Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, FL — February 18, 2023
The Daytona 500 on Sunday, February 19th, 2023, signals the conclusion of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway. Given the high visibility of the 500, a lot of things happen during the days before “The Great American Race.”
Qualifying races, the Craftsman Truck Series, the ARCA Menard Series, and the Xfinity Series all get their day in the sun before the Cup Series drivers begin their season in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car racing.
Richard Petty was asked why stock car’s Super Bowl is scheduled at the beginning of the season instead of the end. “It’s the anticipation of seeing new cars, new paint jobs, new sponsors, and the lack of racing for a couple of months, all that combines to make the Daytona 500 one of the most anticipated events of the schedule. You would not have that if the race concluded the season.”
NASCAR is Back
After a couple of down years and the difficulties of the pandemic, the competitiveness of the “Next-Gen” car has rekindled a fire in NASCAR’s fan base. Every seat, every campsite, and every standing-room-only spot is sold for Sunday’s race.
That excitement was evident from the start of activities as drivers, teams, and sponsors all vied for attention from morning to midnight, starting with media day. Each sells their brand to get the most exposure from the money that pours into team coffers supporting the unique financial structure of this sport.
The biggest group of motorsports press writers, looking for that perfect quote, crowded around Jimmie Johnson as the Cup drivers cycled through the media center on Wednesday. The seven-time Cup Series Champion returns to NASCAR as an owner and will participate in a limited number of races on the 2023 schedule. Johnson just ended his two-year foray into IndyCar racing.
Travis Pastrana was not far behind, as everyone wanted to ask the Supercross, Motocross, and Rally Racing champion about his effort to try and qualify for the 500.
Pole Qualifying and Qualifying Races
On Wednesday evening, Alex Bowman won his third Daytona 500 pole helping Hendrick Motorsports sweep the front row for the fourth time in the last five years. Kyle Larson took the other spot at the front of the field after being denied a repeat of his first Daytona 500 pole earned last year.
However, it was Ford Performance that dominated the Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying races on Thursday, with Joey Logano and Aric Almirola taking the checkered flag in their respective heats. Ford Mustangs will occupy nine of the first 14 starting positions in the 500.
Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana made it into Sunday’s race based on their qualifying speed. Zane Smith and Conor Daly raced their way in, taking the final two available positions, thereby denying starting spots to Chandler Smith and Austin Hill.
Friday’s Craftsman Truck Series Race
Craftsman Tools returns to NASCAR to once again become the title sponsor for the Truck Series. Their promo team showed up with Craftsman swag, t-shirts, and hats to remind everyone it is now the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
Unfortunately, umbrellas were not a part of the gift packages. Mother nature messed with the running of the NextEra Energy 250 all evening as just enough rain fell to suspend racing but not enough to park the cars.
Until the skies opened up, and the race was red-flagged. Jet dryers were deployed to blow the moisture off the racing surface. Kudos to NASCAR for trying to get the event in. As the track returned to its normal gray color, the race trucks circled the 2.5-mile circuit for a couple of laps before another cloudburst shut the night’s events down for the final time. In all, 79 of the 100 scheduled laps were completed. However, 41 of the 79 were completed under the yellow flag. When it wasn’t raining, drivers were showing their frustration by running into each other.
Last year’s Truck Series champion, Zane Smith, was out front when the event was called. Giving him a second consecutive victory in the season-opening race. It also gave Ford Performance its third race win of the week. Undefeated for 2023, two Mustangs and one F-150 victory on the tally sheet.
Saturday Afternoon’s ARCA Menard Series Race
If a driver was going to stop Ford’s Speedweeks winning streak, we are glad it was Indiana native Greg Van Alst. The Arca Menard Series race featured Franki Muniz, the actor and star of television’s Malcolm in the Middle. Muniz finished 11th, far above the middle of the pack, after running in the top five during the middle to later parts of the race.
Van Alst, a frequent competitor at Gas City Speedway (where a number of Michigan drivers also compete), provided the icing on the cake to a great racing story. Taking the win at Daytona is the highlight of a heartwarming narrative. We will let Greg tell the tale himself, click on this link to his web page. You knew it was special when after pulling his car into victory lane, Greg jumped out and raced to hug and kiss his wife before attending to the duties expected of a Daytona race winner.
When you tune in to watch the Great American Race on Fox, the tri-oval grass will be spectacular. They keep the Daytona logo roped off so fans cannot tread on it during pre-race activities. Of course, the barriers are taken down before racing begins.
The number 4 car of Dale Quarterley got loose with ten laps to go in the ARCA Brandt 200 and slid completely through the Daytona script painted just in front of the flag stand at the start/finish line. On the final lap of the race, the 66 car of Jon Garrett followed in almost the exact tire tracks left by Quarterley.
We say the grass will be perfect tomorrow because that is the way they do things at Daytona. However, the grounds crew will be facing a late night after the Xfinity Race.
Saturday Evening’s Xfinity Series Race
The 300-mile Xfinity Series race was sponsored by “BEEF, It’s What’s For Dinner.” Indeed it was, as the cattlemen’s crew chef visited the press box to serve up sirloin, sweet potatoes, veggies, and cole slaw. Delicious!
Hopefully, the grounds crew got some of that good beef for dinner. Just 25 laps into the race Blaine Perkins got loose heading to the tri-oval. He spun and entered the grass at the same point Quarterley and Garrett did. Only he came to rest on top of another painted logo with a more intricate design.
The first event of the weekend to go into NASCAR overtime had Austin Hill and Justin Allgaier on the front row for the green-white-checkered finish. Allgaier ran the flat bottom of the track almost the whole way around to the green flag restart. He reported to his crew that the fuel pressure was fluctuating, and he was not sure there was enough gas in the tank to finish the race.
However, when the green flag flew, it was Allgaier that sprinted out to a three-car lead when the pack returned to take the white flag for one lap to go. On the final circuit around the track, it was a four-car sprint to the finish. Sam Mayer was leading down the backstretch when a bump from another car sent him airborne. He ended up on his hood with sparks flying everywhere. Mayer escaped unhurt.
That left Hill, Allgaier, and John Hunter Nemechek fighting to get a bumper in front before the caution flag signaled the end of the race. After the yellow lights illuminated, the cars coasted around the track to the front stretch. NASCAR signaled the three drivers to stop on the track as the other cars entered pit road.
It took several minutes for race officials to determine who was ahead when the caution was signaled. Austin Hill won’t be running tomorrow in the Dayton 500. He failed to qualify in his Duel race on Thursday. But he took home the consultation prize when he was declared the winner of the Xfinity Race. Officials determined Nemechek finished second, and Allgaier came in third.
NASCAR fans will likely debate the finish, with everyone having a different perspective of who was ahead when the light flashed. In actuality, once the decision is made to throw the caution in the race control center and the switch is activated, a time stamp is recorded on the official scoring tape of the race.
Why did it take so long to determine the winner? It was more than likely to review the videos of Nemechek diving below the double yellow line at the time of the wreck. Was he forced down there (allowed), was he trying to avoid a collision (allowed), was he trying to advance his position (not allowed), and could he have stayed above the out-of-bounds markers without danger (judgment call)? Or maybe, NASCAR enjoyed the drama of a stadium full of people sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the official call.
Adding additional challenges for the ground crew, Hill celebrated his win by doing donuts on the tri-oval grass. He punctuated the celebration by adding his tire tracks, crossing the ones the ARCA drivers traced across O in Daytona.
Everything culminates Sunday with the 65th running of the Daytona 500. Don’t miss it. Television coverage begins on Fox at 2:30 pm.