Daytona Road Course Race Preview
By Brennen McCall
The Daytona 500 has concluded. A long offseason and countless hours of preparation came down to one heart-stopping moment on the final lap, where a 14-year veteran who had never won in his Cup Series career, found himself leading the field when it counted. Michael McDowell may not be the flashiest personality NASCAR has ever seen, but his upset victory at Daytona will be one adored by fans and drivers alike. Michael Waltrip scored his first career win in 2001 Daytona 500 driving for Dale Earnhardt, who lost his life on the final lap that day. Ten years later Trevor Bayne upset the field by winning his first and only Cup Series race at the Great American Race for the famed Wood Brothers Racing team. McDowell winning NASCAR’s Super Bowl seems fitting to start a new decade and it’s something both he and his team will celebrate for the rest of their lives. But, now it’s time to refocus as the 36-week long NASCAR season rarely takes a breath. The rest of the season begins and it’s time for the top teams to reveal themselves yet again.
Daytona’s high banks will be joined by the tight twists and turns of her road course. The Cup Series raced here for the first time a year ago as a stand-in event due to Watkins Glen and Sonoma losing their yearly dates due to COVID-19 restrictions. Chase Elliott was the class of the field that day as he has been for most of his career on road courses. In fact, five of his 11 total Cup Series wins have come on a road course. Most of this dominance has come within the last two seasons alone, with Elliott taking victory in the last four road course events. If any driver wants to the checkered flag this Sunday, they will have to answer to that #9 car.
The Daytona road course offers a different set of challenges for drivers than on the traditional high banks. Speeds, while fast on the banking and straits, meet flat corners that require an intense amount of breaking. All four gears will be used as drivers manually shift up and down to help reduce speed into corners and accelerate out of them. Tires will need to be managed throughout each run to ensure proper handling. Overworking tires too early will significantly affect grip level, making the car unstable throughout corners and under breaking.
Pit-stop strategies will be a factor as well. Some teams starting at the rear may opt to pit earlier to try and take advantage of new tires. Others will try to maximize the life of their tires for an entire fuel run. The best drivers are equally as good at both. A long-run strategy requires a driver to go easy and not push the car past its limit every lap. If it’s a short-run, the best drivers can find the absolute limit of control by constantly walking the line between making the fastest lap they can and simply losing control. Oh, and if it rains on Sunday don’t touch your dial. NASCAR allows teams to use rain tires for such an occasion at road course events. Special treads allow drivers to glide over a rain-soaked track to provide a fair level of grip opposed to the normal slicks stock cars are used to. Plus, each car is fitted with a wiper blade if the Florida skies happen to open up.
Rain or shine, the Daytona road course should be a fun, competitive race sprinkled with some bumps and bangs. Several drivers will be gunning for their first win of the season, trying to make their mark as a team to watch. Cars will have dents, scrapes and pushed in noses with large patches of black tape to hold them together. We may even get a few tempers as well.
Let’s have ourselves a race!