Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Previewing the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 at Daytona

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

Had the original 2021 schedule held, the NASCAR Cup Series would have been heading down I-95 to Homestead-Miami Speedway, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced some changes, meaning NASCAR’s top division will be staying in Daytona for another week.

After last weekend’s running of the Daytona 500 on the oval, it’s the track’s 3.61-mile, 14-turn road course that will be the focus this Sunday for the running of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253.

The 70-lap race will be the third for the Cup Series on the road course in the past six months, having run its inaugural race at the track last August, followed by the February 10th running of the Busch Clash exhibition race.

Chase Elliott, who took home the trophy at the track last year and was in the running for the win in the Busch Clash, will start Sunday’s race from the pole, with Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell starting alongside him on the front row.

The track will remain largely unchanged from the two previous races, with the exception of rumble strips being added to the bus stop on the backstretch in an effort to alleviate the problem with dirt being kicked up onto the track and clogging up the grille of the cars.

“We had a really big issue with a lot of dirt on our windshield after having to start in the back,” said Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson. “It was pretty debilitating to our efforts. I certainly think that needed to be addressed, not only for the competition, but for the safety in general. I’ve seen where they were putting the concrete in and they’re going to put the turtles on top of that; I haven’t seen the turtles yet.

“It looked like a good fix to me in short order. It should be good. I don’t really have any issue with guys shortening and straightening that bus stop; that’s their job and that’s what they’re supposed to do. Just the dirt was a problem.”

By the Numbers

What: O’Reilly Auto Parts 253, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 2 of 36

Where: Daytona International Speedway Road Course – Daytona Beach, Florida

When: Sunday, February 21

TV/Radio: FOX, 3:00 pm ET/MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: 3.61-mile, 14-turn road course

Banking: 31 degrees in oval turns, 18 degrees in tri-oval, 6 degrees on straightaways

Race Length: 70 laps, 252.7-miles

Stage Lengths: First stage: 16 laps; Second stage: 18 laps; Final stage: 36 laps

2020 Race Winner: Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet (Started seventh, 34 Laps Led)

Top-10 Highest Driver Rating at the Daytona Road Course:

  1. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet – 135.3
  2. Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Toyota – 126.5
  3. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 116.0
  4. William Byron – No. 24 Chevrolet – 102.3
  5. Kaz Grala – No. 16 Chevrolet – 86.8
  6. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 86.3
  7. Michael McDowell – No. 34 Ford – 85.7
  8. Erik Jones – No. 43 Chevrolet – 85.7
  9. Alex Bowman – No. 48 Chevrolet – 84.8
  10. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chevrolet – 84.7
  11. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 85.9

From the Driver’s Seat

“I think the whole allure of that place – getting up on the high-banked turns of Daytona in (turns) one and two and then the chicane and bus stop through the backstretch and getting back on the high banks in (turns) three and four – is unlike any other road course ever, anywhere,” said Kyle Busch.

“No other road course we can race on has banking like that. The allure of the speedway, I felt like, was always the main banking in one and two and three and four, and the tri-oval back to the turn one entrance. The speed you carried from the bus stop to the turn one entrance really lended itself to drafting and making moves with the draft and air.”

Last Time at the Daytona Road Course

In the two previous races at the Daytona Road Course, the Go Bowling 235 last August and the non-points paying Busch Clash less than two weeks ago, there was one common denominator in the closing laps – Chase Elliott.

Elliott looked to have a runaway win in the bag last August, leading by close to eight seconds with only a handful of laps left when a caution came out, bunching up the field for the final run to the finish. Denny Hamlin gave Elliott a run for his money over the closing laps, but was unable to get past the eventual Cup Series champion, with Elliott crossing the line .202-seconds ahead.

The win was the third straight road course win for Elliott, who would make it four road course wins in a row at Charlotte later in the 2020 season.

“Any win at Daytona is special, and Alan and I were joking, he said we had to change it to a road case to win a race here at Daytona,” Elliott said. “That was his first win here.  This is his home track, he’s from down here, so I think that was really cool.  Yeah, just a great day.

“Obviously Watkins Glen has been good to us, but I was just really happy that we replaced a road course with a road course and didn’t just pile something else on the schedule to check a box.  I think there was a lot of effort into getting this road course done and completed in time, so appreciate Daytona and everybody that works in the facilities here to be able to turn it that fast, and did a really nice job with it.”

Fast-forward to the Busch Clash and it was Elliott and his close friend Ryan Blaney battling for the lead in the closing laps, with Kyle Busch waiting in the wings behind them, hoping some fireworks would transpire.

Blaney, who had fresher tires as the laps wound down, passed Elliott with a lap and a half to go, but the reigning champion was not to be denied as he hounded Blaney for the remainder of the race. Heading into the final chicane, Elliott dove in deep, making contact with Blaney and sending the No. 12 Ford for a spin.

With Elliott off the pace after his contact with Blaney, Busch was able to sneak past him and score the victory — just as Blaney had done to win the inaugural race at the Charlotte Roval two years prior.

“A race is a race,” said Blaney.  “I don’t care if it’s an exhibition race or a normal points race.  I don’t care about that.  It’s racing, but I was upset about it, for sure.  Chase and I know each other well.  I know he didn’t do it on purpose, but sending it off in there hard like anybody would do it’s just a shame we both got taken out or neither one of us won the race.  If you’re gonna make a move like that make sure you either win the race, don’t let the third-place guy do it.”

Elliott noted that he saw the opportunity to go for the win and took it, even though things didn’t go as planned.

“I was close enough to drive it in there and I feel like I’d be mad at myself for not at least trying,” Elliott said. “Obviously, I don’t mean to wreck anybody, especially him. Some guys I wouldn’t mind. But he’s not one of them. Hopefully he’s not too mad at me.

“I feel like you’ve got to go for it here in an event like this in any situation. I can’t be sorry about going for the win, but I certainly didn’t mean to wreck him. I drove in there and, just that corner gets so tight and I didn’t want to just completely jump the curb to the right. But I feel like I tried to get over there as far as I could. And at that point we were coming together at the same time. I hate it. We had a fast Llumar Chevrolet in a position to have a shot at it.”

Even though it was a non-points win, Busch was soaking up his first victory with new crew chief Ben Beshore.

“I knew to keep my head down and keep focus ahead and see if I could keep hitting my marks to get close enough to have a shot like that – if something like that were to materialize,” Busch said of the final run to the finish.

“Fortunately, it did for us. I can’t say enough about Ben Beshore (crew chief) and this whole M&M’s team – this new M&M’s team. I appreciate what they do for me, everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, TRD. It’s awesome to start off the year with a win.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.