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Takeaways From the NASCAR Cup Race at the Daytona Road Course

Autoweek logo Autoweek 2/22/2021 Matt Weaver

When the yellow lights came on across the Daytona International Speedway Road Course with 14 laps to go in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253, most everyone saw the caution for what it appeared to be.

"I don't know why we had a yellow, I think it's because of the show," Kyle Busch quipped over the No. 18 team’s radio communications.

It had started to rain in the southernmost portion of the facility, ever so slightly, and NASCAR regulations require at least one caution per road course race if at any point race control deems track conditions as'wet.'

text: nascar, © NASCAR Rule Book nascar,

The rule is designed to allow teams to have an equal opportunity to simultaneously take rain tires.

Chase Elliott had led 44 of the first 57 laps and was driving away from second-place Christopher Bell when the call came from the tower. That decision was relayed to Elliott from spotter Eddie D’Hondt.

"Caution for weather," D’Hondt said."Speedway 2 is wet."

"No, it’s not," Elliott replied, adamant but resigned.

The problem with the decision was that not a single team opted to take their rain tires during the wet weather caution. The same race control that called for a wet weather caution also chose not to mandate wipers and the blinking red hazard lights.

Why?

Because it wasn’t raining, and the track wasn’t wet.

It was the polar opposite decision the same race control made four months ago at Texas Motor Speedway when it was very much raining -- objectively spitting across all four corners during an oval event -- failing to throw a caution until championship leader Kevin Harvick drilled the wall.

The turn of events ultimately prevented him from making the championship race after Martinsville the following week.

A consistent theme while watching NASCAR races is the familiar culture of chaos that seems to percolate through most every vital competitive decision made during the course of the season. When given the choice between sport and entertainment, the latter will be chosen 90 percent of the time.

The caution was an invert, not in name, but practicality.

Joey Logano, who was running sixth, chose to stay out and inherit the lead over a ragtag group of misplaced frontrunners on older tires that included Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski -- a pair of champions who repeatedly found themselves facing the wrong direction throughout the race.

Christopher Bell beat both Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. off pit road, important because the risk of chaos only worsens the deeper back a driver restarts, and Elliott knew what was about to happen in real time.

"This is going to be a lottery to see who makes it through," Elliott told his team.

Indeed, Elliott and Truex were both pushed off course and out of contention.

Bell was far enough ahead of the chaos and was able to methodically begin picking off the drivers on older tires and made the winning pass on Logano coming to the white flag.

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Bell won, but the reality of the dynamic produced by that last caution wasn’t lost on him.

"I enjoy road racing because I think it’s very difficult," Bell said."Racing the racetrack, producing lap time, seeing who’s fast at it, is very rewarding. It’s real, right? If you go out there and run well at a road course, that’s real.

"On the flip side, whenever you get restarts, everyone is boxed up, just running into each other, that’s the side of road course racing I don’t love. Being at the mercy of everyone else, it gets a little bit superspeedwayishon the restarts. …

"I just hate it’s so easy to get caught up in other people’s mess. It’s so easy for guys to poke you, spin you out. It’s a love-hate relationship for me."

Racing the racetrack and producing lap times? That’s real, but it’s not the show.

Invert the field with 10 to go and turn the finish into a convoluted game of bumper cars and a subset of the fan base will get the most entertaining road course race ever -- even if they didn’t watch the first 50 laps.

A BETTER WAY

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season represents the start of a new era and the increased number of road course events are going to require something more than standard operating procedures out of race control.

When Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen were the only road courses on the schedule, tracks with right turns comprised just 2 percent of the schedule. The addition of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval in 2018 increased that number to 8 percent.

That number is now 20 percent with the arrival of the Daytona Road Course, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Circuit of the Americas and Road America.

Due to the increased importance of road course racing on the overall season, NASCAR should begin to reconsider much of how it polices these events.

a car driving on a road: gettyimages-1160284100 © Icon Sportswire - Getty Images gettyimages-1160284100

This past weekend across all three national touring divisions played out like a checklist of elements that need addressing:

The NASCAR version of the Daytona International Speedway Road Course is 3.61 miles long. When there are cautions, they objectively take forever. There were multiple cautions throughout the weekend that took over 20 minutes to complete.

Now imagine these cautions at 4.048-mile Elkhart Lake.

Two of those cautions are for the arbitrary bunch up the field but legitimize them with championship points variety. Those still take up a combined half hour for each race. When the Truck Series required multiple overtime attempts to reach a conclusion, it added nearly another hour to the race.

In fact, Friday’s Truck race took longer at 2:59.37 than last year’s Cup race at the Daytona Road Course at 2:37.30.

So, what can be done about it?

From the very beginning of NASCAR’s stage racing era, there has been a consistent rallying cry from a subset of the fan base for the sanctioning body to eliminate stage breaks but pay out stage points while allowing the race to play out naturally.

First, understand the entire point of stage racing is to arbitrarily throw out a caution and create a restart. The R in NASCAR now stands for restarts, even if no one within the sanctioning body will admit it.

NASCAR isn’t going to create a separate set of rules for the road courses, even if stage racing has eliminated much of the strategy that made the discipline so intriguing in the first place. Teams now know exactly when two cautions will come out and they plan their strategies around them.

NASCAR could look to introduce local yellows.

It’s no secret that much of NASCAR’s Next-Gen vision has been borrowed from IMSA and Australian Supercars. These sanctioning bodies make use of local yellows, meaning that the field can’t pass or speed-up in the corners where a car just spun out, or is just returning to the track.

For the Daytona Road Course, NASCAR could also run cautions laps entirely on the 2.5-mile oval as opposed to the 3.61-mile road course, saving almost a minute per caution lap in the process.

Lastly, and this would have mattered for Sunday, abolishing the requirement that NASCAR has to throw a caution once per road course race to allow teams an equal opportunity at switching to a rain tire at the same time.

That policy runs antithetical to any road racing discipline from Formula 1 to IndyCar or Sports Car racing. What makes those forms racing in the rain so exciting is the timing of that choice, if one is even made at all.

If it was indeed starting to rain in oval Turn 2 on Sunday, leave the decision to take wet tires up to the teams. If oval Turn 2 is the only portion of the track that is moderately wet, drivers should simply slow down.

But, of course, there's always Brad Keselowski's input, too.

THE RIGHT NUMBER OF ROAD COURSES?

It was strange, just one week after the Daytona 500, to already be talking about the first road course race of the year, wasn’t it?

Even stranger to realize afterwards that there are still six more remaining.

Granted, there were only supposed to be six road course races on the schedule this season, with the Daytona Road Course replacing the superspeedway in Fontana, California due to the pandemic, but it’s still worth asking if this is the right number of road course races.

At first glance, seven feels like overkill, no?

At the same time, two of these races came at the expense of unpopular so-called cookie cutter intermediate tracks at Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland -- which are no longer on the schedule.

Even the Brickyard 400, as reviled as it had become over the past decade, has been replaced by a race at the IMS Road Course instead.

The additions of Road America and Circuit of the Americas just feel right, especially with the latter coming at the expense of another points race at an unpopular intermediate track in Texas Motor Speedway.

This certainly feels like a sea change in the direction of the sport.

NASCAR suffered from what you could call bigtrackitisin the 90s and 2000s, building a surplus of intermediates like Texas, Chicagoland, Kentucky, Kansas, Las Vegas and Fontana.

*Not including Homestead-Miami, which was actually wonderful prior to the implementation of the NA18D rules package, due to its unique shape that doesn’t feature a dogleg, but we’ll get to that next week.

NASCAR’s dirt track experiment at Bristol Motor Speedway next month actually leaves the Cup Series with one less paved half-mile race with the Bristol Night Race joining a pair of races at Martinsville Speedway.

Fontana will soon be reconfigured from two miles to a half-mile, but it certainly feels like NASCAR could use one more additional true short track to go alongside Richmond Raceway.

Meanwhile, jumping from three road courses to seven is like going from bigtrackitis to rightturnitis.

During the off-season, Brad Keselowski urged NASCAR to maintain balance when crafting future schedules with an emphasis on short tracks.

"I'd like to see short tracks represent 30 to 40 percent of the schedule," Keselowski said."I think mile and a half (tracks) have their place somewhere around the 25 percent mark. Road courses, maybe a little less, 10-15 percent.

"And then you have your superspeedways that round out the percentage pie. It's fair to say short tracks should be 40 percent of the schedule."

Then, Denny Hamlin was asked about the topic after the race on Sunday and gave a puzzling answer.

"More road courses for sure," he said.

(Is that sarcasm?)

"I don’t know," he responded back."Is it? Oh, more. More of everything!"

Okay, then!

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