Friday 5: Daytona 500, Speedweeks prove costly to teams

Dustin Long
NBC Sports

Crashes collected an alarmingly high number of cars in the Daytona 500 for a fourth consecutive year.

Thirty-two of the 40 cars — 80% of the field — in this year’s Daytona 500 were involved in a crash based on NASCAR’s race report and video review.

In the last four years, 81.3% of the cars in the season-opening Cup race were involved in an accident. 

Despite the number of cars damaged in Daytona 500 crashes, Ryan Newman is the only Cup driver taken to a hospital in the past four years. He was released from Halifax Medical Center on Wednesday but will not race this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, ending his streak of 649 consecutive Cup starts that dates to his rookie season in 2002.

While there is an expectation of cars wrecking in the sport’s most prestigious race because of the tight racing, it hasn’t always been this extreme.

From 2013-16, the percentage of cars involved in an accident in the Daytona 500 was 42.6% — nearly half the percentage of cars damaged in crashes the past four years. 

Among the reasons for the dramatic increase is that more crashes begin toward the front of the field.

The 19-car crash in Monday’s Daytona 500 started when a shove from Joey Logano pushed Aric Almirola into Brad Keselowski’s car. Keselowski, running second, was turned into the outside wall in front of the field.

A nine-car crash in overtime started when Ross Chastain, running fourth, got out of shape after contact with Ryan Preece’s car and came up the track into Preece and Logano.

And Newman’s crash coming to the checkered flag happened while he led.

In 2019, 21 cars were involved in a crash with less than 10 laps left in the scheduled distance. It started when Matt DiBenedetto, running fifth, turned in front of the field after contact from behind by Paul Menard.

The 2018 race featured a 12-car crash that started when Kurt Busch, running third, got hit from behind and spun in front of the field, forcing the race to go to overtime.

In the 2017 race, 17 cars crashed after Jimmie Johnson, running third, was hit and spun in front of the field.

Blocking also has been cited for an increase in incidents. As to what is considered fair when blocking, Martin Truex Jr. said a few days before this year’s race: Well, I think lately anything is fair. It tends to cause a lot of crashes, too, but it seems like that’s par for the course in speedway racing these days is just block until you crash and go to the next one.”

All the cars crashed in this year’s Daytona 500 pushed the total number of vehicles in a wreck during Speedweeks to 102 for the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series.

It’s the third time in the last eight years the number of damaged vehicles exceeded 100 for Speedweeks.

Included in that total were all 18 cars in the Busch Clash. Winner Erik Jones was listed in three crashes in that exhibition race.

2. Xfinity drivers get help

This season marks the first full season Xfinity drivers will be able to look at some data from competitors, much like Cup drivers do.

“I think it changes the game, especially for the rookies,” Chase Briscoe told NBC Sports.

Xfinity drivers could look at the data in the last two races of last season, Phoenix and Miami. Briscoe said the technology, which translates data to virtual effects via live tracking of cars, helped him at Phoenix.

“I’ve always told everybody that Phoenix is my worst racetrack,” Briscoe said. “For me to be able to have SMT (sports media technology) and see what guys do different (helps). We don’t have the SMT that the Cup guys have, we don’t have throttle, brake or steering. We only have GPS so we can literally only see what the car is doing line-wise and acceleration-wise. I can’t see what Kyle Busch is doing inside his race car, but I can see where his car is line-wise compared to mine and where he enters the corner.

“I know my crew chief is super excited about it. He wants me to sit down in the shop and watch two hours of the track we’re going to before we go that weekend. It’s definitely going to be a tool that we’re going to use a lot of.”

Briscoe says the technology looks like a video game, and he can change the camera angle to study another competitor.

Brandon Jones said a key is that the team can look at the data live, so his crew chief can help him change lines during a race. At Miami last year, Jones was told by his team he wasn’t driving deep enough in the corner based on the data they were looking at.

“That gave me a thought to say, hey, this is what we’ve got to do to get the car to able to do that, so it’s going to help me with adjustments,” Jones said.

3. On to Las Vegas

Among the key storylines this weekend for Cup teams at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be the performance of the Chevrolet teams with the new Camaro.

Changes were made from last year’s car to improve the aerodynamics. Chevrolet teams won 11 of 72 races in 2018-19 — its fewest wins in a two-year period since the manufacturer scored four victories in 1981-82. A Chevrolet has not made the championship Cup race since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title.

“I feel like last year Chevy came, they just missed the ball,” car owner Richard Petty said. “You know what I mean? They thought they had something good. 

“This year they corrected a lot of these mistakes. We hope they corrected it enough that we’re going to be competitive everywhere we go. I think from that standpoint, Chevrolet and all the Chevrolet people are really looking forward to making up for what we did last year.”

Chevrolet did win two races on 1.5-mile tracks last year (tracks the same size as Las Vegas). Alex Bowman won at Chicagoland Speedway, and Kurt Busch won at Kentucky Speedway.

4. Leaner driver

Ty Dillon says he’s lost more than 30 pounds since focusing on a workout program. He weighed 167 pounds before the season.

“I thought naively as a driver who had raced his whole life, as a Cup driver I didn’t really need to work out and take my physical (role) seriously,” said Dillon, who has former driver Blake Koch as a trainer. “In the past few years I’ve taken it serious for the first time. It has made me a better driver.”

Dillon, who is beginning his fourth season in Cup, admits: “I didn’t think I was heavy. I didn’t think I needed to workout. I just relied purely on my skill.

“I just feel different (now). I’m stronger, mentally stronger, more confident. You look back at those pictures, and you just see you’re just naive and young. You mature and grow as a person, and I think you start realizing what is important.”

5. Phoenix adjustment

Phoenix Raceway will have the PJ1 traction compound again applied to the track for next month’s races. That event marks the debut of the short track package for Cup that is intended to tighten the racing.

The traction compound will be applied in the corners but will be applied more along the driving line. Last fall, the traction compound was applied close to the wall. It will not be as high this time in the turns.

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