Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 18, 2018

NASCAR Starts With The Demolition 500

From a story in the New York Times at the start of the weekend to much of the commentary during the pre-race coverage on Fox, it’s clear that the season for NASCAR that began with Sunday’s Daytona 500 is one of transition. It happens in every sport; one generation of stars leaves the stage even as a new one steps front and center to seize the spotlight. But for fans of stock car racing the current turnover of stars has been anything but seamless.

In the past two years Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Matt Kenseth, winners of seven Cup Series championships between them, all climbed out of their cars for the final time. They were joined by fan favorite Carl Edwards two seasons ago, and at the end of last season by Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver. Danica Patrick, the only female driver at NASCAR’s Cup Series level, drove her final stock car race at Daytona, and will conclude the “Danica Double” and her racing career by returning to her original circuit for the Indy 500 in May.

All those empty race cars represent opportunities for young drivers to step up from NASCAR’s two developmental series, the Xfinity for stock cars and the Camping World for trucks. It was thus not surprising that ten of the forty drivers that took the green flag to start the 500 – exactly one-quarter of the field – were age 25 or younger.

The problem for NASCAR has been that big names have been leaving the sport at a faster pace than new stars have been emerging. Thus the hope, as chronicled in the Times and articulated by Gordon, now an analyst for Fox Sports, was that this will be the season when one or more of these young drivers start to consistently win races and become familiar to more than just the sport’s most dedicated fans.

There were some positive signs in the days leading up to the 500. Alex Bowman, the 24-year old tabbed by Hendrick Motorsports to take over Dale Junior’s ride in the #88 Chevrolet, won the pole in last weekend’s qualifying. Chase Elliott, who stepped into Gordon’s #24 two years ago when he was just 20, and who Hendrick switched to the #9 car for this season, started in the second row after winning one of Thursday’s two Can-Am duels that are used to set all but the front row for Daytona. And 24-year old Ryan Blaney in Team Penske’s #12 Ford was first across the stripe 118 times, leading more laps than any other driver.

But this year’s Daytona 500 will be remembered not for the exploits of a driver of any age, but rather for the carnage wrought by a few minor tweaks to the rules governing the automobiles themselves. While the sport may be called stock car racing, the romantic notion that the vehicles are souped-up versions of cars that can be purchased at one’s local Chevy, Ford, or Toyota dealer has long been a fantasy. NASCAR imposes precise specifications for every aspect of the cars, so that other than paint schemes and nameplates all the vehicles are virtually identical. This year’s rules package included standardizing the front splitter, eliminating minimum clearance between the road and the car body, and changing the rear quarter panels to composite from sheet metal, which altered the aerodynamics of the vehicles.

As became clear in practice sessions and the Can-Am races, these changes made the cars much harder to handle. For a time on Sunday it looked like the drivers and their crews, all of whom had worked feverishly to gain greater control of the vehicles, might have succeeded. The race was fairly orderly in its early going.

But starting last season NASCAR introduced stage racing, in which each event is divided into segments. That gives drivers the chance to earn points by finishing in the top ten of a stage, rather than just by the final order of finish at the end of the race. But it also means hard driving as each stage nears its end. On Sunday, fierce competition, speeds over 200 miles per hour, and some questionable judgement, combined with hard to handle race cars, resulted in three major wrecks that turned the Daytona 500 into a demolition derby.

The first occurred on lap 60, the final circuit of the race’s first stage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made an aggressive and unwise move to block an attempted pass. The turbulent air around the rear of his car caused Stenhouse to get loose and he slid up the track. He somehow managed to avoid hitting the wall, but the impact on those following Stenhouse was disastrous. Nine cars wound up piling into one another, with damage ranging from troublesome to race-ending. The latter was the case for seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who said “unfortunately, many thought it was the black and white checkered flag and not the green and white checkered flag,” referring to the end of the race versus the end of a stage.

Then late in stage two young Elliott got a big push from Brad Keselowski while running just behind the leader Blaney. But he then tried to block when Keselowski dove below him. Elliott couldn’t control his car and spun into the wall, wrecking six other cars in the process, including Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, and sadly, Patrick. Her last NASCAR ride, in a reunion with the familiar Go Daddy fluorescent green car, ended far earlier than anyone hoped.

Finally, the biggest wreck of all, involving twelve cars, came with the checkered flag in site. Denny Hamlin, leading at the time, moved up the track to block a passing attempt from Kurt Busch, last year’s 500 winner. Busch had to brake, got loose, and spun, sparking chaos and, for that matter, lots of sparks.

After all that, the eventual win by Austin Dillon would have been an afterthought but for the fact he was driving the #3 car. On the twentieth anniversary of Earnhardt Senior’s only Daytona 500 victory, the #3 was first across the line again. That would have been a nice, nostalgic ending, were NASCAR not so desperately hoping this year will be about the future rather than the past.


  1. I don’t follow NASCAR, Mike, and after reading your post I can see how altering the body modifications and introducing a Stage Winner category can lead to what happened in yesterday’s Daytona 500. It was a shame that Ms. Patrick got caught up in the melee and did not finish. I hope that she does well in the Indy 500 and retires with her health (and wealth) intact.

    • Thanks Allan. The arc of Danica’s NASCAR career has been interesting. There were a lot of haters early on, but most fans came around as they realized how she was attracting new people to the sport. She leaves with a very large fan base, and a lot of young girls in fluorescent green Go Daddy jumpsuits. And yes, hopefully all goes well for her, and every other driver, come Memorial Day weekend.

      Thanks again,

      Michael Cornelius

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