Sideshows aside, 2019 Speedweeks start NASCAR needed

Sure, people complained about the type of racing NASCAR drivers delivered through most of Speedweeks. The single-file, follow-the-leader parades that were the Advanced Auto Parts Clash, the Gander RV Duels, and the Xfinity Series race were boring and even some drivers didn’t understand why more of their brethren weren’t taking chances passing on the low line. And then there was the bloodbath of a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race that saw only nine of 32 entries finish. And a litany of late race wrecks made the last ten laps last an hour in Sunday’s Daytona 500. But the Great American Race delivered a show on levels many weren’t expecting.

First, most of Sunday’s 207 laps (remember that seven were run in NASCAR Overtime) saw the pack staying two-wide and many rows deep. Passing the leader was still difficult, as the two lead cars could usually push themselves away from the pack enough to keep the challenging rows at bay. But, save a large portion of the 60-lap Stage 2, this Daytona 500 displayed the kind of racing many expect at this track and Talladega. Pit strategy, handling, and executing the precise moves also came into play, meaning the race would not crown some random winner.

The Daytona 500 belched more storylines than a clogged interstate does smog on a summer day. First, Denny Hamlin’s second triumph in the sport’s biggest race helps silence the whispers about his future in the No. 11 FedEx Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, after a winless 2018 campaign. Hamlin ran near the front most of the day and did so with Chris Gabehart in his first race as the No. 11 team crew chief. Hamlin won the 2016 500 in Mike Wheeler’s first race in the same role.

The Joe Gibbs Racing angle may be the biggest story of the weekend and is certainly the most sentimental. Gibbs’ son, J.D., passed away at age 49 in January. J.D. ran the team for over two decades, until a neurological illness began diminishing him mentally in 2015. There was a tribute to J.D. Gibbs on lap 11, because that is the number Gibbs used when he raced part-time. To have not just a Gibbs car win, but the No. 11 of Hamlin’s is what Coach Joe called the greatest night of his occupational life. He has won three Super Bowls as a head coach and now three of NASCAR’s “Super Bowls”. JGR cars finished 1-2-3, only the second a time a team has done that in Daytona 500 history.

Speaking of, racing virtuoso Kyle Busch finished 2nd and was leading for much of the later part of the event. In fact, the No. 18 M&M’s Chocolate Bar Toyota led 37 laps. But Hamlin grabbed the lead right before the last yellow flag and held him at bay until the end. Busch has 51-career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins, placing him 11th-most of all-time and second only to Jimmie Johnson (83 wins) among active drivers. But Busch is now 0 for 15 in the Daytona 500, a race that has held many of the sport’s greats at bay. He has come close before and likely will again. Regardless, his frustration was awfully palpable post-race.

The race’s giant wrecks eliminated many entries, leaving only 19 running at the finish and 14 on the lead lap. But damaged cars still got good finishes. Erik Jones (3rd) drove up from 7th in the last two laps and came back from being a lap down and having heavy rear end damage. Johnson (9th) had the left rear shredded from his car as he came to pit road and Tyler Reddick got wrecked into him. The fuel nozzle was dangling. Then Johnson got damage on the other corners of his No. 48 Ally Chevy in the race’s other big wrecks. He rallied back to score a top 10 in his first race with new crew chief Kevin Mendeering. Kyle Larson (7th) was in about four different wrecks and Ryan Newman (14th) rode the last nine laps (two under green flag) on the inner liner of his tire that he cut down with the damaged part of his car. His damaged vehicle policy clock was down to 30 seconds and he wasn’t able to run a full lap at minimum speed to reset it.

And, as is often the case in plate races, underdogs shined. Matt DiBenedetto’s first race in the JGR-affiliated No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota saw him lead the most laps in the race, but get turned by Paul Menard with ten laps to go, triggering the 22-car melee that eliminated both them and many others. Michael McDowell finished 5th, driving from the back to the front after a pit penalty. Rookie Ryan Preece must play darts or sew, because he drove right through the heart of two big wrecks to put his No. 47 Kroger Chevy in 8th. And Ross Chastain brought Premium Motorsports a 10th-place finish, also rallying from two laps down at one point. Chastain ran all three races on the weekend and placed well.

Conflict arose post-race, as Joey Logano (4th) confronted McDowell verbally for making the wrong move and costing both Ford drivers the win. McDowell told the media afterwards that his job isn’t to push Logano to the win. He also said that other Fords were not friendly to him during the race.

Saturday’s Xfinity Series race crowned a first-time winner in journeyman veteran Michael Annett. After a couple of years of struggling in good equipment, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that he and others had to get Annett into a more confident mind state. Annett had driven for years in backmarker cars and was arriving at races just absolutely thinking he couldn’t win. Annett said that he saw the trophy in the driver’s meeting and thought he absolutely could win this race. And the win was redemptive for crew chief Travis Mack, who left the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella in 2018 to partner with Kasey Kahne at the No. 95 Leavine team; he left mid-season and joined Annett.

Friday’s NGOTS race also crowned a first-time winner in Austin Hill, a youngster who was getting his first NASCAR opportunity in good equipment. He’s had doubters, since he supplanted 2018 NGOTS champ Brett Moffitt, due to funding. And while Atlanta and the coming races are the start of the real season, Hill proved he could make race-winning moves and earn his salt with Hattori Racing Enterprises.

The crowds were large all weekend. The Daytona 500’s grandstands sold out for the fifth-straight year, after the track renovation eliminated many seats. Still, the crowds came. The campgrounds were packed. The infield fan zone was bumper-to-bumper with flesh. And there were many Gen-Z and millennials, decked out in new race gear. Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney...fans are buying the shirts and hats.

Finally, owners, drivers, manufacturers, and NASCAR executives have made clear that a new era in the 71-year-old sport is on the horizon. A new schedule with possibly shorter races, less races, and more short tracks could start taking form in 2020. The Gen-7 racecar in 2021 is supposed to attract new OEM brands into the sport, because the bodies and engines will more resemble the consumer models. The new aero package that debuts at Atlanta Motor Speedway this coming weekend will reduce horsepower and bunch up the field, though reviews have been mixed on it in tests. And the newer drivers are continuing to mature into contenders.

The 2019 Daytona 500 was the beginning of a new season, but it also could be the beginning of the end of an era of sorts. Tapered spacers replace restrictor plates at Talladega in May, though the racing on these tracks will stay similar. The real racing season begins in just a few short days and how the aero package plays out will be pivotal in how the aforementioned steps advance. But the buzz leaving Daytona International Speedway is as good, if not better than it has been in years. Momentum is important in racing - both on the track and off of it.

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