What We Learned: Daytona 500 Edition
The 2013 Daytona 500 appeared to be very much in the eye of the beholder. While many fans complained about the single groove racing, ratings were far above anything NASCAR has done in recent memory and those numbers went up as the race went on. So clearly there was heightened interest in the big race and that interest grew as the day went along despite racing that was, at times, not quite the three-wide action that NASCAR might have hoped for. What did the season opening race teach us?
#1. Daytona is still Daytona
No matter what changes are made to the cars and which teams the drivers race for, the Daytona International Speedway is still Daytona. Cars that have no business running up front will finish there and cars that should've taken away a top ten spent many a lap behind the wall. As long as NASCAR mandates restrictor plates the cars will remain fairly close together. There's simply no way for any car to get too far ahead of his or her peers under those conditions. And when the cars run that close together it doesn't matter if they're racing in one lane, two lanes, or more. An accident is bound to happen and when it does it won't be a single car wreck. This leads directly into...
#2. Track position matters again
You rarely, if ever, heard drivers worry about their starting spot at the Daytona 500. Sure, everyone wants the attention of winning the pole and the guaranteed spot heading into the sport's largest race (especially with the Top 35 rule's demise). But if you started 24th or 33rd or even had to go to the back of the field, it wasn't a big deal. In fact, many teams had the deliberate strategy of dropping to the back once the race began just to keep their cars out of the scrum. Unless you plan on running a full half lap behind the lead pack, that strategy is dead and gone. The accordion-style wrecks that dominated the Daytona 500's caution flags showed that running in the back is a sure-fire way to get involved in someone else's mess.
Moreover, passing appeared to be far more difficult than it had been in years past. A drafting partner couldn't stay on your bumper to get the bottom lane started and few drivers were willing to pull down and take a chance of getting freight-trained on the outside. The few who did pull out of line were unable to consistently move forward (Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jr's moves at the end of the race being a notable exception). So unlike Daytona in year's past, teams actually had to engage in some strategy at times to gain track position.
#3. The Generation 6 car is a work in progress
This is a given and sometime we all should have expected going into the year. It's easy to get caught up in how much better the cars look- especially given NASCAR's heavy promotional efforts centered around that fact. But the fact remains that this is a new racecar that has never been on the track in competition form prior to this past week. Teams will always be holding something back in practice as there is little to gain in showing your peak performance when it doesn't count. So Sunday was the first points-paying race in the car. Unsurprisingly, there is some room for improvement.
I had to turn off my Twitter feed at one point on Sunday because I was tired of hearing the same handful of “respected” voices (who shall remain nameless... if you really want to know though it isn't hard to find out) complain about what they were watching. Did anyone seriously expect that the car would be perfect its first time out? Did anyone realistically think that the drivers (some of whom have torn up multiple cars between testing, the Unlimited, and the Duels) were going to throw caution into the wind and run three-wide from lap 1? Of course there was going to be some single-file racing.
And let's remember one final fact; aside from the obvious improvements in term of look, the major reason NASCAR needed to upgrade the car was the racing at intermediate tracks. Before we start screaming for major overhauls, I want to see how this car handles at the tracks NASCAR runs the most. Fixing the racing at Daytona/Talladega is generally easy; level out everyone's horsepower and handling and the cars will run close together. Fixing the racing at, say, Auto Club Speedway, is a completely different beast and it's one NASCAR is hoping this car will finally conquer.
#4. Engine life can still be a major problem in 2013
Despite all of the advances in modern engine technology, engine life is still a major concern for every team in the garage. Going into the 500 the Hendrick teams (including supposed independent teams that purchase their engines from Hendrick) had serious engine concerns thanks to Earnhardt's engine change prior to the Duel. During the race itself, the Toyota teams had their own problems as Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth both failed to make the grade thanks to engine failure- which only reminded everyone of the problems Joe Gibbs Racing has had in the past which led them to start using Toyota's engines in the first place.
Teams face a major dilemma, especially at any track over a mile in length. You need to maximize your horsepower because power equals speed. That need forces you to at times use materials that might be a little less strong or a little less durable because you're getting more power for the weight. Yet the most powerful engine in the world is useless if it can't last the duration of the race. The balance between reliability and speed remains the toughest challenge facing NASCAR's various engine builders. It will only get more difficult as the teams begin running tracks such as Auto Club and Las Vegas that are actually harder on the engines than Daytona.
#5. Danica, Danica, Danica
I've written before that it's now or never for Danica Patrick in 2013. Her attitude after the race tells me that she's very much aware of that fact. Instead of feeling great about her first top 10 finish in NASCAR's highest series, she was clearly upset that more experienced drivers (including someone she must've thought was an ally in Dale Jr) schooled her on the last lap of the race. In reality, that's a good thing. Going backwards at the checkered flag is something no true racer wants to experience. If she'd gotten out of the car with a smile I'd be worried. Her attitude tells me that she's out there to win, no matter what BS the Tonys (Stewart and Gibson) are spouting about 20th place being a good finish.
Danica's NASCAR story is yet to be written and undoubtedly there will be chapters that are much darker than this one. How could they be much brighter? She started on the pole, endured a week's worth of speculation of how she didn't belong, ran in the top ten all day and finished there when all was said and done. That's a debut any rookie- male or female- would be proud of. The ratings were up for the race and Danica's getting much of the credit for that, which will only enhance her “It” factor, driving more attention to the sport from both fans and potential sponsors alike.