex was fourth in the regular season point standings after Daytona, but he will not be competing for a championship during the final 10 races.
Considering the circumstances surrounding this event, NASCAR will have questions to answer about the playoffs. Truex has the second-best average finish this season and the sixth-most laps led, yet he’s out. Even without a win, Truex has had the speed and consistency to be a title contender, which is something several winners this season can’t say.
For example, prior to this weekend’s race, Dillon had led eight laps all season. Truex had led 455. Yet according to the current playoff system, Truex is the odd one out. You be the judge.
The circumstances of the ending made it all the more controversial. How fair is it that Truex is out of the playoffs after Dillon was one of the two undamaged cars with race-winning speed to escape after the entire field suffered a 195-mph crash in the rain? I had written back in July about how NASCAR should give the top five in regular season points an automatic playoff entry; with Truex missing out from fourth, now would be the perfect time to implement such a feature for 2023.
Furthermore, if this race was run in its traditional Fourth of July slot, the field would have at least had eight races before the end of the regular season to understand the new playoff picture. With yesterday being the final race of the regular season, Dillon’s win threw everyone for a curveball. And it’s a curveball that likely would not have happened if the caution was put out in a timely manner before the field barreled into the rain.
Daytona should be moved back earlier in the regular season to prevent such a situation from happening again. The playoffs were greatly impacted by the rain and destruction of Sunday’s event; the regular season finale should not take place at a track where winning is often the equivalent of winning the Mega Millions Jackpot.
Finally, with concerns about the Next Gen car’s safety, there is once again an ethical dilemma involved in racing at superspeedways. Fans enjoy them and they are traditionally the most-viewed races of the NASCAR season. But with these tracks traditionally come the worst crashes of the year, which pose a health risk for drivers and a financial burden for teams.
With the dangers and costs involved in stock car racing, the parties involved in the races themselves need to be given first priority. How much weight should TV ratings have over the team employees and drivers making it happen in the infield? How many drivers, off the record, really want to play a part in these pack racing events?
This weekend’s races left everyone with far more questions than answers. Everything from the playoff grid, the rain and the crashes will have to be addressed going forward as NASCAR looks to navigate through its new Next Gen era.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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