Race Weekend Central

53 Days ‘Til Daytona: The 53rd (2011) Daytona 500

When compared to the first 52 editions, the 2011 Daytona 500 looked like the product of a dream. It reinvented the wheel of superspeedway racing, and it looked different from any Daytona 500 that had come before it.

For starters, Daytona International Speedway was beginning to show its age. The track was last repaved in 1979, and the 2010 Daytona 500 had lengthy delays after pieces of concrete surface broke apart in the middle of the action. After the conclusion of the 400-mile race later that July, Daytona was repaved in time for the start of the 2011 Speedweeks.

But that wasn’t the only big change, as the weekend also featured smaller restrictor plates, new tires and new front bumpers. When combined with the new pavement, the new changes led to an entirely new product at Daytona: tandem racing.

Instead of forming huge packs of cars like the Daytona 500s of the past, the 2011 500 only took two to tango. With a pushing car hooked to the rear end of a leading car, the two-car tandems would run fast enough to leave solo cars in the dust.

For this Daytona 500, everyone needed to find a partner at the dance. This was further facilitated by each team’s ability to communicate via radio with any other team in the middle of the race. This strategy aid helped with finding pairs during the restarts in addition to pulling off mid-race switches. The switches were necessary because a car that served as a pusher would eventually overheat without proper airflow. Thus, during long green flag runs, each pair of cars would eventually have to pull off the switcheroo, with the pushing car becoming the leading car and vice versa.

The tandems didn’t come without concerns, though. One of the concerns is that when the race came down to the final laps, the pushing cars were often out of the picture. They had to push the car in front to victory or risk freefalling through the field if they disconnected from the partner. It wasn’t impossible for the pushing car to win (as shown by Kevin Harvick’s textbook last lap pass of Jamie McMurray at the Talladega Superspeedway trioval in April 2010), but it was a tall order for them to pull it off.

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As the teams arrived for the start of Speedweeks, the Chevrolet teams under the Earnhardt-Childress engine alliance looked to have the upper hand. They swept the four superspeedway races in 2010, as McMurray won the Daytona 500, Harvick won at Talladega in April plus Daytona in July while Clint Bowyer won at Talladega in October.

But it was Kurt Busch who shined first, as he won the Feb. 13 Clash in a photo finish after Denny Hamlin was penalized for going below the yellow line. He then backed it up with a win in the first qualifying race, while Jeff Burton of Richard Childress Racing won the second.

The race’s front row consisted of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, while Kurt Busch, Burton, Regan Smith, Bowyer, Harvick, Michael Waltrip, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 10.

The green flag waved, and the back-and-forth action of the tandem drafts did not disappoint. There were five lead changes in the first five laps split between three drivers and 10 lead changes in the first 16 laps split between seven drivers. By the time the checkered flag waved, the race lead had changed hands a record 74 times, which broke 1974’s previous record of 59.

Twenty-two of the 43 drivers led at least one lap of the race, which bested the mark of 21 leaders set in 2010. No driver truly dominated the race, as 12 drivers managed to lead seven laps and only two managed to lead more than 20; Ryan Newman led the way with 37 circuits out front.

There was no point where the action out front grew stale, as there were only two occasions where a driver led more than 10 consecutive laps. The most competitive time out front came between laps 110 and 131, when there were 18 lead changes in a 22-lap span.

In addition to all the lead change records, the 2011 Daytona 500 also set the record for most cautions with 16. The previous record was 11, which had occurred in both 2005 and 2006. Because while the tandems created an exuberant amount of back-and-forth lead swapping out front, the drivers were still inexperienced with the pairings and prone to mistakes.

Most of the yellows came from pushes gone wrong, and with the relatively spread-out fields, the race had a plethora of single or multi-car crashes in the contrast to the Big Ones traditionally seen in pack racing. Of the 13 cautions for crashes, nine of them involved just one or two cars.

The Big One on lap 29 was the lone outlier, and it was the product of bad push. Jimmie Johnson, Gordon, Greg Biffle, Waltrip, David Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose were among the names taken out of contention in the 14-car pileup.

In terms of the winning strategy, all the drivers had to do was bide their time, avoid trouble and make their way to the front toward the end. Avoiding the trouble was the difficult part of the equation, as 13 cars failed to finish and 20 cars finished at least six laps down. Harvick was the first favorite out after a blown engine on lap 22, and his teammate Burton suffered the same fate on lap 92. More and more cars fell by the wayside as the laps ticked down, as Kenseth and Brad Keselowski crashed out on laps 133 and 166, respectively.

After 69 lead changes in the first 180 laps, the field restarted for the 14th time with Newman in the lead for a 15-lap shootout. Working with Hamlin, Newman restarted on the top and jumped in front of Hamlin after he laid back on the inside line. Behind the pair were five groups of two: Kurt Busch and Smith; Tony Stewart and Earnhardt; Bowyer and Kyle Busch; David Ragan and Trevor Bayne plus Bobby Labonte and Robby Gordon.

Newman and Hamlin held serve out front until lap 193, when Bowyer and Kyle Busch sailed on by after Newman and Hamlin got disconnected from one another. One lap later, and it was Smith and Kurt Busch that took their turn out front.

As the cars roared around to complete lap 196, it was Hamlin, Newman, Smith, Kurt Busch, Ragan and Bayne at the line in a virtual dead heat. Earnhardt and Stewart joined the party as they exited turn 2, and it was a bad push that sent Smith up the track and right into the path of Newman, Bowyer and Hamlin. Smith and Bowyer were able to make repairs to stay on the lead lap, but Hamlin and Newman fell off the lead lap and out of contention.

When the dust settled, it was the tandem of Ragan and Bayne out front as the field readied for an overtime finish to the Great American Race.

For Ragan, it was his fifth attempt at winning the 500. He had been with RFK Racing since his Cup rookie season in 2007, and he had something prove while continuing to search for his first Cup win. And with just two laps separating him from the biggest win of his career, Ragan made a costly error on the restart that torpedoed his winning chances.

Starting on the outside line, Ragan’s hope was to jump in front of Bayne on the inside. But as the field was approaching the trioval for the restart, Ragan jumped in front of Bayne on the inside to take the green flag. Changing lanes on a restart isn’t allowed until after a driver crosses the start/finish line, so Ragan was shown the black flag. After a wreck on the backstretch sent the race into another overtime restart, Ragan restarted at the back of the pack and finished 14th.

Ragan’s penalty meant that Bayne took the lead for the first time all day.

He was an unfamiliar face for one who had only watched the Cup Series. Just a day removed from his 20th birthday, the Daytona 500 marked Bayne’s second career Cup start after being a regular face in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Michael Waltrip Racing and RFK. He finished 17th in his first Cup start, which came at Texas Motor Speedway in November 2010.

Now in start no. 2, just two laps separated him from Daytona and NASCAR immortality.

The final restart saw Bayne and Labonte lined up on the inside with Stewart and Mark Martin on the outside. The field made it to the white flag with Bayne and Labonte out front but with Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya breathing down their necks.

Bayne and Labonte remained out front through the final set of turns, but it was now Carl Edwards and David Gilliland who were looking to spoil the party with a full head of steam after Kurt Busch and Montoya lost touch and lost all their momentum in turn 3.

Edwards had a run out of turn 4 to get underneath Labonte and move to second, but he had no answer for Bayne, who hugged the yellow line and took the checkered flag in one of NASCAR’s greatest upsets.

Bayne became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 at age 20, besting Gordon’s 1997 record by more than five years. For Wood Brothers Racing, Bayne’s win marked its first Daytona 500 win since 1976 and their first Cup win since 2001. It was the team’s 98th Cup victory, putting them just two wins shy of the century mark.

The big win allowed the team to pick up additional sponsorship in the 2011 season, and that allowed Bayne and the No. 21 team to run a larger schedule than previously intended.

Bayne continued to compete part-time with the Wood Brothers until 2015, when he moved to RFK for his first full-time Cup season. Now out of Cup and running select Xfinity races when the opportunity presents, the Daytona 500 proved to be Bayne’s only Cup win.

But what a win it was.

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For the Wood Brothers, the team entered a technical alliance with Team Penske in the 2015 season. In 2016, the No. 21 returned full-time with Ryan Blaney for the first time since the 2007 season, and Blaney picked up the team’s 99th win at Pocono Raceway in 2017. The team has been full-time ever since, and they continue to chase win no. 100 to this day.

The Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July featured the same tandem racing seen in the Daytona 500, and Ragan scored redemption from his February blunder with his first Cup win in Daytona’s 400-miler. That race also set a Daytona 400-mile race record of 57 lead changes.

Despite the relative success of tandem racing, the superspeedway package was altered so that pack racing returned for the 2012 season and beyond.

That makes the 2011 Daytona 500 one of a kind. It was only Daytona 500 with tandem drafting, and it gave us records for the most lead changes, the most leaders, the most cautions and the youngest winner. Those records will stand for a long time, and it’s possible that the lead change record may never be broken.

There have been 65 years of Daytona 500 history, and so much of it was set in the race’s 53rd running. There may never be another race quite like it.

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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