It was a wreck-filled start of the year for NASCAR at the Daytona 500

It was a wreck-filled start of the year for NASCAR at the Daytona 500
Jonathan Ferrey|Getty Images
Although we make every effort to cover our own travel costs, in this case NASCAR flew us to Orlando and provided two nights in a hotel.

The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s season-opener, and also the series’ biggest race. Held at the track just a little way from the beach in Florida where the series got its start, it’s a 200-lap, 500-mile test of endurance for car, driver, and team. (And depending when they started partying, for the fans.) I’ve been to quite a few endurance races at this point, and although there are some differences between a NASCAR race and your average long-distance sportscar event I figured the basics would still apply. Like driver preparation, for example.

“It’s a tough challenge, especially because it’s the first race of the year; it’s easy not to be in the best shape coming off the holidays. Being a race car driver on an easy day, when it’s not too hot, when the tires work, when everything is smooth—it’s not over the top challenging. But there are very few easy days,” explained Brad Keselowski, who races for Team Penske in the #2 car. “Daytona is a long race, usually in weather that’s much warmer than anywhere else so you’re not acclimated. And it’s a restrictor plate race so the cars are grouped up, you can’t just drive off into the distance. And there’s a lot of anxiety because it’s like the first day of school.”

Car setup for Daytona is all about optimizing aerodynamics. “It’s about how much stability you build in the car, and where you have your attitude. If you have the back of the car really trimmed out, it has no inherent stability because there isn’t any downforce. Once you start bringing the back of the car up, now you’ve got some stability, the car has some aero load and can stay planted a little better,” said Travis Geisler, Team Penske’s NASCAR competition director. With every car limited to same 400 horsepower (300kW), the trade-off between air working for you as downforce and air working against you as drag is critical, and where teams can find the edge over their rivals.

  • Full grandstands at Daytona International Speedway for the start of the 61st Daytona 500.
    Brian Lawdermilk|Getty Images
  • I’m only somewhat convinced this image isn’t a screen cap from a video game. William Byron in the #24 (right) and Alex Bowman in the #88 (left) lead the field around just before the start of the race.
    Chris Graythen|Getty Images
  • Jimmy Johnson pits for fresh rubber and fuel during the race. The guys that go over the wall during pit stops have to train as much as the drivers, and whoever’s got the wheel gun needs to be able to hit all five lug nuts within a second.
    Jared C. Tilton| Getty Images
  • Definitely the most disturbing livery of the race, and possibly of all time. That is driver Corey LaJoie’s face on the front of his #32.
    David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire|Getty Images
  • A crew member for the #32 Old Spice car preps tires before the race.
    Jonathan Gitlin
  • NASCAR is working hard at improving diversity. Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43, is at the head of the effort, but I saw a much more diverse pit lane than just about any other race series I’ve visited. Sadly, we also saw far more confederate flags flying from tents and RVs than should be acceptable in 2019.
    Sean Gardner|Getty Images
  • Driver of the #88, Alex Bowman, watches the USAF Thunderbirds fly overhead. At most races you’re lucky to get some T-6 Texans or maybe some police helicopters, but NASCAR evidently knows the right people in the Air Force because it gets F-15s, B-2s, and more.
    Jared C. Tilton|Getty Images
  • Crews hard at work ahead of the big race.
    Jonathan Gitlin
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr has retired from racing, but was on-hand to drive the pace truck.
    Chris Graythen|Getty Images
  • A great shot of the #88 team during a pitstop.
    Jared C. Tilton|Getty Images

“For here, where it’s wide-open and the track’s pretty smooth, you can get pretty aggressive,” said Geisler. Back at the race shop, engineers will “replay” a lap of the track on a car mounted to a seven-post rig measure the actual variation of the tires’ contact patches. “It’s the load the tire experiences on the track. If you get too stiff on everything, the tire loses contact and you start washing up the race track [understeering]. That becomes your limit in a lot of places. If it’s not bouncing out of the groove then the driver just has to deal with it,” Geisler explained.

For as much as there are similarities, the Daytona 500 is very different to an event like the Rolex 24 or Petit Le Mans, or even the Indy 500, particularly on race weekend. “There’s a big difference between our IMSA teams and IndyCar teams, and our NASCAR teams at that point. They all have full telemetry data on the cars during a race weekend; they can measure everything that’s happening, they can run it through their simulations and so on. We basically have a human for feedback” said Geisler “At that point, you have to listen to them, and simulation is close but it’s not reality.”

“That’s what separates a lot of NASCAR drivers from a lot of other styles of racing, where you really have to be in tune with your car and have feedback that makes the car faster,” Geisler told us. “It’s one thing for a driver to say “hey, I’m too loose on the exit of turn four, you need to work on that.” But if we fix that and you go slower, you weren’t understanding what the limit of your speed is, you were going off your comfort level. Drivers have to learn to disassociate those things, because their comfort level and the speed of the car may not be the same thing. Ideally they are—that’s a perfect car, when they’re happy and fast—but in a place like this that’s unlikely to be the case. That’s why they get the extra comma on their paycheck.”

Even though it’s a long race, driver comfort plays second fiddle to the lap time. “There’s “I need a mouthguard” territory, and there’s “I can’t drive this” territory, and you can tell by their voice when it gets to a certain point,” Geisler explained. “Eventually the ride quality starts to really degrade the performance of the car 10, 15, 20 laps into a run because the tire grip is just so bad [by then].”

That’s not to say driver comfort isn’t important in this current era of NASCAR. Keselowski thinks this is the area where he’s seen the most change as a driver over the past decade. “One of the biggest changes as a driver has been the seat and how you’re positioned in the car. We now have lightweight carbon fiber seats; my body is scanned, and then special moulded foam pads are made from the scans. All that stuff is very light, very nice,” he told me. Even the seatbelts are custom-made for each driver. “Now they’re sewn and made perfectly for my body—I even have a different set for when I’m 4-5lbs heavier than right now,” Keselowski said.

  • Travis Geisler is in charge of all things NASCAR at Team Penske.
    Jonathan Gitlin
  • Good pictures of the inside of a Gen-6 car are hard to find. But this should give you an idea of how the drivers are cocooned within their seats.
    NASCAR
  • In 2015, NASCAR introduced a new digital dashboard.
    Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images
  • Prior to the introduction of the digital dashboard, things were decidedly old-school in the cockpit.
    Allan Hamilton/Icon SMI/Corbis via Getty Images
  • Things were a lot more primitive in the 1980s.
    Jonathan Gitlin
  • The crew of the #43 car prepare it for the Optical Scanning Station, which checks that all the proscribed dimensions are within limits.
    Jonathan Gitlin
  • The #43 being wheeled into the OSS. You can read more about the OSS in this feature from 2018.
    Jonathan Gitlin
  • Something must have been a little out of spec, because this mechanic is performing some percussive maintenance on the rear screen.
    Jonathan Gitlin

The extent of this preparation even extends to the weather. “The key is to understand what’s coming this way. A lot goes into the cars and a lot goes into the race preparation. Cars have to be ready two weeks before; the more the teams can understand about track conditions and weather conditions, the better they can race,” said Pat Suhy, manager for General Motors’ NASCAR activities.

GM’s been working with IBM’s The Weather Company to provide its racing teams (in IndyCar and IMSA as well as NASCAR) with as accurate forecasting as possible. “In the lead up to the event you start getting an idea of the weather patterns to prepare the cars, the playbook. At the track, the key is having confidence in the tools we provided to the teams. Until they develop confidence in them it’s hard for the teams to commit to using them. As our teams got hold of the data and it kept getting refined—we’re in the middle of a journey—as we get to race weekend they see the data is good and they pay attention.”

“We share learnings across the core Chevrolet teams. No one gives away speed secrets but when one team develops confidence it helps uptake with the others,” added Byron McMichael, a meteorologist and senior accounts leader at IBM. The data come from over 100,000 weather stations, before being fed into one of IBM’s AI systems, with new forecasts pushed out about every 15 minutes or so. “There’s a lot of AI and machine learning built into the forecast. It was a pretty fun journey because you don’t realize how much weather impacts racing—you always think about precipitation but not all the other aspects of weather that affects racing. We’re the only ones out there able to produce the forecasts with this much accuracy because of the amount of data we can feed the AI with,” McMichael said.

What counts as perfect weather for a cup car, I wondered? “A cool sunny day with some heat in the track from solar load and cold air for the engine. Overall a nice bright sunny day is ideal. A super-hot, super-sunny day generates better racing as the cars begin to slide,” Suhy explained.

  • For most of the race it was uneventful.
    Jerry Markland|Getty Images
  • A puncture and then tire deliminating messed up LaJoie’s face pretty bad.
    Jared C. Tilton|Getty Images
  • Kurt Busch in the #1 is hit from behind by Bubba Wallace’s #43.
    Brian Lawdermilk|Getty Images
  • The Gen6 cars have aerodynamic flaps that pop up when a car starts to spin that prevent it from getting airborne or tumbling.
    Brian Lawdermilk|Getty Images
  • Towards the later part of the race, things began to get sloppier. Jimmy Johnson got collected by another car that lost control after entering the pit lane.
    Brian Lawdermilk|Getty Images
  • Reddick’s car slides to a halt right by the pit wall. Thankfully no mechanics or officials were injured.
    Jared C. Tilton|Getty Images
  • Keselowski’s puncture brought out a caution that would restart with just 10 laps to go.
    Brian Lawdermilk
  • And with that restart, this.
    Brian Lawdermilk|Getty Images
  • This crash took out so many cars and drivers from the race that the announcer in the media center couldn’t get through the entire list without the assorted journalists breaking into laughter.
    Jerry Markland|Getty Images
  • That #31 car sure saw some action in Florida.
    Jerry Markland|Getty Images
  • More than one racer’s dreams of a win ended like this, going backwards on the grass.
    Jared C. Tilton|Getty Images
  • Matt Tifft’s car smokes and steams after being taken out of the race.
    Jerry Markland|Getty Images
  • The 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona had two red flags, and the 2019 Daytona 500 had two red flags. There was a pretty long stoppage after the first big crash.
    Jerry Markland|Getty Images
  • But the driving standards didn’t improve much when things got going again—briefly.
    Brian Lawdermilk|Getty Images
  • There was another red flag to clean things up.
    Jerry Markland|Getty Images
  • And then yet another big one. Still, the crowds in the stands were happy.
    Brian Lawdermilk|Getty Images
  • So was Denny Hamlin, who was the first of only five cars that finished the race without damage.
    Sean Gardner|Getty Images

Sadly for most of the competitors, this level of preparation often counts for naught. The 61st running of the Daytona 500 was for the first 190 laps a measured, even boring affair, the most drama being a three-car crash as some of the field was entering pit lane. Then, with 95 percent of the distance completed, it appeared to be brains and not tires that were fading. As the race restarted from a caution period (brought out by Keselowski suffering a puncture), a massive 21-car pileup ensued, kicked off by Matt DiBenedetto’s #95. The race was red flagged to allow the carnage to be cleared—this was all just broken car bits, for the current Gen6 car is a remarkably safe racer.

After a lengthy delay, the race was restarted, with a couple of laps under the safety car to get everyone settled before the green flag. When the green was waved with six laps to go, we got another wreck—this one involving six more cars. Cue the safety car, then another restart and… yep, another big wreck, this time sufficient to bring out the red flag for a second time. (Perhaps the Daytona 500 was jealous of the Rolex 24, which also saw an unprecedented two red flags this year?) When things finally got going for the last time, Denny Hamlin’s #11 managed to avoid hitting anything for two laps and he took the win. In fact, at the checkered flag, just five cars—out of a field of 40, mind—were undamaged.

I suppose the moral of this story is that if you want to be at the front, you need to put in all that time and effort in preparation. But that’s all for nothing if you get caught up in someone else’s wreck with 20 miles to go.

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