NASCAR Roundtable – Recapping Daytona and previewing Atlanta

NASCAR writers Lee Spencer, Jim Utter, News Manager Nick DeGroot along with NASCAR PR Manager Tim Southers will tackle questions each week. This week we’re getting ready for the tripleheader at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

1. After his runner-up finish at Daytona last weekend, do you feel Ryan Blaney will get his first win this year? Could it come at Atlanta?

Jim: Ryan’s laid-back personality, to me, fits perfectly in a race car. Nothing seems to rattle him too much and thus he remains focused no matter what obstacles fall his way. That was perfectly illustrated in Sunday’s Daytona 500. At many times it looked like his day could be done, only to end up second. That will serve him well this season, in addition to the speed he already has shown. He absolutely could win Atlanta. 

Lee: Ryan Blaney certainly made gains during his rookie season. He improved his average finish by nearly seven positions over 2015 when he competed in 16 races. Blaney proved he’s a quick learner at the restrictor plate tracks but in the Xfinity Series, his wins came on short tracks and intermediates. While the speed of Atlanta could play into his hand, I believe Blaney’s first win will come at Bristol.

Nick: Yes and yes. With a full-season of competition now under their belt, I feel with help from Team Penske, the Wood Brothers are extremely capable of reaching Victory Lane this year. And Blaney has the talent, so it’s only a matter of time.

Tim: From his days participating in the NASCAR Next program, Blaney has shown an ability to stay even-keeled and I think that will help him. Despite having the issues he had at Daytona and the ability to rebound for a second-place finish, he showed he’s matured in a car. I think his first win will come sooner rather than later.

2. All three NASCAR national series races were an accident-filled affair. Do you think it was just a product of racing at Daytona or the new segment format?

Jim: The mistakes and moves that caused the accidents at Daytona were made by the drivers behind the wheel, not the format. I will never criticize anyone for “racing hard” – after all, wasn’t that the point of making the format changes in the first place? Lest us not forget, fans and media are also the first to criticize when drivers ride around in single file at the superspeedways. 

Lee: Cautions breed cautions and the segments added to the aggressiveness of the racing. But the wreck fests during Daytona stemmed from varying degrees of issues. The truck series had a large number of newcomers. The Xfinity Series had new rules — including a smaller spoiler which contributed to instability in the handling. The first big one in the Cup race came when a tire failed on Kyle Busch’s car — which eliminated him and two teammates. But with the final Cup Stage came four cautions as drivers jockeyed for position — and for the win.

Nick: As for the 500, you can’t blame the stages for the carnage. Outside of the Busch crash, which was not driver error, there were no major incidents in the first two stages. The stages did seem to be the cause of some of the crashes in the lower two series, but overall, it’s just the nature of the beast that is plate racing.

Tim: I think the accident-filled weekend was caused by several different factors. Yes, pack racing allows for bigger incidents, but I think the combination of many rookies in the truck race and the new rules in Xfinity Series played a part. As for the Cup race, I honestly expected it to be a cleaner race with maybe one big incident during the race and something at the end as drivers go for the win. I was really surprised at how aggressive some Cup drivers were early in the race.

3. How do you think the five minute clock worked this past weekend? Do you think anyone suffered a chance to score a higher finish because of it?

Jim: I think way too much is being made of the 5-minute clock. More than one driver who had that day ended early by a wreck – including Dale Earnhardt Jr. – said they have no interest running around a track out of competition and in a wrecked race car. Could someone get back in the race that otherwise would now? Of course. But “get back in the race” does not equal “get back into contention.” I want to see cars race for the win who have the ability to do so, not navigating around wrecked cars in order to do so.

Lee: The crash clock operated the way it was intended to do. Take Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch for instance. His crew chief Tony Gibson did not have a thorough understanding of the procedure. He made several trips to the Cup trailer and spoke with series director Richard Buck so when race day came he would be able to use the rule to his advantage — and he did. The No. 41 team had just over a minute remaining on the clock but persevered and went on to win. AJ Allmendinger was another driver forced to come down pit road, make repairs and ended up with a podium finish.

Nick: Most of the cars I saw going behind the wall were incapable of continuing and the others were several laps down. I feel it cleaned up the race, although I feel the five-minute clock has a downside. Teams are scrambling to patch up cars and sending them back out in not the best state, chucking debris and causing more cautions. Perhaps that aspect of it needs to be looked at and revised.

Tim: I personally like the idea of not having battered cars ‘ride’ around the track and just get in the way. I think the clock served its purpose, but I do feel that this could be the first adjustment made to the new rules this season. Not taking it away, but I could see car owners maybe asking to tweak the rule. I could envision car owners asking that NASCAR doesn’t start the clock until the car gets to its pit box or something along those lines. But I don’t think that would have even made a difference in any race at Daytona.

4. What was the biggest surprise for you from Daytona Speedweeks?

Jim: With a large number of younger and inexperienced drivers, I was not surprised by the large number of wrecks in the Truck and Xfinity series openers. I was surprised to see much of the same in the Cup race – and some of detrimental moves made by drivers who we would consider experienced. Outside of that, Kurt Busch winning was the biggest surprise. Admittedly, he wasn’t even on my radar for the 500 win.

Lee: My biggest surprise was how sturdy the cars and trucks were. Many endured accidents which would have normally sent the drivers to the garage and ended their day. The safety measures the teams have adopted along with reinforcement of the chassis enabled many drivers to return to action and salvage decent finishes.

Nick: The 500 was a surprising race, changing and evolving in ways not seen in year’s prior. But if I should pinpoint something specifically, it would have to be the strength of the Stewart-Haas Fords. Yes, Kurt won the 500, but they were strong all week. Even Danica Patrick had a strong showing in Speedweeks, so a huge round of applause to that organization for transitioning to Ford and coming right out of the box strong.

Tim: I expected the incidents in the truck series with all of the rookie drivers and Daytona being Daytona. I was surprised at how many of the veteran drivers drove in the Xfinity and Cup races to create all of the accidents. I think things will be much calmer in Atlanta – I hope.