A dud of a Speedweeks was saved on its final day in its biggest race.
Frustration had been bubbling over after the repeated scene of drivers running single-file along the outside wall. In the Clash, the one guy who tried to make it a race ended up wrecking the field. The final 45 laps of the Xfinity Series cannot be forgotten quickly enough. Don’t remember what happened? That’s because nothing did as the field followed Michael Annett across the finish line.
Daytona had been a disaster going into the 61st annual Daytona 500.
There may be no telling why things were different. Did it have something to do with Jim France standing up in the driver/crew chief meeting Sunday morning expressing his hope to see other drivers join Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott in the bottom lane putting “on a show?” Was it because the weather was different than it had been all week? Or maybe it was the drivers finally deciding to get up on the wheel and race.
“This is the Daytona 500,” said winning crew chief Chris Gabehart. “It’s the sport’s best 36 drivers out there, and the racetrack is heated up 50 degrees. It’s time to get after it. This one counts, and not only does it count, but it’s the biggest one of the year and anybody who thought they were going to line up and ride around the top for the Daytona 500 for 490 miles doesn’t know the competitive nature of these guys.
“I chuckled with my guys on the intercom five laps into the race when they were two-wide, and you can see the cars sliding around and getting runs. I’m like, oh, yeah, anybody who thought this thing was going to line up and be boring has got another thing coming. Needless to say, that was the case. It’s just a whole ‘nother thing. The Daytona 500 with everybody out there trying to get after it, it’s not going to be boring.”
Yes, there were wrecks: quite a few in the final 10 laps. But those had only been a matter of time. Open comes the pay window, away goes the give and take that drivers had earlier in the day, and any room for mistakes gets smaller. Second-place finisher Kyle Busch said, “brains come unglued.”
Daytona had a little bit of everything to make it a successful day. From the drop of the green flag, the race resembled that of a restrictor-plate event with the field two and three wide, drivers looking for the best lane and hoping their drafting help was stronger than those around them. Drivers who wanted to be at the front could make the moves to do so.
At many times throughout the day, there was also a nice mix of fresh faces making their presence felt. Polesitter William Byron did an impressive job leading the race a few months after being criticized at the same track by Brad Keselowski for throwing a bad block. David Ragan, Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon, and Ryan Preece also ran up front.
How about the guy who led the most laps? Matt DiBenedetto, the personable and energetic Californian, drew the praise of others by leading 49 laps and running strongly until his race ended on lap 192.
“I thought the racing today was pretty good,” said Busch. “I think having a full field of cars obviously just allowed the bottom to materialize, and have enough strength down there to be able to keep some momentum rolling and not everybody just being able to be so strong around the top. I thought the two wide, sometimes the wide three action, sometimes the mixing it up guys would get loose and get shuffled out… was pretty intense there a few times.”
Better late than never. From dud to dramatic.