Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500 was a wildly chaotic affair, with eight caution flags and numerous, multi-car pileups that left 35 of the 40 starters with at least some degree of damage at the finish.
In the aftermath of similar carnage in the previous days’ Camping World Truck and XFINITY Series events, many railbirds were tempted to point a premature finger of blame at NASCAR’s new, multi-stage format. A check of the facts, however, points to another culprit; the drivers themselves.
The race started well, with exciting, three-wide racing through the first 250 miles. As the halfway flags flew, however, the “Great American Race” turned into a county fair demolition derby, with five major crashes in a 45-lap span.
On Lap 105, Kyle Busch’s bid for Victory Lane ended when he blew a tire and slammed the wall in Turns 3-4, sweeping up perennial Daytona favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, rookies Erik Jones and Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler. Busch, Earnhardt and Kenseth were eliminated from competition.
On Lap 128, Jamie McMurray, Trevor Bayne and seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson tangled, triggering a massive, 16-car mashup that eliminated Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick.
On Lap 137, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Trevor Bayne, Ryan Blaney, Sadler and Jeffrey Earnhardt drivers crashed on the backstretch, drawing yet another yellow flag and ending Stenhouse’s day.
|AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack|
On Lap 143, Brad Keselowski, Landon Cassill, Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman, DJ Kennington, Brendan Gaughan, Daniel Suarez, McMurray, Hamlin, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Ty Dillon were at it again on the backstretch, ending the afternoon for Earnhardt, Keselowski, McMurray, Suarez and Dillon.
And finally, on Lap 151, Gaughan and Joey Gase crashed on the backstretch, with Elliott once again getting a piece of the action.
That’s a whole lot of wrecking in a short period of time. None of it, however, can reasonably be blamed on NASCAR’s new, stage-oriented format.
Sunday’s First Stage ended on Lap 60, 28 laps after the race’s first yellow flag. Stage Two restarted without incident and ran caution-free for another 44 laps.
Stage Two concluded on Lap 120 -- again without incident – with Stage Three beginning cleanly and running seven laps – nearly 20 miles -- before the calamity began.
The final 49 circuits of the event also ran caution-free, despite some spirited, three-wide racing that produced a first-time winner in Kurt Busch, but only after youthful contenders Elliott and Kyle Larson fell out contention after sputtering out of fuel on the final lap.
Is NASCAR’s fledgling format to blame? Absolutely not.
“Stage racing hasn’t contributed to any crashes,” said Stenhouse, shortly after being eliminated in the Lap 137 backstretch twister. “We finished every stage under green with no issues, so I would say stage racing was not the issue.”
Harvick said the blame lies under the helmet, saying, “We got some (drivers) up there that didn’t need to be up there, and wound up doing more than their car could do.”
That often happens in restrictor plate racing, regardless of format.
The World Center of Racing has always been unpredictable, and Sunday’s race was hardly the first season opener to be afflicted by an outbreak of Yellow Fever. It has happened for decades, and it will happen again.
Bet on it.
There will be plenty of time in coming weeks to assess NASCAR’s new, stage-based format. The sport’s annual Western Swing – with events at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Auto Club Speedways – should provide a calmer, less-volatile yardstick with which to measure.