The Daytona 500 was a tale of two races. The first 300 miles saw competitive yet patient driving. The last 200 saw urgent and breathtaking moves. And potholes can take some of the credit.
Bigger restrictor plates and less bump-drafting regulation by NASCAR made for a highly anticipated race. Chassis handling on the temperature sensitive asphalt played an unexpected role.
The Great American Race began in bright sunshine and was the first under NASCAR’s new unified, earlier start times. Warmer track temperatures followed suit, as did a slicker racing surface. Pavement has a petroleum base and in sunlight, oils from the composition come to the top, making a slicker track for tires to get a hold of. Teams planned for an afternoon finish and car setups reflected that. Crews tried to tighten up cars while racers complained of a lack of grip.
Sprint Cup drivers have sometimes compared restrictor plate racing to driving down the highway. On Sunday that line took a literal turn. The 500 needed to be halted twice for pothole repairs testing the patience of fans and competitors. This also pushed the race’s continuation from the afternoon to the evening and darkness.
Lacking sunlight, the tire grip increased and so did the driver’s bravado. Prior to the speedway’s repairs the courtesy of the racers was evident. Many cars fought handling issues. Those that were fast went to the lead while those that weren’t bided their time.
Desperation and courage reared its head in the late stages. The cooler track surface fixed many teams handling woes and what was once smaller packs racing among themselves, became a tightly bunched group showing no manners and all determination.
Sheet metal was scraped and paint jobs were ruined in the darkness. Better tire grip caused some to treat Daytona’s turn one as if it were Martinsville’s turn three.
Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, and Greg Biffle brought early season Bristol images as they tussled for the lead on a late race restart. The bumping allowed Jamie McMurray to move into position for his win. Cooler track temperatures helped provide something the race was lacking on the warmer, slicker asphalt some four hours earlier.
The nighttime Shootout eight days prior was a sight for close competition and daring moves. Grip level was higher.
Early race action in Thursday’s first qualifying Duel was noticeably different than its later laps when a cloud cover moved in. Fortunately the checkered flag waved in both races under an overcast sky, which certainly didn’t hurt the quality of the outstanding finishes.
Teams set up well for a slick track excelled early in the 500. Those that adapted to the darkness were near the front at the end. And they weren’t always the same names.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who co-hosts the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com)
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