When you think of motorsports in any capacity, specifically in America, the word “Daytona” will most certainly spring to mind. The place is steeped in history, from the IMSA’s Rolex 24 Hour race in January to being the very birthplace of NASCAR as we know it. Indeed, this beach town on the Atlantic coast is a pilgrimage for any hardcore stock car fan. I may be partial to the road racing in IMSA and IndyCar, but this annual father-son trip is something I always look forward to. Not only do we finally see some cars on track after months of waiting, but it’s also a chance to escape the long Wisconsin winter for a few days. While my co-hosts were off gallivanting at the Chicago Auto Show this past weekend, I was doing some real field work in the bright Florida sunshine. 4 days of track action awaited my dad and me: the Duel Qualifying Races on Thursday, the Gander Outdoor Truck Series season opener on Friday, the Xfinity Series 300-miler (featuring friend of the podcast and future of NASCAR Josh Bilicki) on Saturday, and of course, the one and only Daytona 500 to cap it all off on Sunday. Below is my day by day report of what went down at Daytona 2019.
Thursday – Duel Qualifying Races
Plot twist: We didn’t go to the qualifying races! Gotcha! We have gone plenty of times in the past, but these races have become kind of stale in the past few years. The Daytona 500 is different than any major auto race out there. The Sunday before race day, single car qualifying is held. But the only 2 positions locked into the race at that point are the fastest two drivers. Everyone else is split into 2 qualifying races that are held the Thursday before race day. You want in? You gotta race for it! Exciting concept, right? Yeah! But in reality...The problem is that teams are now allowed to buy full-season “charters” that lock them into every race they show up to. Think of it as an entry fee for all 36 races, paid up front. Another issue is that if you do any damage to your car between qualifying and the race and need to switch to a backup car, you have to start in the back of the field. These rules mean that most of the teams with a starting spot guaranteed by their charter will just ride around to conserve their equipment for Sunday’s big race. A wise decision on their part, but not very entertaining. So this year, my dad and I switched it up and went to a local track for some grassroots dirt track racing instead.
Volusia Speedway Park is about a half hour inland from Daytona, where literally ALL of the alligators live. Every year around the same time as Daytona hosts the beginning of NASCAR’s season, this ½ mile clay oval plays host to the Dirt Car Nationals: 10 days straight of sprint cars, modifieds and dirt late models, all of which boast 700hp engines that can rattle your ribcage and shatter your eardrums. The sprint cars were parked for the night, but we got experience both the late models and modifieds, and the field of cars was MASSIVE. The modified cars were the support class, with 34 participants, and the late models had 52 entries! And these late models were super quick, averaging 95mph in a half mile! That would be quick even if they were on pavement. And at that speed, when they come directly right at your seat with their right rear corner poked out in what can only be described as a controlled spin, it is quite the spectacle to behold.
There was just one problem…we didn’t bring any eye protection. When these cars roar past the grandstand a massive cloud of dust and dirt specs wafts it’s way right into your eyeballs within about 3 seconds. Because we didn’t bring any sort of eye protection, we were both forced to either close our eyes or look away each lap, which means we missed about half of the races. I had never seen these cars on track before and I definitely want to go back, better prepared, so I can make a better overall assessment of the sport.
Friday-Gander Outdoor Truck Series
Friday night gave us our first look at the big 2.5 mile tri-oval that is Daytona International Speedway. No matter how many times I’ve been there before, I’m always taken aback by the enormity of the facility when I first walk through the gates. How big is it? Well, 15 professional sports stadiums could fit in the infield.That doesn’t include the grandstands, the concourses, vendor village or parking. When I eventually pulled my jaw back up to my face I was able to focus on the task at hand: truck racing.
As we talked about on our “Ask Dr. Nick” episode, the truck series is a developmental series that gives top tier NASCAR teams’ young drivers a chance to prove themselves on the national scene prior to getting “called up” to the bigger leagues, racing Chevy Silverados, Ford F-150s or Toyota Tundras. Think AA baseball. Mix in a few veterans in the twilights of their careers and you get a mixed bag of talent and experience…and it showed.
As soon as the green flag dropped, a demolition derby broke out. I didn’t verify the actual number, but I would bet they never finished 10 consecutive green flag laps before someone wrecked. The race had no rhythm, no flow and it was really hard to maintain interest. Alas, half of the laps completed were under caution and only 5 of the 32 starters finished without major damage. There were a few stragglers barely putting around, so total trucks on track totaled maybe 12 at the end. Not fun. As our group left, we all looked at each other and summed it up pretty succinctly, “That sucked.” But, I have to give a hearty congrats to Austin Hill, who navigated through all the wreckage to claim his first career win. First wins are always huge, but they are amplified times a bajillion when that win comes at Daytona. We were just hoping that the next day would give us a better show.
Saturday – Xfinity Series
We didn’t get a better show.
Before I get into the race itself, this was the day when we showed up early to wander through the vendor village. Teams had their merchandise trailers set up, sponsors had their activation tents, bands were playing, and Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet had set up massive booths to peruse. Chevy and Ford had a bunch of trucks and SUVs because that’s all they make anymore. Toyota used the platform that Daytona provides to introduce the new Supra to the masses, and dear GOD is it awful. It’s way worse in person than any pictures could let on. The front looks like some sort of mosquito. They didn’t have any performance figures to share, because they know it’s awful. And the car doesn’t come close to fitting the Xfinity Series body template! The race version is literally a Camry with new decals. Just pitiful…anyway we had a race to go watch, or so we thought.
The Xfinity drivers must’ve seen the race from the previous night and decided, “Well we’re not going to get THAT crazy.” This race had one yellow flag the whole time. Most cars stayed in a single file line from start to finish, just like the qualifying races we thought we avoided by going to the dirt track two nights before. No one did anything. Ever. If someone was brave enough to attempt something as bold as a pass, they were left out of the draft because no one would go with them, and they fell towards the rear of the field. I was really looking forward to the Xfinity race. It is normally the best race of this weekend, and our pal Josh Bilicki was stepping up to some competitive equipment. Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to the hype.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well Nick, you don’t like it when they crash, and you don’t like it when they don’t crash, so what do you want here?” What I want, is good racing. Good racing doesn’t mean crashes. Action doesn’t mean torn up equipment. I want to see the skill of these drivers as they maneuver and out strategize one another in pursuit of the trophy. They are in this position at the top of the racing world for a reason: they’re damn good! So show me that. Don’t ride around waiting for the end, and don’t turn your vehicle into a battering ram either. Just race somebody. Sunday’s group was bound to deliver, right?
Sunday – Monster Energy Cup – Daytona 500
Finally, the big day was here. The headline act. The Daytona 500! The super bowl of the sport, with the 40 best stock car drivers on the planet competing. And for a vast majority of the race, these guys delivered a great show.
For 190 laps, the 40 racers were slicing, dicing, making powerful passes, bouncing around between drafting partners and leaving us all in awe. At some points, varying pit strategies split the field into smaller groups that were pretty spread out, but that didn’t bother me that much because I was curious to see which strategy was going to play out the best. This was a legitimately fun race to watch for multiple different reasons, until lap 191…
With 10 laps to go, everyone’s brains fell out of their skulls. First, a massive 21 car pileup that I’m sure you’ve all seen by now took out over half the field. This resulted in a red flag due to the massive amount of cleanup required. And that was just the beginning…crash after crash, yellow after yellow flag, even one more red flag caused the last 10 laps to last over an hour in real time. By the time the dust settled, there were only 3 cars that hadn’t received some type of damage. Two of them, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, are the two drivers that I hate the most and they ended up finishing 1-2. For sentimental reasons, this was a big moment because both Hamlin and Busch, along with 3rd place finisher Erik Jones, drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, whose president J.D. Gibbs passed away earlier this year at only 49 years old. To have J.D.’s team finish 1-2-3 at Daytona, in the first race since his passing, was a huge deal. But while that’s a great story, I was still pissed that my least favorite drivers did so well and that the end of a really good race turned into such a mess.
While the racing on all 4 days left something to be desired, I have to say that all in all this was a great weekend. I got to spend some quality time with my dad and some friends, I forgot about work for a few days, and I wasn’t freezing my ass off in Chicago with my cohosts! I’ve been back in Wisconsin for less than a week and I already can’t wait to go back.