Last night’s Budweiser Duels provided an interesting insight into what we can expect in Sunday’s Daytona 500. With most of the early practices gear towards single car qualifying, it wasn’t until the Sprint Unlimited where we saw how the racing could be with this new package on the Daytona International Speedway.
Results there were of a wreckfest, with nearly have the field eliminated in accidents because cars were unstable and drivers were unused to the closing rates. Wednesday during practice we had a similar situation which saw more cars destroyed, and drivers opted not to practice much in the night time session.
What we saw in the Budweiser Duels was a lot different and should translate into the Daytona 500. Drivers raced side by side, but did so with caution they did not have prior. Whether this was because teams couldn’t afford to wreck any more cars or drivers got acclimated to the new package has yet to be seen. The first race went caution free and the second nearly went caution free, and that caution was due to Jimmie Johnson running out of fuel, not errors by any drivers.
Something that is a bit disturbing, from a fan’s perspective, is that there was very little movement in the top-5 during the final six laps of each race. The first Duel saw the same drivers who were first through fifth with six to go cross the finish line the same way to end the race. Second place Kevin Harvick was disqualified as his car fail post-race inspection, which throws this example off on paper.
In the second Duel, it was shaping up to finish the same way until Johnson ran out of fuel. That jumbled the order up, but the same drivers who were first, second, and third with six laps to go crossed the finish line as the top three drivers. Only Jeff Gordon managed to get past Kurt Busch for second place when it was all said and done.
Each race featured minimal lead changes (eight total between the two races) with five drivers leading 96.67% of the total laps run last night. The others who led did so because of pit stops or because they started on the front row.
Another indicator that drivers were happy riding last night is the average position of each driver. In the first race, the top four finishing drivers had the top four best average positions (minus Harvick, who had he finished second would have made it five for five). Kenseth and Earnhardt average a running position of fourth place (along with Harvick), Marcos Ambrose averaged a fifth place position and Kasey Kahne averaged a seventh place position.
The second race has nearly the same result with Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch among the best average running positions with seventh, third, and fourth respectfully. With the accident at the end it did drop drivers like Jamie McMurray (averaged eighth), Casey Mears (averaged eighth), and Carl Edwards (averaged sixth).
On the flip side, drivers who were out back didn’t really gain much by the race’s conclusion. The bottom three finishers in the first race had the worst three average running positions (excluding Harvick). In the second race, the fourth worst running drivers were aided by Brad Keselowski’s problems and Ryan Truex and Justin Allgaier were able to get past Michael Annett by the finish, who had a better average running position than both of them. This is a moot point for Truex, who missed the Daytona 500, whereas Allgaier and Annett both made it.
Passing as always will be critical and one thing did jump out at me when looking over the box score. Factoring in that each race only featured 24 drivers, there was a good number of drivers who were in the 90% of quality passes. Quality passes is a stat NASCAR keeps track of for every time a driver makes a pass of a car for position who’s running in the top-15. Marcos Ambrose led the way with 64 of his 64 passes being quality passes for a 100% mark. Others who rated high include: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (96.3%), Brad Keselowski (92.9%), AJ Allmendinger (92.8%), Kurt Busch (91.9%), and Jimmie Johnson (90.6%).
I didn’t like that Earnhardt tried to go with Ryan Newman to the front in the closing laps of the first race, but Newman passed on the invitation citing it was too early and the bottom of the track wasn’t good for a run. I hope we see some racing near the end instead of just a single file line to the finish.
My theory is that during the Daytona 500 most drivers will be happy to ride single file if they can for as long as they can. There will be the traditional jockeying for position around mid-pack, but once someone gets to the lead they will try to stay there. This might mirror last year’s race, when Matt Kenseth put his Toyota on cruise control for much of the race until his engine expired. As the second race showed, when it comes to the end of the race, anything can happen and probably will.
Even if drivers want to stay single file, someone is going to try a move to position themselves to potentially win the Daytona 500. Not only would they gain the accolades of winning the Super Bowl of stock car racing, the win could secure them into the Chase for the Sprint Cup after one race.
With the stakes that much higher we might see more moves than we did Thursday night when they were racing for starting position and not a points paying victory. The action gets underway at 1 PM EST and can be seen on FOX.