For Monster Energy, their tenure as NASCAR Cup Series title sponsor couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. The car they sponsor, Kurt Busch, wound up in Victory Lane at the 500, the veteran breaking a 0-for-15 drought in the sport’s biggest race. Their Monster Girls, while wearing less clothing than some wholesome fans thought necessary, made the type of glitzy, PR splash that got them positive attention and distracted from a soft activation (How soft? It was near impossible to find Monster Energy drinks at Daytona. Can you imagine, a sold-out crowd of 101,000 and you don’t make your drink available in the infield for race one!)
Most importantly, the sport’s TV ratings, the subject of continued criticism in the face of a $4 billion 10-year deal suddenly showed some signs of life. Overnights for the 500 were up seven percent in the Nielsens; final numbers will likely push higher for a race that featured 37 lead changes, including three in the final three laps. The winner was in doubt until the final turn; Busch himself led only once, the first Harley J. Earl trophy holder in history to only be in front for the last lap.
It was the type of parity that bodes well for NASCAR in what must be a recovery year for 2017. Here are five storylines that remain from the 500 this Tuesday I expect to play out over the next few weeks of the season…
1. New Car. Stewart-Haas Racing? No Problem.
Busch’s 500 victory put the bow on a very successful Speedweeks for Stewart-Haas Racing. The team, which switched from Chevy to Ford in the offseason entered Daytona shrouded in controversy. Danica Patrick’s primary sponsor, Nature’s Bakery, opted out and promptly filed a lawsuit against the team; Tony Stewart’s replacement behind the wheel, Clint Bowyer, remained without a primary backer after 5-Hour Energy deserted him for Toyota. The team also was adjusting to a new set of alliances, Team Penske replacing the Hendrick Motorsports affiliation that was crucial in earning SHR’s two championships, with Stewart in 2011 and Kevin Harvick in ’14.
Turns out all those obstacles did nothing to weaken the resolve of the four-car operation. Harvick, while failing to win during Speedweeks, led the most laps in the 500 (50) and was the favorite to win before getting caught up in one of the race’s big wrecks. Patrick started the week fourth in the exhibition Clash, ran top 10 in each of the race’s first two stages and looked competitive until she, too, got caught up in a crash along with Bowyer.
“It was definitely the right race for us,” she said. “We were having a really good weekend. The most fun I had at Daytona.”
SHR can only hope such confidence carries over to the non-plate tracks, intermediate ovals where Patrick has mostly struggled throughout her career.
And then there’s Busch. Arguably holding the strongest resume of any active driver without a 500 win, he finally checked that off the bucket list with the perfect mix of staying within the lead pack and conserving fuel. Despite being involved in a crash himself, like 35 others in the 40-car field, crew chief Tony Gibson did the perfect patch job and kept the No. 41 capable of running near the front.
Their reward? A 500 victory just two years after Busch was suspended from this race due to domestic violence accusations. (The allegations from ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, never proven have been replaced in the limelight with the sheer happiness of Busch with new wife Ashley Van Metre.)
“Here we are sharing Victory Lane together as a team, with my new bride, a crew chief that grows up in the shadows of the grandstands here at Daytona,” he said. “For (co-owner) Gene Haas to believe in me years ago... this is an incredible feeling.”
Co-owner Tony Stewart, once skeptical of the hire is now more than on board. After going 0-for-18 in the 500 during his own career, he joked, ”If I knew all it took was retiring to win the 500, I’d have done it years ago.”
2. Segment Racing = More Aggression
NASCAR’s new format, splitting the race into three segments with points scored after each one, changed the style of racing throughout the day. The side-by-side action, always a part of plate racing was fast and furious almost continuously through the pack. The aggression was more than we’ve seen at Daytona in about a decade, in particular toward the end of each segment and from 45 to 25 laps to go in the race.
That said, more action meant more mangled sheet metal and a dip into the pocketbooks for car owners. Some were unnerved by the level of crashes throughout the race; during a 42-lap stretch from Lap 106 to Lap 148, wrecks eliminated 15 cars, some 38 percent of the starting grid, while making several others look like they just completed a race at the short track of Martinsville – not a 200 mph superspeedway.
Still, reviews for the format were mostly positive as drivers agreed NASCAR had to do something to shake up the monotony of racing early in 500-mile events. The hope is with these shorter segments, splitting most races into three “sprints” between 150 and 200 miles, the end result is better competition and more fan support.
“Isn’t that what we’re trying to do, make some of these races more exciting throughout the middle of the race?” said third-place finisher AJ Allmendinger. “In the past, you’ve seen a lot of single-file racing. (Now,) everybody is constantly trying to position themselves to win the race. We’re going to drive as hard as we can.
“Isn’t that what we want? If nobody’s watching, it doesn’t matter.”
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Fine
The sport’s Most Popular Driver had a very well-documented comeback at Speedweeks. And while the end result didn’t sit well with Junior fans, most of whom left the track after he was involved in a wreck at Lap 106, the 42-year-old proved he’s back to 100 percent after losing over six months to post-concussion syndrome.
“I really enjoyed the whole week,” he said. “We had a lot of fun. Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the racetrack. It meant a lot to me. I’m just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result for all our fans. We had a great car.
“At least we went out leading the race. It’s going to be a fun season and we’ve got pretty high spirits.”
Earnhardt, who insisted his health was great following the hit, will race for the next few months before deciding on whether to sign one final contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports. So far, it looks like he’ll be fine and the decision will be his to make, not forced by his health. Leading eight laps and running top 5 at one of his favorite tracks will certainly help push him to stick around.
4. Toyotas Have Tough Start
Remember last year, when the Toyotas spent most of the day running 1-2-3-4-5 in their dominance of the Daytona 500? This time around, not a single one finished inside the top 5 and only one cracked the top 10 (a retiring Michael Waltrip ran eighth in his final NASCAR start).
It was a weird week for a group that will have their share of growing pains going forward. Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing, in particular appeared to have their hands full after expanding to a second car in the offseason with Erik Jones. Their chassis came to Daytona out of balance, Jones was never competitive (making the rookie mistake of missing his stall) and Truex was a step behind most of the week.
For a split second, it looked like it might all work out. Truex inherited the lead when pole-sitter Chase Elliott ran out of gas on lap 197 but couldn’t hold it, eventually running out himself en route to 13th.
The heartbreak felt there was more like frustration foe Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch blew a tire, causing the day’s first big wreck, and wound up 38th after winning the race’s first stage. Busch, who let his emotions boil over criticized Goodyear for “not having tires that hold air” and may now be the best active driver winless at the 500 following the win of older brother Kurt.
But Kyle Busch’s problems at the 500 weren’t just due to Goodyear. Toyota had a bizarre strategy of trying to short-pit in the early segments, hoping to end them in the lead by creating their own draft behind the leaders and gaining on the pack until the rest stopped. It didn’t work. Their draft was three-tenths of a second slower when all were hooked up together and the whole experiment, while noble, just became a bit of a waste.
5. Underdogs Can Still Have Their Day... At Plate Tracks
The wrecks littered contenders all over the Daytona garage but, as is often the case in plate races, it gave underdogs a chance to step up. Aric Almirola, running a single car for consolidated Richard Petty Motorsports, gave the team a top-5 finish (fourth) after going without one in 2016. Ditto for Paul Menard (fifth), coming off one of the worst seasons of his career for Richard Childress Racing.
Further back? Michael Waltrip was eighth in that last start, driving for underfunded Premium Motorsports, who scored their first top 10 as an organization. Go Fas Racing, a single-car Ford team followed suit with Matt DiBenedetto (ninth), just the second top-10 finish of the third-year driver’s career.
And then? There’s Brendan Gaughan. Driving for a team in Beard Motorsports that was running their first Cup race, he ran 11th, his best effort since he was a rookie on the Cup Series way back in 2004. It was a best-case scenario for a team only scheduled to run the plate races this year.
That extended parity, perhaps is the next test for NASCAR as they look to build upon Daytona’s momentum. A handful of these smaller teams won’t be entered at Atlanta, simply because the chance of a strong finish will likely elude them at intermediate tracks. The sport needs to find a way to bring unpredictability to all its speedways in hopes of convincing more owners to jump on board and run the full schedule.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)