Daytona 500 report

NASCAR

Hendrick Motorsports’ fleet of Chevrolets looked darn near unbeatable at Daytona last week but Joey Logano drove a superb race in one of Roger Penske’s two Fords battling hard all the way with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. In the end Logano was able to lead the race for 31 laps, including the last dozen, to score his first Daytona 500 victory and Penske’s second win in NASCAR’s biggest race.

“The restrictor plate tracks are our weakest tracks,” Logano remarked in victory circle. “We were terrible at them last year and we’ve worked hard to get better this year. This is unbelievable! I’m in complete awe. I don’t know what to say.

“I think as a kid any young racer dreams of winning the Daytona 500. It’s the biggest race we have all year and there’s just so much build-up so there’s a lot of anxiety and nerves before the race. To be able to pull that car in victory lane and see my team there and my family and friends, it couldn’t be any better. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Qualifying races

For the first time Thursday’s pair of 150-mile qualifying races were run at night. This was all about being on primetime television as Fox and NBC begin new long-term deals with NASCAR. Fox is paying NASCAR $2.4 billion for the next eight years and NBC is ponying up $4.4 billion for 10 years. But the downside to running at night in February was also made clear to all as a cold front swept across Florida bringing record low temperatures which kept most fans in the warmth of their hotel rooms or homes.

A tiny turnout – the smallest I’ve seen in 42 years – scattered themselves through the grandstands for the qualifying races. Those few hardy souls were rewarded with a demonstration of strength from Hendrick Motorsports in particular and also Joe Gibbs Racing as Hendrick Chevrolets and Gibbs Toyotas dominated the evening’s proceedings.

Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon finished 1-2 for Hendrick in the first race while Jimmie Johnson scored a commanding win in the second qualifier. Earnhardt came from the back of the field to take the lead just after half-distance and control the final 17 laps much like Johnson in the second race.

“I’ve had cars that were real fast running on their own but didn’t draft well.” Earnhardt said. “Then I’ve had cars that run real slow by themselves but draft awesome. But this car is so good it finishes a lot of moves for you. It surprised me how good it is. I feel like that car made the job a lot easier.”

The only real challenge to Hendrick’s top three cars came from three of Gibbs’ Toyotas driven by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Kenseth led the first 17 laps of the opening race and was in front a few more times but got shuffled to the back, finishing 17.

Busch and Edwards ran together at the front of the field in the second race but Busch had to go to the back of the restart line after speeding in the pits during the race’s only round of pitstops. Kyle showed his car’s strength by working his way quickly through the field. He and new team-mate Edwards then did their best to try to dislodge Johnson from the lead but the six-time champion was too strong for them.

“These cold conditions will lull all of us into thinking our cars are handling great,” Johnson warned. “But tonight was prime conditions. With cold track temps there was no slipping or sliding. Tonight it was hard to get your car handling poorly. The flip side is if it’s handling bad tonight, you’ve got a ton of work to do.”

Indeed, race day was much warmer with temperatures climbing into the 80s, playing havoc with some set-ups. Neither of the Busch brothers made the start. Kurt was sidelined by NASCAR who have suspended him indefinitely in the wake of domestic abuse charges from his former girlfriend. Younger brother Kyle’s career also took a knock when he broke his right leg and left foot in an accident near the end of Saturday’s second division 300-mile Xfinity series race putting him out of action for a couple of months at least.

The 500

From the start the 500 was dominated by the Hendrick Chevys. Jimmie Johnson led the opening 12 laps before Jeff Gordon took over with Dale Jr dogging his tracks. Joey Logano’s Penske Ford was able to fight with them for a while and Logano led a handful of laps before Gordon and Earnhardt re-established themselves at the front of the pack.

Johnson brushed the wall early in the race and fell back, struggling with a push or understeer before getting a drive-through penalty because his crew jumped over the pitwall too soon on a mid-race stop. The mistake cost him a lap but crew chief Chad Knaus was able to get his man back on the lead lap at the next round of pitstops.

But by half-distance the other three Hendrick Chevys were in command, running 1-2-3 with Gordon continuing to lead from Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt. Fifteen more laps, however, and Earnhardt took the lead as Gordon and Kahne were shuffled back.

After 140 of 200 laps crowd favourite Earnhardt was looking good at the head of the pack chased by defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr, Brad Keselowski and Logano. Johnson had made it back to ninth place, running tandem with Gordon in 10th.

Five laps later things changed again when Logano charged to the front with Earnhardt holding onto second and Johnson and Gordon emerging in third and fourth ahead of Harvick. Logano retained the lead after the next round of pitstops pursued by Johnson, Keselowski, Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Harvick as Gordon fell back to 10th.

Daytona top 10

1 Joey Logano Penske Ford
2 Kevin Harvick Stewart-Haas Chevy
3 Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevy
4 Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota
5 Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevy
6 Casey Mears Germain Chevy
7 Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota
8 Martin Truex Jr Furniture Row Chevy
9 Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevy
10 Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford

With 100 miles to go Keselowski’s engine blew and Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman slid into the wall on his oil. A long yellow followed and some of the mid and backfield runners came in for some fuel and tyres but all the leaders stayed out.

The restart came with 19 laps to go with Johnson leading from Logano, Earnhardt, Clint Bowyer, Hamlin, Edwards, Gordon and Harvick. In the shuffle Earnhardt got stuck on his own in the middle of the track and fell back to 15th as Logano asserted himself ahead of Hamlin, Gordon, Bowyer, Truex, Harvick and Gordon.

For a few laps Logano broke away on his own, helped by a push from Bowyer, but everyone soon reeled him in and everyone was packed together, running furiously now in three-wide rows. With only three laps to go however Ty Dillon blew a front tyre and was collected by Justin Allgaier, bringing out a yellow and then a red flag so that the track could be cleaned up for the final sprint to the chequered flag.

Thus did the race come to a close with one of NASCAR’s patented green-white-chequered flag finishes. Logano timed the restart perfectly helped again by Bowyer as he jumped clear of the pack to score his first Daytona 500 victory. Harvick took second from Earnhardt who made all the right moves at the end. Hamlin finished fourth with Johnson taking fifth place while Austin Dillon ran into Jeff Gordon’s tail on the backstretch on the last lap triggering a multi-car shunt in the midfield as the leaders thundered to the finish.

“I was trying to stay relaxed,” Logano said. “That was the hard part. You get a red flag and it gives you the opportunity to think of everything. Clint Bowyer was the best pusher out there today and he was able to give me a great push at the end. He was slamming into my back bumper and that’s what we needed to get out front and into victory lane. We had a really fast car today and I had to make the right moves and not make any mistakes.”

Roger Penske praised his 24-year-old driver for showing great maturity at Daytona. “He was never further back than 10th, I think,” Penske observed. “He managed the race well and when you’ve got Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon and all those guys behind him he was able to play fair but knew what he had to do. Believe me, with three Hendrick cars behind you, your odds aren’t very good. We were able to steal one from them today.

“I knew that he was going to be a team player,” Penske added. “And that’s really paid off because there’s great transparency between Brad and Joey. When Joey joined the team he won races and I think this is just the start of him being a guy at the top for a long time.”

Second-placed Harvick commented on the closing battle to the chequered flag. “We were all pushing and shoving,” Harvick said. “It was fun racing there at the end. I was in the top lane with Bowyer and we scraped off the wall a little bit. That’s when you knew you were high enough to push the guy in front. But it’s fun.”

Earnhardt freely admitted he lost his chance to win with a bad move near the end of the 500. “I made a mistake on the restart with 20 laps to go and didn’t do what I needed to do,” Earnhardt said. “I got shuffled to the middle but I had a fast car and was able to get some spots back and get a good finish. I’m pretty happy about that but you don’t get cars that good too often. You like to try to capitalise so I’m a little disappointed.”

Next year will see the debut of the re-modeled Daytona Speedway. A $400 million rebuild of the track’s grandstands has been underway since last summer and the finished job will be formally unveiled for next year’s Rolex 24 Hours and the 58th running of the 500.

The backstretch grandstands, sparsely populated for many years, will be demolished and removed over the course of the summer. Meanwhile, the new front stretch grandstands are already taking shape. They’re much taller than the old grandstands featuring three levels of larger, wider seats, down from a total of 150,000 to just over 100,000. Five expanded entranceways will lead to a series of escalators and elevators designed to carry fans to their seats with a minimum of walking or stair-climbing. Wi-fi will also be available everywhere as Daytona attempts to set a new standard in customer comfort for America’s superspeedways.

 

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