Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, the added SAFER Barriers, Denny Hamlin’s 2014 plate-racing success, Jeff Gordon’s consistency and a needed tweak to the qualifying format highlight the storylines leading up to the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Daytona SAFER Barrier addition nice, but where’s the rest?
Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood said in February that he felt his facility was “on the right path” when it came to fan and driver safety a year after a violent crash injured scores of fans in the grandstands. That path has now included an additional 2,400 feet of SAFER Barrier on the competitive side of the fence.
The crash energy-reducing barrier already lined the corners of NASCAR’s most famous track, in addition to the outside of the front stretch tri-oval and several interior walls. Now, it runs continuous along the outside wall from the entrance of Turn 3 to the exit of Turn 1 — lessening the risk of routine impacts in each of the track’s short chutes.
It’s a great, smart move. But it’s also a change that leaves questions as to why the entirety of the track’s wall surface hasn’t been plastered with the stuff.
Consider this: A report from USA Today indicated that the SAFER Barrier system costs around $500 per foot these days. To finish the job — including Daytona’s backstretch outside wall (around 3,000 feet) and numerous interior walls (a rough guess of 5,000 feet) still uncovered — would presumably seem to cost around $4 million.
Meanwhile, right on the other side of the fence, the track is pouring $400 million in a grandstand renovation.
With 2014 success, Denny Hamlin a Daytona favorite
For reasons likely held very, very close to the vest of the No. 11 team, Denny Hamlin’s Toyota Camrys have been lightning quick on restrictor plate tracks in 2014. The results are telling: Hamlin has finished first in three races (the Sprint Unlimited, a Budweiser Duel and the spring race at Talladega) and second in the fourth (February’s Daytona 500).
It may have been a clean sweep had Hamlin’s car radio not failed during The Great American Race.
Why has Hamlin — easily a favorite this weekend — been so good? First, he credited the car. But a close second on his list is a smarter strategy.
“I think I have learned a lot about that style of racing over the years,” Hamlin says. “I was always the guy that tried to start a new line and make something happen, and it didn’t always work out for me. I think this year I have been a little more patient and let the race come to me a bit more.”
It’s a good thing that Hamlin has learned the new trick. Without the Talladega win, Hamlin is closer to 20th in points than 10th and facing a lot more heat over his Chase chances.
Restrictor plate group qualifying already in need of revision
I don’t even have to watch Friday’s sure-to-be-wild Sprint Cup group qualifying session to know that a system I was initially so excited for already needs a change. It was all laid bare at Talladega in the spring when Brian Scott won the pole from the back of a drafting pack.
Without a doubt, multiple cars on track at once for restrictor-plate track qualifying is the right move. It’s great, too, to force the drivers who want to be up front to essentially “qualify” three times. But the process of getting there — only turning a fastest lap within a time slot — just doesn’t past the sniff test of competition in pack racing. The driver eighth to the line after the clock hits zero just should never be the one taking the honors.
Instead, restrictor-plate track qualifying should be reorganized to a heat race format. I propose three races: two 25-lap dashes with half of the prospective field in each and a third with the top-8 finishers from each heat race. This process puts focus on drivers scrambling to make the race during the first two heats and then forces the drivers up front to jockey for position in the “pole race.” Plus, taking eight cars from each heat likely prevents drivers from settling for an easy finish in the heats.
Better solutions likely exist. Anything, save for solo qualifying of power-sapped race cars, would be better than where we’ve arrived.
Where is Jeff Gordon’s 2014 heading?
Seven years ago, Jeff Gordon put together a season that set a NASCAR modern-era record for top-10 finishes. Twenty-one of those 30 top 10s were top-5 showings, and six of them converted to wins. Yet when the Chase for the Sprint Cup came, Gordon was simply outmatched down the stretch by teammate and eventual champion Jimmie Johnson.
Is that the ultimate destiny of Gordon’s 2014 campaign?
As the season turns over to its second half following Saturday night’s race, Gordon is on a similar pace of consistency. He has 13 top-10 finishes in 17 starts, six top-5 finishes and nabbed a win at Kansas Speedway. He also leads the regular season point standings.
But Gordon has shown at several points this season that he often can’t match the speed of his competitors when it comes to winning time. His restarts have remained a liability and he has led 1,001 fewer laps than second-place Johnson.
The new Chase format means winning races — and by default, coming through on inevitable late restarts — will determine the sport’s champion. Gordon is a master of near-front consistency, but not so much a master of late-race heroics. Together, it all seems to make Gordon’s point lead look like a misnomer of what is to come.
Daytona winner likely to be leading at white flag
In five competitive races with Sprint Cup cars on restrictor-plate tracks this season, a trend has become clear: the driver leading at the white flag has a substantial advantage over those trying to overtake.
In the Sprint Unlimited, Hamlin jumped to the lead coming to the white flag and drove away from the scrambling pack behind him. Hamlin held the field at bay again in winning his Daytona qualifying race, and then teammate Matt Kenseth was able to hold off a late charge from Kevin Harvick to win the second one — a move largely made possibly by Kenseth running the high lane on the last lap. In the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. held a two car-length lead at the white flag and Hamlin was only able to get to his bumper at the checkered flag.
The outlier in the five events was the finish at Talladega. Hamlin, leading comfortably again, was halfway down the backstretch when a caution flag waved on the final lap to end the race. Regardless, that chance of an immediate end to a race still rewards the driver up front.
“In the Daytona 500, we were just a little too far back on the last lap and made it up to second,” Hamlin says. “I knew at Talladega that I wanted to be the one out front holding people off. I think that has been the preferred position in the last few plate races.”
With that chance of an unexpected end combined with a realized advantage of leading at the white flag, Saturday night’s race winner will likely be making the most aggressive moves before the flagman gets busy.
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Photos by Action Sports, Inc.