By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When the green flag flies on Sunday to kick off the 2022 Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series will be venturing into unknown territory.
For more than six decades, the sport has been making the pilgrimage to the Daytona high banks to win the sport’s most prestigious race and write themselves into the record book as Daytona 500 champion, but this year it’s a whole new ballgame.
With the introduction of the Next Gen car for the 2022 season, drivers and teams will have the added challenge of figuring out the quirks of the revolutionary new car along with all of the normal hurdles that racing in the biggest race of the year brings.
Add in parts shortages that have left teams with a fraction of their normal fleet at the start of the year and the inevitability of finding themselves in a wreck at some point during the week at the World Center of Racing and tension is high throughout the Cup Series garage area.
The Daytona 500 has seen many attempt to conquer it, but only a select few have been able to hoist the Harley J. Earl trophy in victory lane at the end of the day. Some go their entire careers without being able to accomplish that feat.
Will we see a new face in victory lane on Sunday, or will it be one of the grizzled veterans flexing their muscles to make another trip to that hallowed ground? 500 miles will tell the tale.
By the Numbers
What: 64th Annual Daytona 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 1 of 36
Where: Daytona International Speedway – Daytona Beach, Florida (Opened: 1959)
TV/Radio: FOX, 2:30 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 2.5-mile tri-oval
Banking: 31 degrees in turns, 18 degrees in tri-oval, 6 degrees on straightaways
Race Length: 200 laps, 500 miles
Stage Lengths: First two stages – 60 laps each, Final stage – 80 laps
Pit Road Speed: 55 mph
Pace Car Speed: 70 mph
2021 Daytona 500 Winner: Michael McDowell – No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford (Started 17th, one lap led)
2021 August Daytona Winner: Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford (Started sixth, seven laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Bill Elliott (42.783 seconds, 210.364 mph – 02/15/1987)
Top-10 Driver Ratings at Daytona:
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 91.9
- Austin Cindric – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 91.5
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 89.8
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 88.0
- Kurt Busch – No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota – 85.1
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 84.9
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 82.3
- Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 81.5
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 80.3
- Austin Dillon – No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – 79.8
Thus far, two days of activity have seen cars on track for a pair of practice sessions and single car qualifying to set the front row, but on Thursday night, the real action begins with the Bluegreen Vacations Duel 150s to set the remainder of the field. Thus far, only polesitter Kyle Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman have their starting positions secure on the front row.
“it’s really neat,” Larson said. “It makes me just, I mean anytime you are really proud of your team to get a pole here cause this is the littlest it has to do with us drivers, qualifying at superspeedways.
“Just a huge thank you to the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports. Everybody who’s had a part in touching these vehicles, whether it be on the computer, engineering, or just hands on. It’s really neat, just awesome the speed in our HendrickCars.com Chevy. Hopefully this is the beginning of a really good weekend.”
With 42 cars attempting to make the 40-car field, two drivers will miss out on their chance to run in the Great American Race. Two of the “open” cars, Noah Gragson and Jacques Villenueve, have also clinched their spot in the field after turning in the fastest single-car speeds among the open cars during qualifying Wednesday night.
“I was convinced we didn’t have the speed to get in on time, and I thought we would then have to fight it through the Duels,” Villenueve said. “Somehow today the car was a lot easier to drive. It was easy to be smooth because we got in by not a lot. It was very, very close.
“It was all a matter of getting right up to speed coming out of turn two, going through the gears, getting away from the wall to not block the air, just getting these extra few revs and that made the difference.”
That leaves four cars to battle it out for the final two spots, with Greg Biffle, in his return to the Cup Series for the first time since 2016, Kaz Grala, Timmy Hill, and David Ragan laser focused on Thursday night’s race.
After the field is set, just two 50-minute practice sessions remain on Friday and Saturday before Sunday’s main event.
From the Driver’s Seat
“I think ‘wild card’ is a bit gimmicky because it’s not really true, but it is to some extent,” three-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin said. “We’ve seen a lot of first-time winners here which has all been really legit. I wouldn’t say Michael McDowell was a wild card winner because if you look at previous races, he’d been in the top 10 or top five pretty consistently. It wasn’t really an out of the blue shot there.
“In general, I just think I have a good understanding of the air here and how it moves around the walls. Talladega is different. If you look at our results, we haven’t won as much at Talladega, but we’ve been pretty good. Here, there is just something about – whatever it is – the banking or the width of the track, height of the walls or something that I just kind of know where those little pockets of air are it seems like that are a little bit better.
“We have a new car now and it’s going to move around a little bit different and we will probably be learning just like everyone else will be this weekend. I don’t know that the advantage really will be as big as what it was in the past.”
Last Year’s Results
A year removed from Ryan Newman’s harrowing crash in the 2020 edition of the Great American Race, carnage reigned supreme in the waning moments of last year’s race at the World Center of Racing.
With the Harley J. Earl trophy on the line, it was every man for himself on the final lap, as Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski ran 1-2 down the backstretch, with Michael McDowell in tow behind them.
As runs were beginning to build behind the top three drivers, McDowell gave Keselowski a shot to the rear bumper, with the shove giving him a boost of speed and a decision to make on how to try and get past his teammate in an effort to finally score a Daytona 500 win that has eluded him over the years.
Keselowski would wind up making contact with Logano heading into Turn 3, turning both his teammate and himself into the outside wall and setting off a fiery crash that involved eight cars when all was said and done. Aside from Logano and Keselowski, the others that were caught up in the melee included Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Chase Elliott, Ryan Preece, and Bubba Wallace.
McDowell was able to sneak through the chaos to take the win – his first in 357 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series. During his victory press conference, the newly minted Daytona 500 winner gave his recollection of the accident as it unfolded right in front of him.
“I definitely was pushing Brad,” McDowell said. “The last lap you just lock bumpers and push as hard as you could. But I gave him a shove, but we actually got disconnected and thankfully we did because it’s when we got disconnected, and I didn’t see how Joey and Brad got together, but it’s when we got disconnected that the contact was made and that gave me a little bit of a gap to get through, otherwise I would have been right on the 2.
“The way these runs work, sometimes when you hit a guy you kind of push him out a little bit and you get detached from him, and Brad and I had a great run and I was on his bumper and then he pulled down and I got a little bit detached from him and then him and the 22 got together.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Thursday, February 17
- NCS Bluegreen Vacations Duel 150 No. 1 (7:00 pm – 60 laps, 150 miles – FOX Sports 1)
- NCS Bluegreen Vacations Duel 150 No. 2 (9:00 pm approx. – 60 laps, 150 miles – FOX Sports 1)
Friday, February 18
- NCS Practice (5:35 pm to 6:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)
Saturday, February 19
- NCS Final Practice (10:30 am to 11:20 am – FOX Sports 2, moves to FS1 at 11:00 am)
Sunday, February 20
- NCS 64th Annual Daytona 500 (2:30 pm – 200 laps, 500 miles – FOX)