Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona
In golf, there’s a nickname for Saturday competition: Moving Day. It’s a point at which either people put themselves in position to win, shoot an ugly round that takes them off the leaderboard or top the charts to start the final 18 holes on Sunday as the one to beat.
In essence, the Chase race took on the same complexion during a night of survival in Daytona. It was a race won by the points leader with those fighting to overtake him in September split into two categories: feast or famine. There were 11 drivers, eighth through 18th in the standings entering the night, who were separated by just 42 points. Six of those men finished outside the top 30, parked inside the garage due to wrecks. Two more, hanging back in a last-lap melee, wound up 17th and 21st respectively, leaving their nights somewhat of a wash. That left a wide opening for three others, each of whom finished 10th or better to capitalize on a rare wide swing in the points.
Is it a be-all, end-all for Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, who all surged up the ladder after strong runs? Not yet. But looking at the eight races left on the regular season schedule there’s maybe one or two other opportunities, max, to collect this much on their rivals in one shot. The cookie-cutter racetracks just don’t lend themselves to wild finishes, while places like New Hampshire don’t have races long enough for mechanical problems to materialize. That means when Richmond comes and names like Kurt Busch are in contention to grab a coveted Chase spot, we’ll look back on this night as the one in which they “moved” into proper position to make it happen.
In “Through the Gears” we find out what else Daytona dealt us to talk about…
FIRST GEAR: A Sweep … Which Sweeps “Cracks in the Armor” Under the Rug
Last year, Jimmie Johnson had just eight finishes outside the top 15 — an outstanding record. Four of those occurred in plate races, a 100 percent disaster rate that included three DNFs and just one lap completed in the sport’s signature event, the Daytona 500. Rest assured the No. 48 team took that failure to heart, spending the offseason perfecting the plate-race version of the Gen-6 car so lightning wouldn’t strike twice.
Now, we’ve seen Johnson thunder through the field in a different way, leading a dominating 94 laps this Independence Day weekend in completing the first sweep of Cup Series Daytona races since Bobby Allison in 1982. How surprising was Johnson’s feat? He had only led 77 laps in his career at Daytona leading into the night — and that includes two victories at the sport’s Great American Race (2006, 2013).
For Johnson to flex his muscles in such fashion makes him the odds-on favorite to collect title No. 6 in November. But even in victory, just like several times the last six weeks, this five-time champ showcased some vulnerability. There was a perplexing late-race move, leaving teammate Kasey Kahne stranded when he was working as a virtual blocker. Moving to the top line, it eventually created an accident between Marcos Ambrose and Kahne once Johnson went to block on the backstretch. If the No. 9 car doesn’t wreck there and completes the pass, the No. 48 is sliding back through the field. (P.S. It could be the nail in the coffin for Ambrose, still winless on ovals and who has struggled on the Cup level to the point he could wind his way back to Australia in the offseason).
So there’s hope … just not much. Johnson’s four victories tie him with Matt Kenseth for most on tour, but that total could easily be seven were it not for three self-inflicted mistakes. It’s the No. 48 team’s racetrack right now. Everyone else is just playing on it.
SECOND GEAR: Kurt Busch’s Big-Time Comeback
Furniture Row Racing has done everything possible this season to shoot itself in the foot. There have been mechanical failures, poor pit calls, driver-induced penalties for speeding on pit road … and that’s without the assorted bad luck that finds its way into every team’s season. Employing a driver in Kurt Busch legendary for his ugly temper, there were plenty of times where a blowup, while never justified, would at least be understandable given the circumstances.
The catch, though, is that he hasn’t lost his cool — and finds himself on the brink of Chase qualification. If anything, he’s kept the team cool through a series of incidents, driving the car back into the top 5 and top 10 after digging a deep hole throughout the course of the season. Now ninth in points after a third straight top 10, it’s not a lock this team will get into the Chase. But the man behind the wheel is setting himself up for it, which is a miraculous effort considering the organization has never finished in the top 20 in points. Other drivers have received more recognition throughout the season, but Busch may be the big winner in the end, as he’s giving the best chance for a sponsor outside of FRR to take a flyer on him were he to end up in the seat of the No. 29 at Richard Childress Racing next season.
THIRD GEAR: Who’s the Big Loser?
I mentioned at the top that of 11 teams eighth through 18th in points, six finished outside the top 30 in Daytona. Certainly, wrecks were not what the doctor ordered for drivers like Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne (among others). But I’m not so worried about any of those three. Logano has momentum on his side, having posted six straight top-11 finishes before Saturday night while the other two have wins to fall back on. Chances are, Kahne will grab a second and I think Truex has put himself in position to make the postseason no matter what.
Instead, the guy I’m watching wasn’t even in that group of six. For Brad Keselowski, Daytona offered an opportunity to make a move. The team finished in the top 5 there in February with a front end that looked like a giant trash bag. Proving that strength, he was in the front row on Saturday night during a restart with less than 30 laps to go. But a series of bad-luck decisions in the draft left the No. 2 car 21st at the checkered flag, still sitting on the outside of the top 10 looking in. Now, the series heads to Loudon, Indianapolis and Pocono, all tracks where I don’t expect this team to contend for the win. And who knows what NASCAR’s penalties will be for those illegal roof flap spacers that the team — along with 15 others — was busted for in Daytona. If Keselowski hasn’t entered crisis mode behind the scenes at this point, I don’t know what it’s going to take.
FOURTH GEAR: Pondering the Future of Plate Racing
Saturday marked the third straight plate event where pack racing has returned to Cup competition, courtesy of the sport’s new Gen-6 bodies. But at times, the slow-moving lines made it feel like fans were watching two giant snarls of traffic on the highway. The sensation of “feeling the speed” wasn’t there; neither was the ability to make up three, five, even eight spots in just one lap. (Remember Dale Earnhardt’s epic charge at Talladega 13 years ago?)
That’s because the new Gen-6 car does not produce a closing rate that “pack racing” used to offer. Steve Letarte said on Monday that Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost 22 spots in one lap during one of the final restarts that pretty much eliminated him from competing for the win. In the past, with 10-20 laps to go, a driver would be able to come back from that and work his or her way back to the front. Not anymore; it’s been replaced by a game of high-speed, traffic-maneuver chess that takes all the mental strength available to get the push by one car.
I’d be shocked if we didn’t see a rule change following the 2013 season where there’s a different spoiler and air package, making it easier for drivers to pass — whether they like it or not.
Clint Bowyer was the latest to admit after the race that he was simply riding around Daytona for the first 130 laps. If the sport has drivers staying in place for the first two-plus hours, how is it going to advertise the product effectively? That’s not going to win over many new fans. … Danica Patrick, who wound up 14th, actually deserved better than her last-lap melee. The car was a top-10 contender for most of the night. And Patrick coincidentally tangled with David Gilliland, the latest in a series of on-track incidents between the two. … J.J. Yeley has an average finish of 11.5 at Daytona this season. Everywhere else? He has yet to post a result better than 24th. Just another way in which the gap between lower- and upper-class teams has never been larger — outside of Daytona and Talladega, of course. … Thirty-one teams in Nationwide and Cup were found with improper roof flap spacer modifications at Daytona. The competitive advantage, though, is so minimal you have to wonder if NASCAR will hit that many teams with a serious point deduction. Teams shouldn’t mess with safety, of course, but when they’re working within thousandths of a second, at what point does it become nitpicking?
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles