Long: New season leads to new questions after Clash

Dustin Long
NBC Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — So many questions. And so much work to do before next weekend’s Daytona 500.

While Brad Keselowski celebrated his first Clash win a few hours after Alex Bowman won the Daytona 500 pole, a level of uncertainty permeated the garage Sunday.

The elimination of the ride-height rule made the cars look like low-riders and altered their personalities. Drivers talked about getting big runs but having balance issues with their car when they made a move.

On a day when temperatures reached into the 80s, handling again was a key word. While Harry Hogge famously told Cole Trickle on the movie screen that “loose is fast,’’ reality Sunday was that loose was a handful.

It also was a day where slimmer pit crew — cut back by one over-the-wall person — debuted, creating an assortment of ways to service a car that will have teams studying videos of each other.

Although the Clash was not the jaw-dropping, eye-popping finish that a restrictor-plate track can produce at times, remember this was an appetizer, not the main course that the Daytona 500 is.

“Who would have thought they would have run single-file for 30 laps?’’ Kevin Harvick said after his ninth-place finish in the Clash. “In an exhibition race, there really shouldn’t be any strategy to it. That was a little bit surprising to me. I was trying to be aggressive and do things in the back and the next thing I know I’m losing the draft because everybody is single-file.

“Usually, they get mixing it up, two-wide and you can pull back up and get yourself back in it. My bad for losing the draft for trying to do something.’’

Sunday was the first race for drivers with the elimination of the ride-height rule. Stability is key. Not every car had it.

“You would think when the cars drive worse that the guys would wreck more, but the exact opposite happens,’’ Keselowski said after his first Clash win. “Everybody loses confidence and they fall in line and they don’t make as risky of moves, and then they don’t wreck, which is, it seems, completely backwards and counterintuitive for sure, but I think that’s what you saw today.’’

Now be careful of trying to take what happened in the Clash and projecting it to the 500. Teams will have time to adjust the cars and make the drivers feel more comfortable before next weekend’s checkered flag.

Even with the challenges, there were still some aggressive moves. Running third, Ryan Blaney dropped below reigning champion Martin Truex Jr. and squeezed back in front of Truex on his own.

“It was an aggressive move,’’ Blaney said after his fourth-place finish. “I had a big run. I was clear. I was looking in my mirror the whole time. I don’t care if I’m clear by 3 inches or 3 feet, I’m coming up.’’

Another time Chase Elliott pushed Denny Hamlin through part of the field with a big run. 

“He and I worked really well together,’’ said Elliott, who finished 13th after being collected in a last-lap crash. “He had a fast car and so did we. I think we kind of understood what we needed and was able to push our way forward a couple of times. It’s just all numbered dependent, who’s behind you, how good a pusher they are and how scared they are.’’

Such runs were attention-grabbing.

“The game may be a little bit quicker,’’ runner-up Joey Logano said.

“Just think the runs happen quicker. It’s kind of like in the Xfinity race. In the Xfinity races, the cars get these huge runs, and they’re hard to stop. This is maybe not quite to that extent, but the runs you can build are way bigger than they used to be, but that bubble, that imaginary bubble in between the cars that we always talk about seems to be — stop us just as hard. So we get a bigger run, but it kind of stops us just as much.’’

They’ll work through that just as teams will continue to refine pit road. New spec air guns and only five people servicing the car instead of six slowed the pit stops.

Racing Insights stated that the fastest four-tire pit stop Sunday was 16.6 seconds by Jimmie Johnson’s team. Last year, the fastest four-tire stop in the Clash was 11.8 seconds by Elliott’s team.

“We’ll have to go back and study all that and see,’’ said Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe, whose team only did a two-tire stop. “I’m sure there was a lot of different ideas and theories on pit road of what was going to be the fastest pit stop.’’

Among the different way of servicing the cars, Keselowki’s tire carrier had both front and rear tires when he went over the wall. When Harvick’s pit crew went from the right side to the left side of the car to change the tires, the jackman raised the car and then placed the left rear tire on. After the tire carrier placed the left front tire on the car, he went around the front changer and dropped the jack for Harvick to go.

“It was a learning day,’’ Wolfe said.

A new day, a new way to do things.

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