Dazzling debut: Top drivers welcome more roadies at Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Racing the road course at Daytona International Speedway could have been a debacle.
No practice. No qualifying. No experience for most of the field.
Drivers balked, some fearing a lack of preparation would result in a ton of consternation. But the Cup Series’ debut race on the 14-turn, 3.61-mile layout turned out better than anyone expected.
Chase Elliott ended up in victory lane, winning his third consecutive road-course race for Hendrick Motorsports. Elliott held off Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. to notch his second win of the season and eighth in the last three years.
The event was moved from Watkins Glen in upstate New York to Daytona because of state health restrictions; NASCAR could not meet New York’s quarantine requirements for out-of-state visitors.
It landed in NASCAR’s hometown, Daytona. Although the race didn’t have the bumper-to-bumper action or spectacular crashes of a typical restrictor-plate race, it was lively enough to create some buzz about whether Daytona’s road course should become a series staple.
“It’s one that I would like to see if we could put it on the schedule,” runner-up Hamlin said. “I’d love to see it. I think it’s a good racetrack for us.”
NASCAR already had plans to use Daytona’s road course in the near future, having announced earlier this year that the exhibition Clash in February would be moved off the high-banked speedway and onto the winding infield track that also uses much of the oval.
But could the road course also become the site of an annual Cup Series points race?
“Absolutely, yeah,” Truex said. “I thought we’d see a good race and obviously not a ton of cautions, not a ton of crashes and guys doing crazy stuff. I thought the race went really well. The racing was good.
“You could make passes if you were faster than a guy, and that’s always as a competitor what you’re looking for. I think that’s what puts on a good show, so I’d be totally fine with it.”
NBC might be amicable as well. One of NASCAR’s primary television partners, the network has been open to more road racing, more short tracks and mid-week events.
Nonetheless, it could take some maneuvering. NASCAR and network executives agreed to relocate Daytona’s second race of the season — traditionally held in July — to the regular-season finale this year in hopes of increasing the possibility of landing an underdog story. Restrictor-plate racing is often fluky and opens the door for a fringe team to pull off an upset.
Although the network is unlikely to give that up for a road-course race, it surely would be open to moving another event to fan-friendly Daytona — especially after its rousing road debut. Another scenario: Daytona’s road course becomes a safety net for any future race that can’t be run as scheduled.
Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Busch and series points leader Kevin Harvick got together before the green flag and exchanged braking information to ensure they avoided a melee in the first turn.
“Let’s make sure we don’t look like a bunch of dummies there in Turn 1,” Hamlin said. “We made sure we kept it clean to start, and then you can get your bearings about you after you run a few laps. … It was orchestrated well and obviously it made us look like professionals instead of some of the other restarts that we’ve seen this weekend.”
The race had just four cautions, including two at the conclusion of stages and another for lightning near the track. The last one bunched up the field and gave Hamlin a final shot at passing Elliott. Hamlin got to Elliott’s bumper several times, but the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott stayed out front through every turn.
“I think we certainly proved that it works and we can put on an exciting show here and will, I’m sure, go into the talks of consideration for us coming back,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition.
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