DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Welcome to the 2018 season and welcome back to our post-race takeaways column. Per usual, we’ll have some random thoughts to espouse after Cup Series races and this column will be the landing spot for them. Can you believe the season has already started?!
• Not everything is straightforward. Certainly not Sunday’s Daytona 500.
It’s completely OK if you feel conflicted following Austin Dillon’s contact with Aric Almirola while going for the Daytona 500 win on Sunday. Dillon was doing what he had to do to win the race and so was Almirola. Asking for each driver to do something different in the circumstances is foolish. What else was there to do in that moment?
If Almirola doesn’t move up, Dillon passes him. Maybe Almirola gets a chance to side-draft back ahead of Dillon but that’s far from a guarantee. The car on the outside always has the edge coming to the finish line.
If Dillon lets off the gas he likely lets Almirola win the race. And guarantees himself that he won’t. We have a hard time believing we wouldn’t do the same thing Dillon did if we were in his position.
We all could have seen Dillon’s move coming too. Nearly all of the wrecks earlier in the race came via blocking or contact to the rear bumper from a trailing car. With the cars lower to the ground on plate tracks this season they aren’t as stable. And the runs they get in the draft are far more significant than they were a year ago.
If Dillon lets off the gas, he might get himself wrecked. A week ago, Jimmie Johnson got run over in the Clash on the last lap because Kurt Busch slowed his car down via the side draft. The cars behind Johnson didn’t have time to react and he ended up in the wall with others.
There’s a decent chance that no matter what Dillon does there’s a wreck on the final lap. It just might have been a little further back in the pack if it didn’t involve Almirola.
If that doesn’t feel like a satisfying scenario to you, you’re not alone. Wrecks have long been part of the game at Daytona and an inevitable part of restrictor plate racing. But their significance felt different throughout Sunday’s race.
Perhaps it’s because of how they kept happening. Or because crashes took out so many good cars throughout the race. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
Sunday’s race was entertaining and unpredictable and has provided NASCAR with a host of on-track storylines. Those facts are undeniable. But while the 2018 Daytona 500 will be played on highlight reels from years to come, we’re not sure it’s going to be considered an iconic one.
• Speaking of wrecks, let’s talk about the one that ended the first stage.
It happened when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. went to block Ryan Blaney for second place on the final lap. Stenhouse was doing all he could to keep Blaney behind him to secure the nine points for finishing second in the stage.
The move didn’t work. And it had disastrous consequences for the drivers behind him. As Stenhouse got loose and slid, drivers behind him checked up. Erik Jones, Jimmie Johnson, Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon all ended up crashed.
This one is pretty straightforward. Stenhouse was racing like that because points were on the line. Awarding points at the end of stages was a blatant attempt to provide moments like we saw with Stenhouse frantically blocking Blaney. Stenhouse was operating within the framework of NASCAR’s reward system.
But was he operating too frantically? Are nine points in the first stage of the first race that valuable? Heck, it wasn’t even about nine points. Look at the GIF above. Blaney doesn’t have any drafting help. Stenhouse was blocking him for one or maybe two points at most. Are crazy blocks — especially when they reveal how you can defend positions late in the race — on lap 60 worth a couple points in the first race of the season in a points format that involves a points reset with 10 races to go?
• Dillon’s win is the second-straight time the winner of the Daytona 500 has only led the final lap. Kurt Busch did it last year.
He may also be the first driver to get his first two career wins at the Coca-Cola 600 and Daytona 500. Gonna look that up this week.
• Dillon’s win and Bubba Wallace’s second-place finish marks the first time in over 30 years that the No. 3 and No. 43 cars finished first and second in a Cup Series race. Pretty crazy given that Richard Petty Motorsports is now allied with Richard Childress Racing for 2018 and beyond.
• Matt DiBenedetto was running third before the last multi-car accident that set up the race’s overtime finish. It would have been his best career Cup Series finish and been a huge boost to the underfunded GoFAS Racing team.
Instead, DiBenedetto’s car ended up as a pile of junk and he finished 27th.
“That’s the thing that I have a love-hate relationship with superspeedways,” DiBenedetto said. “I dread coming to them because it’s so frustrating that everybody just tears up cars and it’s basically a demo derby, but, at the same time, we can also have really good runs and run really fast with our small, little team and group of guys.”
• Justin Marks finished 12th thanks to all the craziness during the race. It’s his best Cup Series finish and the best finish ever for Rick Ware Racing, which typically occupies spaces at the back of the pack. Heck, RWR has just one top five and four top-10 finishes in over 400 Xfinity Series starts.
• Fox’s coverage of the final lap Sunday was abysmal. The broadcast was using a camera from Almirola’s rear bumper live on the final lap when he got hit by Dillon — a perspective that doesn’t provide much context — and took what seemed like forever to get to a replay to show how Dillon made his winning move.
Yes, it was significant that the No. 3 car got to victory lane at Daytona 17 years to the day after Dale Earnhardt’s death and 20 years after Earnhardt’s lone Daytona 500 win. Focusing in on the emotions of Richard Childress Racing is necessary. But it’s also more necessary to provide the context to viewers of how the No. 3 car got to victory lane. And that context was lacking in the moments after Dillon’s win because of the camera angles Fox decided to use.
I didn’t get a chance to study Fox’s broadcast because I was in the Daytona press box, but based on the reactions on Twitter, the final hour of coverage was a disaster. I looked up far too frequently over the course of the final 50 laps and saw commercials on the television ahead of me.
I realize that a lack of cautions in the first 70 laps of the final stage didn’t help the network out. But Fox is in its 18th year of broadcasting NASCAR. Long green-flag runs aren’t a new occurrence to them.
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