Automorbit, Sport – The jury is out regarding the popularity of road-course racing at Daytona International Speedway. But there’s no doubting the popularity of Victory Lane’s latest inhabitant.
Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular racer, crossed under the checkers Sunday afternoon just ahead of Denny Hamlin to win the Go Bowling 235. It was a relatively close finish in a day of racing that featured plenty of racetrack spacing, as if coronavirus protocols had invaded the NASCAR rulebook.
“It means a lot, we’ve been struggling these last few weeks,” Elliott said upon exiting his No. 9 Chevrolet. “I didn’t know for sure if we were going to be good here.”
The downsized crowd was estimated at 10,000, including a solid chunk of weekenders in RVs that filled much of the infield property inside the west banking. That’s likely what the Speedway was expecting, given the limited ticket availability due to spacing efforts — an estimated 10% of the 101,500 grandstand seats were priced at $49-$75.
Originally, Daytona’s first laps around the famed road course, best known as home to the Rolex 24 sports-car race, was going to come in next February’s Busch Clash. But the annual sports-car race at Watkins Glen was cancelled due to travel restrictions for visitors to New York state.
Necessity is often the mother of invention, they say, and while necessity — brought on by the coronavirus — didn’t exactly bring on the invention of NASCAR road-racing, it did introduce it to Daytona Beach, where visitors and natives are accustomed to watching cars fly around the big track while employing four left turns and one high-speed twitch through the front-stretch dogleg.
The reviews will depend on whom you ask, as they always do. But anyone who enjoys a little chaos mixed into their race days was probably disappointed. Without any practice laps allowed in this season of COVID adapting, and with a hard left-turn just beyond the start/finish line, the potential of a pileup was theoretically high with each restart.
But NASCAR’s Cup Series racers aren’t just talented at their craft, they have the miracles of modern technology — namely the world of racing simulators — to prepare them for any track with amazing realism. By and large, they tiptoed through the track’s tightest turns without incident.
At least in Sunday’s main event.
The afternoon’s racing began during the lunch hour with the Sunoco 159, featuring 39 entries from NASCAR’s Truck Series. Roughly 500 yards of that race was complete before pole-sitter Zane Smith realized prior habits wouldn’t fly in NASCAR’ s maiden voyage through the 14-turn Daytona Road Course.
Smith had two previous starts here, both on the familiar tri-oval. It appeared he was headed toward the west banking again as he took the dive off the 18-degree front-stretch and overshot the hard left-hander into the infield course.
Smith’s stumble sent him nearly all the way to the rear, but he’d battled back to 13th a couple of hours later as Sheldon Creed and Brett Moffitt delivered a spirited battle for the win. Under pressure from Moffitt during a two-lap overtime restart, Creed hit all of his braking marks and kept Moffitt in his mirror to gain his second career win in is second full-time NASCAR season.
Creed crawled out of his truck, drenched in equal parts sweat, exhaustion and satisfaction, and offered a two-word critique of this first-ever outing on Daytona’s 14-turn layout: “Nerve-wracking.”
From here, the teams from NASCAR’s top three series (Cup, Xfinity, Trucks) head home to the Charlotte area to regroup, reload and head to Delaware for next weekend’s fill-in date on the 2020 schedule — the weekend includes Cup races on both Saturday and Sunday, with one of those coming from Dover’s original early-May plans.
Then it’s back to Daytona for the newly replanted Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Aug. 29. That schedule move, however, was planned all along. After 61 years on either July 4 or the first weekend of July, the old “Firecracker 400” was shuffled to Race 26 of the 36-race Cup Series schedule and is now the final race of the regular season.
That seven-week shift was planned all along, and though it’s a decent chunk of calendar real estate, it won’t likely make a big difference in the product, which will resemble Sunday’s race the way tennis resembles ping pong. The 400 will probably, as always, deliver all of the chaos many may have expected Sunday. And then some.
The ticket policy for the 400 will remain the same as it was for this past weekend. A limited number of grandstand seats are available, with noticeable spacing throughout. Prices range from $49 to $125 and yes, they’ll sell an unlimited number of those limited seats.
The added competitive drama — final race of the regular season — was designed in part to bring additional TV viewers and drive ticket sales, and while the TV numbers should be good, the Speedway will have to wait a year to see how ticket sales are affected.