Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Different Strategy, Similar Instincts Heading into Daytona 500

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Modern day superspeedway racing has gained the stigma of being a crap shoot style of competition and a trend fans have grown to be accustomed of watching, particularly the past two Daytona 500s.

Whether it’s the addition of stage racing or drivers being impatient, everyone has an opinion regarding the matter, but one thing is certain. Sunday’s Daytona 500 is the final race of the old package, but the concern of becoming victims of being collected in the big one still looms on some of the drivers.

For Richard Childress Racing rookies Daniel Hemric and Tyler Reddick, they’ve had opposite tales with their luck at superspeedway tracks in the Xfinity Series that can be transferred in the big event.

Hemric hasn’t had the luck on his side while Reddick has despite having all sorts of problems during last year’s 300-miler, which he ended up in victory lane.

“My superspeedway record would say its very hard to capitalize on it. I get a laugh of that because there’s so many variables that is out of your control,” said Hemric. “Maybe earlier in my career, I looked at it as ‘man it’s a crapshoot.’ It’s hard to put yourself in position to have success. As you really diagnose the situation, it’s the best guys at this style of racing always find their way their way to the front at some point.”

“You can do everything right and still get wrecked. I’ve done about everything wrong and still somehow won the race,” said Reddick. “Look at last year, our car was destroyed. The battery was dead. I had the battery switch to the wrong side, and it wasn’t charging. It couldn’t accelerate under its own power. With all that said, we want to keep all the cards we can in our deck for the end of the race, but you can almost take a completely destroyed race car and win this race, if you get the right help.”

Ty Dillon, who finally scored that elusive top-10 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last July, hopes the 500 is the day he scores his maiden win after feeling that he’s had a strong No. 13 Geico Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, but when it comes to the 500, his luck has been sour. Like Reddick, he also believes the possibility of winning does revolve on luck.

“Hopefully we can duplicate that. We ran out of gas with two to go and we had a caution that saved us,” said Dillon. “At that time, we were in a position to have a chance to win the race. If we can execute that same strategy in the 500 and give ourselves a great opportunity to finish in the top-five, overall just finish.

“I think the last two Daytona 500s, we haven’t even finished. This year is important for us to finish the race. I think if we’re around, we’re going to have a shot to win it. Hopefully we can use all of the experience and luck. We know god’s on our side, so he’s going to help us get to the end of this thing.”

Luck has also put teams that normally aren’t contenders on any given race day, in an opportune spot to deliver outstanding results.

StarCom Racing is one of those teams and driver Landon Cassill said that at a track like Daytona does provide those chances like Beard Motorsports and GoFas Racing when drivers Brendan Gaughan and Matt DiBenedetto worked together before their cars ended up destroyed late in the race.

“I think that Daytona can always provide that opportunity. Right now with this superspeedway package, the cars are pretty hard to drive,” said Cassill. “You have to handle really well and have the speed. It’s a little bit tougher for a team that’s lacking the speed from the start of the weekend to gain an advantage even towards the end after the attrition.”

Even with the race on their mind, drivers take the time off the track to get their mind off the chaos Daytona has provided. For Clint Bowyer, who’s making his 14th Daytona 500 start, he’s had his share of moments as a driver, where even preparing for the right moment, there’s no vision as to what the outcome will be. Either it’s winning the race or sliding on your roof, with the latter being Bowyer’s memorable 500 moment back in 2007.

“I drove back from Disney World this morning thinking about that,” Bowyer reflecting on how he views race strategy. “Yes, there is strategy you can do. You can lag back and wait for the big one but then about the time that it doesn’t happen you have to start figuring out how to get to the front and that is when it usually does happen.

“You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It is hard to figure out the inevitable and that is the big wreck. That is what draws a crowd and makes this race exciting, but it is also what makes it extremely hard to win. Somebody has to be looking out for you and the stars have to line up for you to win this race.

“Part of those stars lining up is good equipment, good decisions, good chemistry with you and your spotter. The ones that do that the most usually have the most opportunities to win the race. Also you put yourself in harm’s way more than others too. It has to be your day. It really does. Hopefully it will be our day.”

In a similar thought process, Hemric stated that patience is a trait he’s been working on and hopes it translates into a strong result.

“You have certain things, timing wise, that you get caught up in situations,” said Hemric. “They have a methodical way of being patient and making the right moves at the right time to put themselves in position. That’s something I’ve been trying to do in the past, especially in the last year or two, is trying to really study those guys.

“I got to put a ton of effort in my speedway racing mentally and myself because it’s something we do so few of times. When you begin to do it, you want to be good at it. Looking at that side of it, it’s going to be a lot of new changing things for me as we get in the draft. On the flip side of it, it’s going to be a new experience that I’m looking forward to.”

Aside of the unknown on making the right move, one team will stick with a successful game plan and that’s JTG Daugherty Racing after both of their entries finished in the top-five last July.

During Media Day, Chris Buescher, who finished fifth in both Daytona races, commented that having great numbers is both rewarding and concerning.

“The numbers are good for us here at the plate races. We’ve been able to have very good finishes. We’ve had a game plan that’s worked out really good over at JTG Daugherty Racing between both of our race cars and both our teams,” said Buescher.

“At the same time, I love good numbers but then on the probability side of things, that makes me nervous. This is a race track that’s something is going to happen inevitably and for us to have a lot of good days makes me wonder how this one goes. We’re going to try to make our own destiny and stick to what we’ve been doing and what worked for us here.”

When it comes down to crunch time, the ideal time to start moving towards the front will be between the final 15-20 laps, and that’s where using the mirror factors into the strategy, but it adds a new fear, being the one making the mistake that’s either in or out of your control.

Erik Jones, the most recent Cup winner at Daytona, said drivers must rely on their mirror 85% of the lap and being in the preferred lane has contributed to some of the agonizing mistakes that has caused attrition over the years.

“It kind of comes down to the driver being able to see which line is strong, which line is coming with the run and when and how aggressive you can be with that defense,” said Jones. “You have to know as a driver when it’s too late to make that move. If you make it too late it’s just to the guy behind you to either give you a break or if he can’t it’s going to cause a big wreck.”

Even with no Cup starts to his name, Reddick said that the cars are extremely sensitive, more so when there’s more cars on the track.

“You can definitely get some massive runs going down the back straightaway,” said Reddick. “When you’re lead car, you’re pretty much flat footed, but I think these cars are so touchy in the back and kind out of control. I can feel that in a three-car draft, not let alone a 20-car draft.”

Martin Truex, Jr. pointed towards the package that’s created the environment of running single file just to avoid the fear of being eliminated from contention of winning the Daytona 500.

“The package that we’re racing now has its challenges,” said Truex. “The leaders really dictate kind of the way the field races. Like we’ve seen in the Duels – if five or six of the leaders decide to go single file against the wall, there’s nothing you can do about it at times.

“Aside from that, it’s restrictor plate racing. It’s about putting yourself in the right position in the right time and hopefully you’re not in the wrong place at the wrong time when the big one happens.”

Buescher said that all a driver can ask for is having a clean car when the time of pushing their way towards the front becomes relevant.

“You got to put yourself in position there with 15-20 laps to go,” said Buescher. “If you can be there and have a clean race car and have a shot, that’s all you can really ask for. If something happens at that point and it’s a racing deal, you just expect that something will, but we got to be there first. To get to that point there towards the end and have a clean race car.”

On the contrary, Cassill said that the final set of pit stops is when drivers must position themselves to hit their stride.

“I think it has more to do with being in the right place at the right time, which is kind of always been the Daytona 500 anyways and superspeedway racing in general,” said Cassill. “That’s step one, get through the attrition for the first two-and-a-half stages. By the time you get to your last one or two pit stops, you need to start thinking about your track position.”

No matter what goes down in the 61st edition of the “Great American Race,” all 40 drivers have familiar instincts as to the ideal way to approach the right move and hope that one mistake doesn’t dictate the outcome of not only themselves, but everyone else.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. He's also covered Idaho Athletics and high school football as both a writer and videographer. Additionally, he spent 2017 writing several racing columns as an independent journalist. Luis does video and photography, and is a fan of Seattle sports, a music critic and a motivator who wants to impact people's lives.