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Takeaways from NASCAR’s Daytona 500

Let's discuss the randomness, race quality and the finish

Syndication: Daytona Beach News-Journal
Credit: Nigel Cook/News-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

The modern Daytona 500 has such a unique dichotomy.

On one hand, the Great American Race has the tenure, history and prestige to deem it NASCAR’s most important event. It’s the race won by Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Darrell Waltrip so everyone wants the Harley J. Earl as a result.

On the other hand, it’s also the race (respectfully) won by Derrike Cope, Michael Waltrip and Trevor Bayne. It’s becoming more and more a crapshoot and it feels like anyone can get the Harley J. Earl as a result.

The Daytona 500 is a reflection of NASCAR’s overall modern identity, matching a playoff format that also favors a greater degree of chance over pure sporting integrity.

The 66th running was effectively decided amongst those who were not wiped out in a 23-car crash with nine laps to go — the victims of which included seemingly top contenders like Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Todd Gilliland and Hamlin.

It happens literally every year.

That doesn’t mean it sucks or that it’s no longer a valuable victory because it’s still a win that made Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle cry on Monday night. Race winning driver William Byron no doubt shed a tear at some point in the aftermath as well.

Ultimately, since the implementation of the speed sapping restrictor plate in 1998, superspeedway racing has always had a little bit of fortune baked into it. The fact that the cars are becoming increasingly safer only emboldens the drivers to shove harder, make bolder blocks and place everyone in precarious positions.

In the same way that there is always a part of all of us that longs for a Cup Series championship that was decided over a full body of work, there is an equal yearning for the biggest race of the year that doesn’t feel like a random number generator — races like the Southern 500, Brickyard 400 or Coca-Cola 600 more often than not.

What Byron, Fugle and the No. 24 accomplished on Monday warrants celebration and a chapter in the aforementioned Great American History Book but here is to also hoping that the racing product can become less random in the coming years.

Clean and green…mostly

What is especially frustrating about how to grade the Daytona 500 this year is that it actually was the cleanest edition since 2004.

There was the one crash on Lap 6, two stage cautions, and then the 23-car crash that transpired with nine laps to go and that is going to be one of the biggest takeaways especially after the Truck Series and ARCA crashfests on Friday night.

Granted, a lot of the clean racing was a byproduct of drivers saving fuel throughout the entire race and not really racing it out until the final 20 laps but isn’t that also just superspeedway racing? With the exception of the stage points made available at the end of the stages, there isn’t much to race for until the final 20 laps.

As Denny Hamlin said on his Actions Detrimental podcast this week, the Daytona 500 is the only race where he doesn’t care about stage points. It’s win or bust and points racing begins the next week at Atlanta.  

But as a result of the various fuel conservation strategies, there were various comers and goers and three-wide racing — the latter of which has proven incredibly difficult to achieve consistently with the NextGen car.

So like everything else, even this element of the race constitutes as something of a strange dichotomy.

The finish

Listen, not everything is a conspiracy, and William Byron is the rightful winner of the Daytona 500. Like, a Hendrick Motorsports car was going to win no matter what.

At the same time, NASCAR and FOX Sports both opens itself up to the kind of scrutiny it faced the past several days over the way the finish of The Great American Race was disseminated to fans.

Byron was declared the winner of the race over Alex Bowman because he was leading at the time of the caution at the start of the final lap. In real time, there were several things that were up for debate, over if the race was actually over and if so, who won.

If the leaders had not officially begun the final lap when Ross Chastain and Austin Cindric spun and begun washing back up the track, then that would trigger overtime. If the leaders did cross the line to begin the final lap, then the race ends at the next flag, in this case, the yellow and the winner is the leader at the time race control presses the button to freeze the field and trigger the caution calling process.

The way this works is that the race director will press a button in the tower that triggers that process, which includes verbally making the call over the radio and changing the lights on the track from green to yellow.

If before the final lap, the field reverts to the running order at the most recently crossed crossing loop around the race track. If on the final lap, the field is frozen at the exact moment the race director pressed the button, which results in a print out of the running order at that moment.

There is a slight delay between that button being pressed and the lights switching from green to yellow.

That’s all good and well, but that process needs to be articulated over the broadcast, and not tweets from both the official NASCAR accounts and competition communications executives after the broadcast ends.

As soon as the results were declared official, NASCAR already knows how they reached that conclusion, and an official needs to be in the broadcast booth with Mike Joy, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer expressing that to the masses.

Beyond that, it’s hard to pick nits with the finish.

Is is anticlimactic? Sure. The biggest race of the year ended after 499 miles and with the press of a button, but that’s thematically in line with a race that was also decided by a 23-car pile-up due to the current state of superspeedway racing.

Recall that the 2023 Daytona 500 was actually 212 laps and 530 miles, the longest of all-time due to repeated crashing and the ensuing caution laps.

All of this to say that the answer is mandating green flag finishes because the field will more often than not continue to crash each other and risk turning The Great American Race from The Great American Crapshoot into The Great American Demolition Derby.

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter. 

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