The 2020 Daytona 500: Get ready for pushing, shoving and wreckingby Bob Pockrass
Kevin Harvick might have had the best car in the second Daytona 500 qualifying race Thursday night, but he also was realist as he drove his Ford around following a fourth-place finish.
“Beat by numbers there,” Harvick told his team after Chevrolets took the three top spots — and seven of the top 11.
The Daytona 500 likely will turn into a numbers game Sunday (FOX, 2:30 p.m. ET) at Daytona International Speedway: The number of cars left and the number of cars from each manufacturer.
If the qualifying races Thursday and the Busch Clash the previous Sunday showed anything, it showed that teams remained determined to work primarily with cars of their manufacturer. That Hendrick-Toyota thing the 2019 Daytona 500 had going on that resulted in Toyota’s Denny Hamlin capturing the victory despite plenty of Ford prowess? Don’t count on it.
“I feel like there’s been a lot of gamesmanship played from manufacturers, people trying to work together,” said Chase Elliott, part of the Hendrick stable of Chevrolets. “It’s hard. I mean, it really is hard to get everybody on the same page and know when to draw that line and when to not.”
Chevrolet has 19 cars in the field, including the front row of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Alex Bowman. Ford owns 16 spots, while Toyota has just five.
“The dynamics of the race will probably mix it up a lot more than what you see there [in Thursday’s results],” Harvick said.
The dynamics of the Daytona 500 will encourage much more blocking and more tandem racing, as drivers will be willing to risk an accident in order to gain positions and win NASCAR’s biggest event.
In the Clash, Joey Logano attempted to block Kyle Busch, triggering a major multicar wreck. In the final lap, Erik Jones used an incredible push using a tandem draft – where one driver continuously pushes the car in front of him – from Hamlin to capture the win.
“That was a unique circumstance because I had so much damage, my car was really slow,” Jones said. “I was able to really keep Denny attached easy because I could just hold it wide open and Denny could push me wide open.”
Drivers probably didn’t want to tandem too much Thursday because of potential engine damage.
“A lot of things will change on Sunday,” said Harvick teammate Aric Almirola. “The pack will be bigger. There will be a lot more energy in the pack.
“Pushing and getting out that far [in the lead] is fine but when you become detached [from a tandem], you are going to get swallowed up by the energy in the pack coming from behind. You’ve got to be methodical and see what happens on Sunday.”
Jones, though, wouldn’t be surprised to see tandem at the end of the Daytona 500. William Byron got a great launch from Kurt Busch to win his qualifying race Thursday.
“Kevin played really nice and didn’t pull a big block,” Byron said.
No one plays nice with the Daytona 500 on the line. Almirola learned that two years ago on the final lap when he was tagged by Austin Dillon, a move that many drivers seemed to know they would make if put in the same position.
Hamlin has won two of the last four Daytona 500s. He doesn’t necessarily view that as a good thing when considering his odds for Sunday.
“I feel like the moves I make are thought out and I try to manage my risk,” Hamlin said. “It’s just part of it. I think the law of averages would tell you I’m due to get crashed out about the next six or seven Daytona 500s because the last six or eight I haven’t.”
Drivers will agree with that assessment, but they won’t agree with the fault. Brad Keselowski blamed his Penske teammate Logano for the big wreck in the Clash.
“You can’t win races that you’re not running at the finish of, and when you’re making double and triple blocks with the closing rates that the cars have right now, someone is going to the [medical] care center, more likely than not it’s going to be the car that started the block,” Keselowski said.
“So it seems strange to me to make a move that had almost 100 percent certainty of not working, that everyone can see.”
Apparently not everyone.
“I still don’t understand where I did anything wrong,” Logano said. “I made a good block to the 18 [of Busch] and got tagged.”
It isn’t rare for drivers not to agree, but they also are still learning the dynamics of the super speedway aero package introduced following the 2019 Daytona 500. The Daytona 500 will be only the second race with this package at Daytona and only the fourth overall. Busch said the cars react differently with 550 horsepower and aero ducts that push air through the front wheel wells than they did with the 450 horsepower package with no ducts. The leader cannot make sweeping blocks because the trailing cars are getting faster runs.
“If you can get the block done enough times, that bubble of air pushes you out and gets you forward,” Busch said. “That’s what [Logano] was trying to do but I was just too close. I was on him and you’ve got to accept the repercussions when you throw that many.”
The repercussions are wrecked race cars. So despite the Fords appearing to have the best cars throughout the races leading into Sunday, they know the reality they saw a year ago when Hamlin won.
“You can still have the fastest race cars and give it away,” Almirola said. “We’ve done that before.”