Bearden: Clash shows cause for Speedweeks optimism

Rusty Jarrett/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

The Advance Auto Parts Clash wasn’t perfect – far from it, in fact.

But look past the race-ending stalemate and there’s potential for an exciting Speedweeks.

There’s no way around it, Sunday’s 75-lap exhibition race ultimately devolved into one of those restrictor-plate races. The 17-car Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field all rolled around single-file for the entire final stint of the event, seemingly afraid to make a move and risk getting hung out and taken out of contention.

Part of this can be attributed to the lack of handling the pack experienced on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. Another bit of blame could be given to the makeup of the field for the final stages of the race, with three Team Penske Fords leading a mixed-up pack that found themselves all uncertain of the loyalty of those around them.

Regardless of the cause, the end result was a fairly pedestrian run to the checkered flag that was made exciting only by last-lap mayhem in the middle of the pack.

Sunday’s Clash was far from the first race to see a subpar conclusion at Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway. Restrictor-plate races are a fickle beast.

Some are glorified demolition derbies – filled with a host of big crashes that make for surprises when the checkered flag nears, but ultimately strip away some of the legitimacy of the race. Brad Keselowski won an attrition-filled playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway last fall that would find itself in this category.

Others play out like Sunday’s Clash, with the field playing it safe and surviving to the end only to end up in a position where everyone’s trapped in their position and unable to mount a charge. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory at Talladega in the spring of 2015 falls firmly into this group.

Those two types of races lie on aeither end of the restrictor plate spectrum. The best events traditionally lie somewhere in the middle.

At its grandest, restrictor-plate racing turns into an daring display of drafting prowess. Drivers make bold, calculated moves that make fans and media alike hold their breath before sounding out with amazement.

The leader is able to maintain the top spot with effort – strong enough to block both the top and bottom, but not untouchable in clean air. The drivers trailing the leader are able to mount significant charges that prove difficult to fend off, and the pack experiences fluctuation. Track position is important, but being at the back of the field isn’t a death sentence.

Accidents are possible – ‘The Big One’ might even occur at some point. But the race doesn’t devolve into a war of attrition, leaving a host of contenders to fight for the win in the closing stages.

It takes a lot of variables working out correctly to put together the perfect restrictor plate event. But at its best, Sunday’s Clash seemed capable of delivering the sort of race described above.

The risk of a race-ending crash was omnipresent, but the on-track product seemed improved from a year ago.

With a lowered ride height that evoked thoughts of the War song “Low Rider” and caused a litany of sparks throughout the race, the Cup Series field were uncomfortable with the race cars from the time the green flag flew to begin the event.

The difficult new handling conditions mixed with a sunny afternoon in Florida left drivers sliding around the 2.5-mile Daytona oval,  with even the best in the field appearing dodgy as their race cars darted left and right in the draft. Drivers were forced to back off of the gas at times to avoid running into each other.

Kyle Larson all-but crashed at one stage in the event, and later caused a crash after making contact with Jimmie Johnson. Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray was sent into the outside wall after early contact with Kurt Busch.

“The cars are a handful,” race-winner Keselowski said. “They
are supposed to be. This is professional racing and they are supposed to be hard to drive. This was no exception today.

“This is probably the hardest I have ever had to drive a car at Daytona, but I am not complaining.”

The new package made the field shifty, and the handling woes spread them out. That allowed for larger runs in the draft than NASCAR has seen in recent years, which yielded increased passing opportunities throughout the field.

It took Sunday’s Clash only 25 laps to match the number of lead changes from the 2017 running of the event, and the race ended only one leader swap behind the 2016 total with 11 despite the lengthy single-file run to the finish.

The result was a positive one on regards to passing, though Kyle Busch felt more work needed to be done.

“I would like to see more separation if we can get that with something in order to make the race where drivers have to come more into play instead of just driving the heck out of your car because your car is the same as the guy in front of you,” Busch said.

While it had little effect on the on-track action, the move from six over-the-wall crewmen to five also proved fascinating, with teams adapting to the change in different ways as they attempted to put together a fast stop.

Paired with the addition of a spec air gun, the new-look pit stops proved challenging for even the best on pit road. The majority of stops were five seconds longer than those seen in the event last year.

Make no mistake. Each of the above weaknesses will be lessened over time.

Drivers will slowly adjust to the new rules, and as they accumulate data teams will be able to adapt the cars to become more comfortable for them. Pit stops will get better as crews gain experience and review their film for opportunities to improve.

But while those things will ultimately be adjusted on and perfected, on Sunday they were raw and unknown, making for an intriguing exhibition on the Daytona high banks.

The improved on-track action and interesting pit stops combined to provide all of the necessary provisions for a thrilling Cup Series race at Daytona. Unfortunately, none of those positives are likely to be remembered before Thursday.

The Cup Series field formed a train on the outside lane for the final run of Sunday’s race, and for most that will be what remains on their minds until the field races again in the Can-Am Duels.

But whether it’s realized or not, there was cause for optimism in the 75-lap Clash. Should that transition to next week’s races, and the field decide to race it out in Thursday’s Duels or Sunday’s Daytona 500, the early signs are that they’ll be able to put on a good show.

In the end, that’s all you can ask for.

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