By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Restrictor plate racing is a strategic game, requiring critical thinking to make the right moves. A few days removed from Sunday’s Daytona 500 and it has dawned on me how frustrating this current era of racing has become. What happened to the word patience?
The days of strategizing your move without causing a junkyard is gone. Part of this has to do with three things — stage racing, the demand of winning the Great American Race at an all-time high, or just a generational problem.
It bothers me how in NASCAR’s second season under its current points system, the Camping World Truck Series drivers ran clean in the first two stages in Friday night’s race at Daytona, but the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers treated every lap of their race like it was the white flag.
I get it’s the Daytona 500, the one race drivers have dreamed about competing in. It’s every driver for themselves. However, lack of patience before even reaching the ¾ mark has become the norm, resulting the skyrocketing attrition rates we’ve seen.
No place is safe because several recent big wrecks have taken place in the front, eliminating contenders and team owners emptying out their pockets as a result.
Jimmie Johnson had the worst Speedweeks of his legendary career after wrecking his car on three separate occasions. Two of those weren’t his fault because he was caught up in someone else’s mess. Johnson will enter Atlanta, a track he’s won five times, already in a deep hole in the series standings.
I’m sure the top-tier teams don’t want their equipment torn up either like car owner Chip Ganassi.
Racing in the Daytona 500 @DISupdates with wounded cars is as much fun as having a root canal with no Novocain. #nofun @CGRTeams @jamiemcmurray @KyleLarsonRacin I appreciate our drivers hanging in there!#greatteam #greatdrivers
— Chip Ganassi (@GanassiChip) February 19, 2018
If tearing up equipment is a concern, shouldn’t drivers make their moves at the end of the race and see if it’ll produce an epic finish or trigger a big one?
Not with stage points, and fans saw it with Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. It caused a domino effect for the remainder of the race. Amazing saves and bold passes were granted, but it comes with a heavy price.
Chase Elliott, who was involved in the Lap 102 multi-car crash in Turn 3, was vocal about the type of aggressive driving taking place.
“It was really aggressive all day,” Elliott said. “I hate that… it’s so tough I think that everybody kind of… the safest place to be is out front and everybody wants to be there, that is the problem. I don’t know exactly how you fix that. It just kind of is what it is. I hate it.”
On the contrary, the pressure of getting points has long-term playoff implications and for several teams, plate racing is their only shot of making the post-season and earning extra revenue. Aggressive driving has sparked interest for some fans to watch the entire race because they can expect a driver making daredevil maneuvers to get the highest position possible.
It doesn’t help drivers and race teams if someone’s callous driving negatively impacts their afternoon. Go Fas Racing (Matt DiBenedetto) and Beard Motorsports (Brendan Gaughan) comes to mind in this case. Those two teams don’t have the unlimited budgets of Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske, and getting involved in a crash is a heavy blow to their future. Instead of scoring a top-five finish, maybe a stunning victory, all they have left are battered cars without the fanfare.
“It’s frustrating. That’s the thing that I have a love-hate relationship with superspeedways,” DiBenedetto said. “I dread coming to them because it’s so frustrating that everybody just tears up cars and it’s basically a demo derby, but, at the same time, we can also have really good runs and run really fast with our small, little team and group of guys. It’s a love-hate relationship.”
Restrictor plate racing is the magnum opus of consequential outcomes and it’s not the kind of racing I was accustomed to when I started watching the sport 15 years ago. Rather than having a strong car and a perfect drafting partner to win races, it’s becoming a game of survival. Having a sense of patience before reaching the final 50 miles is obsolete.
As we’re nearing the end of the 2010s, the demand of winning the Daytona 500 continues to grow. The more younger drivers we have, the desire of achieving NASCAR’s biggest single-race prize surges. The passion has always been there, but it’s gotten to the point where using a bumper could be their only way of winning instead of timing a pass and it’ll harm the competition.
Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon did what they had to do. If blocking or using a bumper isn’t in a driver’s vocabulary, their chance of winning diminishes every second. A driver must decide when’s the right moment to pass and if it means turning a driver around to win, they’ll do it.
If cooler heads prevail, they’ll understand. Almirola handled the situation in professional manner. Rather than pointing fingers, he understood it was the Daytona 500. Heartbroken by the loss, he was also thrilled of having a competitive car at Stewart-Haas Racing.
In Almirola’s mind, blocking was his way to beat Dillon. At least it was on the last lap instead of Lap 60—the last lap of stage one.
“He’s not driving too aggressively, he’s trying to win the Daytona 500 just like I was. I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500. I wasn’t gonna just let him have it,” Almirola added. “I wasn’t gonna just stay on the bottom and let him rail the outside, so I blocked and he got to my bumper and pushed and I thought I was still gonna be OK and somehow I got hooked.”
Dillon said winning didn’t factor into his equation until getting helped by Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. and did everything to get by Almirola on the last lap.
“I never really thought about it until we took the lead about having a shot to win. I knew we were in a good spot if I could get a push down the backstretch,” said Dillon. “Heck, we went down the backstretch, had a run, went low, the No. 43 went low and I just had more momentum than he did and caught him. It turned him, but heck we won the Daytona 500 we are sitting here now.”
My initial heat of the moment response was he could’ve caused harm on Almirola, who missed seven races because of injuries sustained at Kansas last May, and the rest of the competition. Fortunately, it was only a single-car crash and Almirola will solider onto Atlanta uninjured, but disaster can occur at any time.
While I disagree with Dillon’s move, he didn’t have a choice after Almirola kept blocking him in the backstretch. Unethical but hard racing.
Outside of the Daytona 500, it was difficult to pull a last-ditch effort to win the race fans have expected in plate racing this decade. Leading to my final reason why patience is obsolete and that’s the time period we’re living.
Our attention span continues to decline. If we don’t get what we want, we become frustrated and demanding of reaching our goals. With the “Second Youth Movement” alive and well, the days of critical thinking without havoc on plate tracks is gone. Without proper discipline from veteran drivers, it hurts the younger drivers and the style of racing may get worse.
Johnson said the young drivers factor into the attrition, but they’re aren’t the only ones to blame.
“In that instance it looked like it, but I’m not picking on the young guys by any stretch. Veterans typically cause more problems out there,” Johnson said. “Because we have more confidence and experience and usually create more issues than the young guys do.”
I’ve always felt about this issue throughout the decade because our generation has become impatient and motorsports caught this bug.
Albeit the rules package was different over the years, but what made the classic Daytona 500s unique was patience used in their strategy.
Long before two-car tandems and aggressive blocking were a thing, slingshots was common. Cale Yarborough was a beast when it comes to ‘right place, right time’ strategy. His last two out of his four Daytona 500 victories were a thing of beauty.
Yarborough sling shot past Buddy Baker (1983) and Darrell Waltrip (1984) at the backstretch fair and square. No blocking or turning another competitor around was required because he was a thinker. Underrated in that regard by today’s fans.
In 1993, Dale Jarrett was running third with two laps to go and pick-pocketed both Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt to win his first of three Daytona 500s. Jarrett said in victory lane his strategy was passing Gordon and Earnahrdt before the final lap and Turns 3 and 4 was his chance to act. Jarrett’s strategy was enhanced after Earnhardt’s car went up the track, giving Jarrett the winning advantage.
Plate racing wasn’t about big packs during their time periods, it was about having a strong handling car, a well-crafted engine and at times, driving errors to win a race.
The type of plate racing changes generation-by-generation. We’re witnessing a time period of drivers surviving melees and overtime attempts as the way to produce great results. Some may like the game of survival, others loathe the trend.
Today’s competitors are fierce because of the rules package, stage points and restrictions like the double yellow line. These ramifications demands the field to pull conniving maneuvers. Great and all, but it has its mass pitfalls and it’s how I’ll define the 60th running of the Daytona 500.