Two drivers who can choose to play it safe on Thursday are William Byron and Alex Bowman. As the only drivers in the field locked into their starting positions for Sunday, the Hendrick Motorsports teammates arguably have more to lose than gain in the 150-mile qualifying races. Byron’s first career pole position has put him in a prime spot to make a serious run at the win on Sunday, and while there’s definite value in putting the No. 24 Chevy Camaro through its paces in the draft, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him eventually drop back to a more “safe” zone behind the flock. The same can be said for Bowman. He’s been in this position before after earning the pole last year, and you would expect he’d take a similar strategy by dropping the No. 88 Chevy Camaro to the rear of the pack. For the rest of the field, it’s going to be an intense fight for every possible position, and that’s what makes the Duels the perfect appetizer for Sunday’s 500-mile main course.
If you go down the list of entrants for this year’s Daytona 500, you’re going to see an endless lineup of potential winners. Sure, the strength of each individual team plays a huge role in the odds for each driver, particularly from the likes of Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and others. However, the draft is an infamous equalizer that ultimately evens the playing field to a much larger sample size. When upwards of 40 cars are sucked together via engine limitations and precision aerodynamics, it means that making the correct decision at the perfect moment will prove to be the deciding factor in who takes the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon. It truly is anyone’s race to win, because being in the right place at the right time can carry even the biggest underdog to victory, just like Trevor Bayne in 2011.
On the flip side, that quick, on-the-fly decision making is what often leads to disaster and defines the dark side of the draft. Just as quickly as this marvel of physics can open the door for some of the most unlikely triumphs, it is also what has ended the hopes of so many before, with more to come. At just 40 feet wide, there isn’t a ton of wiggle room on the 2.5-mile Daytona high banks. It’s not often you see the pack run three wide like you do at the larger Talladega, and given all the buffering of air in between the cars there’s a lot of “dancing” that takes place as drivers fight to hold their line and keep their cars straight. Recently, the phenomenon of side drafting has dramatically changed the way races at Daytona unfold, and it has become a leading cause of the seemingly inevitable “big ones.” When one car does lose control, there is simply not enough room for trailing cars to avoid it, and it quickly turns what would normally be a one or two car incident into double-digit counts. Look no further than last Sunday’s Clash to see how big a Daytona crash can be.
It’s this underlying risk that can nullify a dominant car. Just ask Ryan Blaney. Last year in the Daytona 500 the Penske driver led 118 laps in his No. 12 Ford and was clearly the best car in the field. Unfortunately, he found himself caught up in a late-race pileup that ripped away any hopes he had parlaying that dominance into a win. Additionally, toeing the line of control and chaos also tends to minimize any drivers’ past success in the Daytona 500. There will be a total of just eight former winners in the field on Sunday, with Jimmie Johnson the only one to earn multiple Daytona 500 triumphs. This group is largely a who’s who of NASCAR’s biggest names on a list that dates back as far as 2006, but the limited nature of these accomplishments says a lot about what makes this the greatest and hardest race to win in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
This isn’t just the first race of the championship. It’s an attempt to realize a dream for every one of these competitors. The lore of the Daytona 500 is too powerful, because each driver knows that winning The Great American Race is something they’ll always be able to cherish, no matter what else they accomplish in their careers. Daytona 500 winners are never forgotten, and because winning this race is so practically attainable thanks to the draft, they’re willing to suffer through all the emotional highs and lows that accompany that journey.