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In the wake of what took place Monday night at the Daytona 500, the season-opening race of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series, the time has arrived for a renewed discussion surrounding everything pertaining to the style of racing that takes place at both Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. When incidents of this nature occur, the world takes notice, and questions are understandably asked as a result of it. How does this happen? Why is this how things are done? What can be done to prevent this from happening again? It’s a conversation sparked by outsiders, but one that’s been ongoing in NASCAR’s inner circle in recent years.

Thankfully, Ryan Newman was able to escape with non-life-threatening injuries after one of the scariest crashes in recent memory, in which Newman went from coming mere feet from capturing his second Daytona 500 victory to being transported to a local hospital for treatment to injuries that have yet to be revealed.

What happened on the final lap of the race wasn’t necessarily out of the norm for the Daytona 500, or any other superspeedway race. With their high speeds and reduced engine power, it doesn’t take much for Cup Series cars to get loose, especially in this new era where “bump drafting” isn’t just the norm, but a crucial element of superspeedway success. Under these circumstances, the slightest of touches, especially when the wheel is turned, can create a firestorm of chaos. Newman’s crash wasn’t the only incident of the night. In fact, there were two “big ones” that preceded it, with all three incidents taking place within the final 24 laps of the race. Newman’s crash, however, was the most severe and the most visually terrifying given the flip, impact with another car, and subsequent dragging on the roof down the front stretch. Regardless of what Newman’s injuries are, the fact that any driver suffered an injury following a crash is the biggest news coming out of Speedweeks, and perhaps could serve as a bit of a breaking point for the current iteration of superspeedway racing.

 

“Plate racing” has long been one of the most controversial subjects in NASCAR. Bred out of necessity back in the late 80’s when the speeds at Daytona and Talladega were beginning to surpass a level of assured safety for both drivers and fans alike, it has evolved over the three decades of use. The latest version, called tapered spacers, are more efficient than the formerly used restrictor plates, and coincide with NASCAR’s move to fuel injection. The end result, however, is more of the same. Pack racing where the draft is king, and cars drive precariously close to one another. For the fans, it’s hard to argue that it’s the most exciting form of racing in NASCAR, because not only does it guarantee drama, it also showcases the talent of the drivers in a truly unique way. However, for the drivers, it’s become a tired subject.

 

NASCAR is in the midst of its safest era. In fact, virtually all motorsports are safer now than they’ve ever been before. However, when crashes happen as often as they do at the superspeedways, the odds of injury will inevitably increase. It’s the harsh reality of not if, but when. Moreover, drivers hate tearing up race cars. Months and months of preparation and countless sums of money go into making the best possible car for the Daytona 500, and to have it essentially thrown away in a trash heap do to what is often a careless move by another driver is understandably frustrating. Look no further than the 2020 Busch Clash to see “plate racing” at its worst, and drivers at their absolute wits end with this style of racing.

 

The casualty of pack racing is what ultimately cost Monster Energy’s own Kurt Busch his shot at a second Daytona 500 victory for both himself and Chip Ganassi Racing. A promising evening was over within seconds during the first “big one” of the night on Lap 185, and it completely erased what had been an otherwise solid outing that had a chance at ending in the best way possible. 

The potential of the No. 1 Monster Energy Camaro was on full display in Thursday night’s Duels, and it carried over into Monday’s 500. While Kurt never made his way to the front of the field, he was in the thick of it all in the lead draft group for virtually the entire race. The No. 1 was able to suck up well and push others, and Kurt was able to drive up through the pack as needed. As the field reached its final round of scheduled pit stops with 30 laps to go, Busch was right where he needed to be. The No. 1 was running second when Kurt came down pit road one last time with 27 laps remaining, and while he returned to the track just inside the top 20, the four fresh tires that were put on the Monster Energy Camaro were going to be a difference maker against the large swath of cars who elected to go with a fuel only strategy.

 

In a matter of laps, the second draft group, filled with cars running new tires, closed in and swallowed up the lead pack. Busch had battled his way back up for a spot in the top 10, and was in a perfect position to keep moving forward as one of the handful of cars with fresher rubber. Unfortunately, when some bump drafting by Aric Almirola and Joey Logano went awry, Kurt ended up caught in the aftermath of it. Initially, it seemed like the No. 1 had a clear path to avoid the wreck, but when Matt DiBenedetto got into the grass and turned back up into the racetrack, Kurt had nowhere to go. It wasn’t an overly violent hit, but it did enough damage to eliminate the Monster Energy Camaro from competition.

 

“It’s Daytona. That’s what happens down there. Everybody is gunning hard trying to get the big trophy. Too many cars in one spot, you end up with big wrecks. There’s 20 laps to go and we’re running in the lead pack in ninth, and then we got sideswiped from the outside and the day is done. It’s like, well damn, I guess we weren’t lucky enough to survive the wrecks. It’s pretty wild how your fortune can change as quick as it does.”

 

While a frightening incident like Newman’s at the end of the race is something we all dread to see, it’s in these dark moments where opportunity presents itself. The discussion surrounding superspeedway racing is once again ramping up, and for good reason. The drivers are making their voices heard, and NASCAR is no doubt listening. While the strides in safety have been incredible and should rightly be celebrated, there’s still some solutions to be found, and none are more pressing than the next evolution of racing at Daytona and Talladega.

 

“You have to know you’ve done all your homework beforehand, as far as safety, and adding all the right things to your system, whether it’s the HANS device, the seat, the car, the SAFER barriers. Our cars are very safe, and yet the thing that we keep have happening is that there’s more and more cars on the lead lap at the end of these races, because of stage breaks, and it just creates an environment where everybody is gunning at the same time. You just hope for the best. It’s part of the risk in our sport, but our sport is very safe.”

 

With the “Great American Race” now in everyone’s rear view mirror, the focus will now shift towards building momentum in the early season and building a foundation to make a Playoff run in October. However, in a little more than two months the Cup Series will find itself back at a superspeedway, at Talladega on April 26, and it will be interesting to see if any changes are implemented to usher in another era of “plate racing” on the heels of such an alarming night in Daytona.

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