By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It was poised to become one of the most memorable Daytona 500 finishes of all time until it became just another Daytona 500 finish of our times.
Kyle Busch, with a push from Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon had taken the lead from Brad Keselowski and RFK Racing teammate Chris Buescher and were speeding to the white flag when a Daniel Suárez spin produced the most predictable outcome imaginable — a series of overtimes that eventually sent Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to Victory Lane.
It’s a good story and the JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 are deserving winners but it wasn’t the most authentic story that could have played out.
Busch and Keselowski are bonafide first-ballot Hall of Famers with only the Great American Race omitted from their resumes. Dillon, the 2018 winner, said after the race that he was committed to getting Busch the Harley J. Earl.
Keselowski, anytime Buescher connected to his rear bumper, could find speed no one else seemingly could tap into on Sunday. It wasn’t inconceivable that they would chase the Childress cars right back down over the ensuing 2.5 miles. At the same time, William Byron in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 was right there as well.
Think about it: This was setting up to be an iconic battle between two champions without Daytona 500 wins and two of the three most iconic cars in the history of the Cup Series in the Childress 3 and Hendrick 24.
This was real Hollywood type stuff until the figurative script went out the window with the Suárez spin.
There is no one to blame, of course. Maybe race control could have kept their fingers off the button until after the leaders took the white flag but Suárez got stuck in the grass and NASCAR would have been eviscerated by the masses for that too.
It’s just a little disappointing from a racing purity standpoint that the current state of superspeedway racing regularly comes down to a series of restarts, crashes and a video replay to determine who was leading at the time of the caution.
That was real Powerball type stuff, befitting of the sanctioning body’s new partnership with the multi-state lottery game.
Again, this is to take nothing away from Stenhouse and crew chief Mike Kelley, who arguably had the best car in 2020 and 2021 and were also victimized by the slot pull nature of the discipline. Stenhouse has certainly established himself as one of the most competent drivers at Daytona and Talladega.
It’s a dynamic best articulated by a predictably sour Busch immediately after his crash and release from the infield care center.
“I don’t think you’re ever confident,” Busch said about overtime at Daytona. “Who won, who lucked into it?”
“There you have it.”
Again, Stenhouse arguably should have won a Daytona 500 on pure speed over the past three years but he’s also the third winner in a row with only superspeedway wins to his resume. It’s also really incredible that Denny Hamlin has been able to win this race three times over the past eight years. It speaks to some kind of inherent skillset needed to avoid the crashes and succeed at it alongside a powerful race car.
But still, the Great American Race has increasingly become the Great American Lottery. The unpredictability and closely contested packs are a NASCAR institution these days — they have turned Atlanta Motor Speedway into a diet version of Daytona and Talladega after all — but it absolutely makes it feel less prestigious.
The Southern 500 in a lot of ways is starting to feel like the true ultimate barometer of NASCAR success but individual mileage may vary of course.
While this iteration of Daytona 500 racing isn’t for everyone, there was a great deal of positive energy surrounding Speedweek.
Crowds were visibly up for the undercard races and everyone within the industry seems to be in a really positive headspace. The past five years have created a lot of tension between COVID, NA18D, the Next-Gen and general motorsport economic issues.
The sport seems to have some real momentum behind it as a result of a competitive season, drivers who are developing larger personalities in ways not seen since the 90s and early 2000s and the lingering aftermath of the Ross Chastain ‘Hail Melon’ at Martinsville last fall. You can’t underestimate what that much authentic, unpaid media coverage can do for any industry.
There is work to be done to make this generation of car safer and more racey on short tracks and road courses, but there is a lot of merit to the diversity of winners it created last year. The teams seem more invested with their increased chances to compete on any given week and their fanbases (and sponsors) all have increased reasons to be invested.
NASCAR’s efforts to cater to a broader audience is really starting to pay off, but there is equal efforts to connect with its past with the 75th anniversary activation, returning to North Wilkesboro Speedway and a throwback Truck Series title sponsor in Craftsman too.
It’s a really challenging needle to thread, making NASCAR for everyone, but there is legitimate a lot of positive vibes for motorsports across the board this season and it just wasn’t at Daytona too. Crowds and car counts were up at nearby Volusia and New Smyrna too, showing how a healthier NASCAR trickles down to the grassroots.
EARLY PLAYOFF SHAKEUP
People forget that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a two-time Xfinity Series champion with eight wins in that division during an era where there were no rules preventing Cup Series drivers from entering races under any circumstance.
That mean his wins came against Kyle Busch and Joey Logano when Gibbs and Penske were at the absolute peak of their dominance with Cup drivers ‘bushwhacking.’ The same goes for his own teammate in Carl Edwards.
Instead, people choose to remember the Stenhouse that got benched as a prospect for tearing up race cars at Roush in 2009 or the driver who accumulated the highest crash rates in recent memory at the Cup Series level.
Here’s the deal: At Roush Fenway and JTG Daugherty over the past decade. Stenhouse has not been on equal footing and has pushed himself really hard to overcompensate for the engineering differences between his cars and those that won each week. Driving that hard is what he determined it was going to take to make the playoffs.
He concedes that it was probably too hard at times.
But that’s not to be confused for a lack of talent, best articulated by Kelley, his long-time crew chief and competition director at both Roush and now at JTG.
“I’m going to tell you, Ricky is good everywhere,” Kelley said. “In 2011 and ’12, when he had competitive cars in the Xfinity Series, we raced against the best in that series, and it was Harvick and Carl and Joey Logano, and we won a lot of races everywhere.
“Short tracks we would lead a lot of laps. I think we won three out of four at Iowa and led 298 laps at ORP and we were in contention to win road courses. Is he extra good at superspeedways? Yes, yes, he is, and I’ve always seen that, and we’ve been fortunate enough to come close a lot of times.”
For the first time in his Cup Series career, Stenhouse is going to begin the season with a win and all but guaranteed a Cup Series playoff spot.
Yes, no shot there’s 17 winners in 2023.
Stenhouse can now return to the efficient form that made him a two-time champion in an era before playoffs came to the Xfinity Series. Stenhouse has that gear. He just couldn’t use it before.
Combine that with a more level playing field, and Stenhouse is going to be better poised to just take what the car gives him for the next 25 weeks leading up to the Round of 16. There will be moments to be aggressive, but 2023 will also feature peak value Ricky Stenhouse.
“If we feel like 15th is where we need to be that given week, then that’s where I’m going to try and get the car to and not try and get it to 10th or 5th like I tend to do,” he said.
“That’s something that we’re going to be super focused on this year of finishing races. Mike brought up this off-season back in the Nationwide Series when we had fast race cars, in 2011 we finished, I think, 98.9 percent of the laps, and in 2012 I think we finished 98.2 percent of the laps, and the only laps we didn’t finish were crashes at superspeedways.
“We know that we can do that together as a race team, and we’re looking forward to showing everybody that.”