The last time we visited Daytona, for the season opener we had a photo finish as Denny Hamlin beat Martin Truex Jr. by inches at the line. It was a shocking end to NASCAR’s Super Bowl that had seen Matt Kenseth dominate down the stretch only for an unexpected charge past him entering turn 3.
Who knew that last-lap unpredictability would last over the next six months?
Despite ratings that continue to decline, the state of NASCAR competition has appeared to stabilize a bit this season through a series of late-race drama. Three of 16 events this season have been settled by an official lead change during the final two laps, while a fourth last weekend saw two passes after the white flag, the last of which happened during the final turn on a road course. Ten events have seen a margin of victory of less than one second; two of them, at Phoenix and in February’s Daytona 500 have been settled by the razor-thin margin of a hundredth of a second. How close is that? Just try to click your stopwatch on and off so you can get 0.01 secs. You’ll be trying long into the night… and get an immediate sense of how close these final laps have been.
It is true aerodynamic problems continue to plague the sport, in particular when passing for the lead despite its new rules package. More technical upgrades, better branding and a blend of fresh faces up front is needed to fully stop the bleeding. But for the first time in several years, the optimism surrounding the sport down in Daytona to start the season has remained in place by the time the series came back around in July. Executives can only hope that feeling holds, leading to financial and audience recovery by the season finale at Homestead in November.
2016 Coke Zero 400
Time: 7:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Tony Stewart
“Smoke rises.” That’s no longer just an awkward fortune cookie phrase but a NASCAR fact as Stewart rose from the ashes of a lost season to claim victory at Sonoma Sunday afternoon. To do it, Stewart needed a bit of luck in the form of a debris caution that launched him into the lead after pitting; from there, he held off all chargers over the final 20 laps in a heated battle that resulted in a standing ovation from those in attendance in Napa Valley. During the white-flag lap, Denny Hamlin snuck inside of Stewart to take the lead but the three-time series champion dug deep, got back alongside Hamlin in the final turn and rooted the No. 11 car out of the way to take victory. Suddenly, a 45-year-old that looked every bit a driver past his prime during this shortened retirement tour has recovered from eight races missed due to a fractured vertebra and put himself in position to make the Chase. Just nine points out of 30th in the standings, Stewart is on track to qualify as long as six new faces don’t make it to Victory Lane by Richmond, and then? Who knows? For an example, see 2015 series champion Kyle Busch.
Who’s at the Back: Clint Bowyer
Bowyer’s easily become the most disappointing driver of the season’s first half despite lowered expectations after moving to underdog HScott Motorsports. The team, his home for only a year before Bowyer replaces Stewart in 2017, had high hopes for an upset victory at one of their better tracks (Bristol, Sonoma, one of the plate races) that would earn their primary car a postseason appearance. Instead? They look like the Bad News Bears, mechanical failures causing DNFs and difficult races that have Bowyer fuming. Electrical problems ended a promising weekend at Sonoma, put the No. 15 Chevy in dead last and left Bowyer on camera throwing his gloves and a mini tantrum on camera before getting taken back to the garage. At this point, the driver appears resigned to his fate, simply “playing out the string” while the team faces an increasingly uncertain fate for 2017.
Did Denny Hamlin let teammate Tony Stewart win? Conspiracy theorists abounded after Sonoma considering the way Hamlin slowed dramatically entering the final turn of the race, giving Stewart the edge on older tires to nudge him. Not so, says Hamlin, who emphatically defended himself during a series of Thursday questions at Daytona. “Ultimately, I made a mistake and thought we would maybe drag race to the line,” he said. “My biggest mistake I feel like is not recognizing the gap I had behind me. I needed to execute to make him make the decision [as to where to go entering that final turn]. Instead, I made the decision for him.” Hamlin, who apologized to his crew after the event, still has not won a Cup Series race on a road course.
FOX Sports finished its NASCAR coverage with declines in the majority of 16 events it covered, a combination of races on the mother ship and FOX Sports 1. That sobering reality led to the smallest average audience for the network since they first covered NASCAR live in 2001, raising questions as to whether there will be philosophy changes come 2017. Newcomer Jeff Gordon remains committed, quickly squelching rumors after emerging as a finalist to replace Michael Strahan on the popular morning show “Live With Kelly.” Darrell Waltrip and Mike Joy just finished their 17th seasons, respectively calling FOX races along with booth-turned-studio analyst Larry McReynolds.
NASCAR updated its race eligibility requirements to ensure both franchised (Charter teams) along with ones that have to qualify each week (Open teams) would be guaranteed spots in every Chase race. Under the old rules, rookie Ryan Blaney, driving for the “Open” Wood Brothers No. 21 would be forced to qualify on speed in a way the rest of the postseason field would not.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Winners in the first 16 races of the season. Among those that have not yet reached Victory Lane: Greg Biffle, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman.
DNFs apiece for Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Only BK Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto has more.
Playing The Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Traditionally, plate races are a crapshoot when it comes to setting your fantasy roster. But after what we saw here in February, anyone from Joe Gibbs Racing has to be at the top of your list. The four-car tandem of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth were a 1-2-3-4 bullet train for much of the Daytona 500 along with affiliated teammate Martin Truex Jr. The Toyotas still appear to have a handling edge the other manufacturers haven’t figured out and until they do? Even a backup Toyota, the kind Busch was forced to Friday morning after a wreck will be good enough to be up front for the majority of the race’s 160 laps.
Jamie McMurray, the 2010 Daytona 500 winner, has a handful of victories in restrictor plate races and has this event circled on the calendar. Firmly on the Chase bubble, a victory here means McMurray can breathe easy and shifts the focus toward improving his first round exit from the postseason last year. Weird fact? Since that Daytona victory McMurray, who counts this track among his favorites hasn’t collected another top-5 finish here. Clearly, he’s due.
Don’t let last year’s last-lap slam into the SAFER Barrier upside down scare you off. Austin Dillon, driving the iconic No. 3 car, has five straight top-15 finishes Mat Daytona to go along with a pole during his rookie season. Dillon, who’s developed a knack for plate racing, needs a solid run to get his Chase bid back on safer ground and this night races offers an opportunity for a breakout performance.
Regan Smith. Matt DiBenedetto. Landon Cassill. Chris Buescher. Virtually any underdog can be a solid pick here with the way Daytona levels the playing field; those plates give any Cinderella behind the wheel a chance to sneak through with a shocking run near the front. Of all those listed, my bets would be on Cassill and Smith. Both have plenty of experience in Cup cars, are paired with teams that know how to do well at these tracks, and have a history of cashing in with top-10 finishes. Smith, in particular flexed some muscle late at Daytona before fading back into the pack in February.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Dale Earnhardt Jr. earning the early edge at Daytona, posting 6/1 odds with Daytona 500 winner Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson close behind at 9/1. Brad Keselowski, the season’s other plate winner at Talladega and a dark horse here sits next at 12/1.
What I Think
One week after Stewart shocked us I’m going to once again pick off the grid. Austin Dillon weaves through a sea of Toyotas, gets the right help at the right time and avenges his horrifying 2015 flip with a trip to Victory Lane.
— 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.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)