After a phenomenal Daytona 500 from start to finish, the 2018 NASCAR season is off and running full steam ahead towards Atlanta Motor Speedway. This year’s installment of ‘Speedweeks’ at Daytona International Speedway brought the NASCAR world enough action to shake off the off-season rust and kick 2018 off on what I thought was the highest note possible. Referring to Austin Dillon as a Daytona 500 champion is going to take some getting-used-to but I will remember this Daytona 500 for a lot of reasons.
The Race Itself
Sunday’s running of the Daytona 500 brought all the action that fans both new and old wanted. Longtime fans like myself (as well as pretty much anyone who’s reading an independent racing blog) saw a perfect mix of hard racing throughout the entire race and new mechanical challenges for the teams to work with. Since the teams arrived in Daytona two weeks ago, we’ve heard non-stop chatter about the rear ride height regulations (or lack thereof) and the smaller rear spoiler; both of which help the cars run faster due to more favorable aerodynamics at the cost of handling.
As with the beginning of any new NASCAR season, the whole sport is interested to gain new fans and everything that took place at Daytona this weekend was absolutely conducive to winning over new fans of the sport. Even an unbiased opinion would have noticed that the on-track action at Daytona was as captivating as could possibly be for people watching at home. Racing only inches apart at 200+ mph with intentional contact happening multiple times per lap is certainly a tried and true way of bringing new eyes to the sport.
Changing of the Guard
Many people, myself included, who follow NASCAR and/or make their living in the sport were rightfully concerned about how both experienced fans and potential fans would respond to the changing of the guard. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is out, Alex Bowman is in. Kasey Kahne is out, William Byron is in. Matt Kenseth is out, Erik Jones is in. Danica Patrick was making her final stock car start. Bubba Wallace was taking over the famed 43 car for Richard Petty as a charismatic 24 year old finally earning his shot at the big show.
What sticks out to me about all of those driver changes is that everyone that I listed played an integral part in the how the race unfolded. Alex Bowman notablly earned the pole for the race and contended all day. William Byron had a rough day but had a lead lap finish salvaged before blowing a tire. Erik Jones fought for the lead but was ultimately wrecked out after a heroic save by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. that junked 4 potential winners. Danica wasn’t necessarily a contender for the win due to severe damage early in the race but I do think her 2018 Daytona experience was a nice ‘goodbye tour’ for her. Bubba Wallace earned himself a 2nd place finish and wore his heart on his sleeve with the media as he tearfully hugged his mom during his post race interview.
Superspeedway Racing In General
I can’t say I was the biggest fan of all of the wrecks involving the leader(s) at Daytona but I do concede that it’s simply how superspeedway racing works nowdays. With the leader all alone out front followed by cars racing 2×2, 10 rows deep, the only way for one driver to lead is to literally just rotate between the top and bottom lanes to stunt the momentum of the faster lane. It’s the most fun version of “wash, rinse, repeat” that you’ll ever see. Team Penske seem to have figured this whole concept out in 2016 and have notably controlled every superspeedway race since. It seems pretty well understood that it’s the leader who’s risking the contact when he switches lanes to halt the momentum of the cars pushing towards the front. Make sense? watch any 10 lap stretch of the Daytona 500 (under green flag conditions) and you will see this happen over and over again. Generally speaking, I was impressed with how the drivers handled this new reality and furthermore that they weren’t complaining that their comrades were simply being too aggressive.
Daytona to Atlanta: What We’ll Take With Us
For as massive as the Daytona 500 is and always will be, the season does go on. Round 2 of 36 will see the series rolling into Atlanta Motor Speedway with plenty of momentum both on track and in the media. The Daytona 500 is far and away the biggest event in stock car racing but it’s important for the sport to build off of that on Sunday at Atlanta. My biggest fear for this is that new fans will tune in on Sunday only to be let down that the drivers are running single file as opposed to the superspeedway chaos that they saw last Sunday. Luckily Atlanta does bring a new set of challenges for the drivers that I can only hope earns the attention of some of the new eyes that were won over during the Dayonta 500. It’s certainly going to take some time to find out how big of an impact the first Dale-less Daytona 500 will have on the sport but I’m just as certain that it’s a step in the right direction.