Who … should you be talking about after the race?
His team left him a note in his racecar that read, “We Believe. TODAY.” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. didn’t see it until after the race was over — and he’d won the 2023 Daytona 500. Stenhouse worked his way through a pair of overtime restarts (and subsequent multi-car crashes) to take his third career NASCAR Cup Series victory and his second overall at Daytona International Speedway.
Stenhouse lacked one thing most superspeedway drivers can’t do without: a teammate. Stenhouse races for single-car JTG Daugherty Racing, leaving him without a natural partner on track. So, he worked with anyone he could and put himself in position to capitalize on any opportunity.
Had the final caution flown before the white flag, Stenhouse would have been in trouble. He ran out of fuel at the finish, not even having enough in the tank to drive to victory lane. He got there, though, and celebrated an underdog win, the second time in the last three years that a smaller team without the funding of the favorites claimed the win in the Great American Race.
And don’t forget Travis Pastrana. The 39-year-old Pastrana has driven just about anything with wheels over the course of his career — except for a Cup Series car. The X-Games gold medalist had one season driving for Roush Fenway Racing in the Xfinity Series … 10 years ago.
Climbing behind the wheel of the No. 67 for 23XI Racing, Pastrana had to qualify for the race on speed and he did it, locking himself in on his qualifying lap. He started 40th on Sunday (Feb. 19) and did what some of the most experienced drivers in the field couldn’t: avoid trouble. Pastrana finished an impressive 11th in his Cup debut.
What … is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
After another weekend that saw upwards of half the field involved in at least one incident and 16 cars in the garage before the checkers due to crashes, could it be time for NASCAR to do something to break up the giant packs of cars that has become synonymous with Daytona and Talladega (and now Atlanta as well)?
Smaller packs of cars, think 5-6 in a group, used to be the norm, with one group able to run down another and make moves before splitting into smaller groups again throughout a race.
Sure, high-speed, close-quarters racing has always caused crashes that can get pretty intense. But a dozen or more cars in one wasn’t just another day at a superspeedway, either.
The racing was for sure different before the big packs. The introduction of restrictor plates did play a role, but it wasn’t the only factor, as smaller groups stuck around for another decade or so. Smaller groups of cars hardly meant boring racing, though. Some races were more exciting than others, of course, but there were some great ones, too.
Whether today’s fans would accept smaller packs is another story. The Big One makes the highlight reels and many fans love the mayhem. Would they watch without the packs and the wrecks? That might be the real question.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Alex Bowman was trying to become the first driver since 2000 to win the Daytona 500 from the pole. He gave up the lead early on but settled in near the front and ran with the leaders much of the afternoon, getting nipped by inches in stage two by stage winner Ross Chastain. A spin with just over 50 to go (that the broadcast missed) could have been more costly than it was and Bowman was in it at the end. He finished fifth when the dust cleared.
Last year’s winner Austin Cindric ran a smart race, avoiding trouble in the first half (though once narrowly as Ryan Blaney and Tyler Reddick triggered a crash that Cindric just squeezed through unscathed). His luck ran out in the second half, though. Involved in both of the last two multi-car incidents, Cindric wound up finishing 23rd.
Kyle Busch was among several drivers joining new teams but was the highest-profile driver on the move this year. A pit-road speeding penalty in stage two cost him a lap, but a Ryan Blaney – Tyler Reddick crash soon after sent him back to the lead lap.
From there it was a story we’ve heard before: Busch was close enough to the win to smell it before the bottom fell out, but a spin by Daniel Suarez changed it all. As the race stretched into overtime, Busch was looking like a shoo-in with teammate Austin Dillon pushing him to the front, and the pair then holding point on a late restart. But Busch and Dillon got shuffled back before Dillon was taken out of the picture when William Byron sent him around — and then the final crash of the night, when Aric Almirola clipped Pastrana, ended Busch’s hopes with a 19th-place finish.
Kevin Harvick, in his final Daytona 500, showed that while he may be retiring after 2023, he can still run with the best. Harvick was collected in an early incident but came out relatively unscathed. Running in the top five in the second half, Harvick was tagged in one late-race incident but still had enough car under him to finish a solid 12th.
Jimmie Johnson, who just couldn’t stay away, climbed back into a Cup car for his first time since 2020. He started at the back but worked his way forward as soon as the green flag waved, gaining 11 spots in the opening 25 laps. Johnson finished eighth in the first stage and proved to be a top-10 threat in the closing laps until he was collected in the crash triggered by Byron. In the end, though, Johnson found one thing he’d been looking for in his last couple of full-time seasons: he had fun racing.
When … was the moment of truth?
It looked like Brad Keselowski’s race to lose.
Then it looked like Busch’s race to lose.
And then it was anyone’s game. The race was relatively clean, until it wasn’t. In the first 182 laps, there was one incident that had nine cars listed as involved, with all but three continuing.
In the remaining 30 laps, 12 of which were overtime, there were four separate incidents, involving a total of 29 cars, some tallying more than once. It made for a dramatic finish with an unexpected winner, but it’s hard to say the best driver won.
Superspeedway races have become races of survival and Sunday’s show was no different. It’s not that skill goes out the window; some drivers are better speedway racers than others for sure, but even they’re at the mercy of the desperate and the inexperienced.
The key in any race is for drivers to position themselves to be there at the end. That absolutely happened Sunday — yet the race still came across as more of a giant roulette contest than a game of strategy.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
The grind starts now. While the Daytona 500 is as important as any other race in terms of paying points and getting the winner into the playoffs, the next 35 weeks are what will make the 2023 season.
The next race will mark the final contest on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway. Often maligned for less-than-exciting races (though they have improved as the pavement has aged), ACS will undergo a massive overhaul, reconfiguring to a short track. The final draft of the new track hasn’t been published, but the track will be off the schedule for at least a year as the transformation happens, and it could be 2026 before it reappears.
Expect the ACS swan song to pick up where last year’s intermediate races left off — with potential to go out on a high note.
How … much did you miss if you watched at home?
It started with the first lead change of the day and didn’t really get much better. Responding to a fan who questioned the stage break cautions, FOX’s response that the breaks mean 20% fewer commercials during the race … in which case, would there even be a race on the broadcast?
Among the commercial breaks that missed lead changes and the first multi-car crash of the day (and didn’t cut back in though it was shown, kind of, on the side-by-side coverage), There was some good racing — comers and goers, action to be had — but between the commercial breaks and focus on other things, fans missed a lot of the actual race.
Sadly, it’s not uncommon. There have been a lot of good races over the last couple of years and the racing is the best it’s been in a long time … but to the average fan, it doesn’t look much different because television coverage doesn’t show it.
In a NASCAR that is catering to television more and more, including fans at several ovals as well as road courses having to watch in the rain because it’s a novelty on TV, the coverage should bring fans the real race. It’s not about the pre-approved storylines and it’s not about the leader all day, even if he’s popular.
The fans who tune in deserve better — and frankly a better reason to keep tuning in. The broadcasts are at the point where they’re hurting the sport as much as helping it. If the racing is improving, imagine what it would be like if the coverage highlighted that instead of using the same tired tactics.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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NASCAR will never break up the big packs because;
big packs = big wrecks = big ratings
Here is a 7th question:
Does Jimmie Johnson’s return to active Cup racing defer his eligibility to be inducted into the HOF? I believe it is 5 years from the time of retirement, so does the clock start over now that he is driving again?
“It made for a dramatic finish with an unexpected winner, but it’s hard to say the best driver won.”
It has been that way for years now since NA$CAR and the networks have bought into the idea that multi-car wrecks are what the “fans” want. The networks need them for more commercial breaks.
That line from the network that there are 20% fewer commercials is an absolute joke for anyone watching the broadcasts.
Why couldn’t anyone put some gas in the 47 to get it to VL?
And then there is this:
I like the idea of the Commercial 500 with some Daytona 500 thrown in.
I have been watching Nascar for 65 years. And to me it’s getting worse and worse. Stage racing is making a farce of Nascar. It’s all follow the leader. And for those of us watching on TV Mike Joy is so far over the hill he needs to be replaced. And the coverage on Fox is a joke. So many things happened that they never showed or were very late showing. In 65 years this is the first time I have shut the sound off while watching. And a few times I actually changed the channel and watched something else.
A good race ruined by an idiotic ending.