Last-lap chaos has become Daytona’s calling card

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In 2018, Aric Almirola‘s car went head-on into the wall in Turn 3 on the last lap of the Daytona 500 after a shove from Austin Dillon. Dillon went on to win the race.

A year ago, Ryan Newman’s horrific wreck happened as he went into the wall off the nose of Ryan Blaney while they were battling race-winner Denny Hamlin for the win. Late Sunday night, Michael McDowell swiped the Daytona 500 after his push of Brad Keselowski went wrong on the final lap when Joey Logano tried to block the move.

You can’t be faulted if you see a pattern there. After all, a last-lap leader has now been in a crash in three of the last four Daytona 500s. Winning the Great American Race has become more about taking the leader out at the end than it is about taking over the lead with a deft pass.

Why? Well, the simple answer is that you can’t go fast without bumping the car ahead of you. And drivers have learned that the best way to keep a car behind them is through aggressive blocking. That’s a recipe for disastrous results. Especially with the finish line of the Daytona 500 in sight.

The draft’s evolution

The draft has been the central feature of races at Daytona and Talladega for decades. The slingshot pass was invented after drivers realized they were faster behind another car thanks to the lack of air resistance ahead.

NASCAR realized that the slingshot pass was extremely entertaining too. As cars were going over 200 MPH at Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR added restrictor plates to the cars to keep their speeds down. Those restrictor plates brought the field closer together and created the modern pack racing that we see at Daytona and Talladega today.

The draft didn’t go anywhere as the pack got bigger. As cars were brought closer together, the margin for error making passes and moves to defend them decreased significantly. Passes now take far less time to develop. A driver who makes a block after a pass begins is already playing catchup.

Logano certainly looked to be playing catchup last night as he tried to defend his position and win a second Daytona 500. It was obvious what Keselowski was going to attempt on the final lap after watching him expertly pick off Kevin Harvick for second on the penultimate lap. Keselowski feathered the throttle to set up a big slingshot and scooted past Harvick with the help of McDowell entering Turn 3. Harvick didn’t go for a block, knowing full well that it would be a futile exercise.

Logano knew that type of move was coming for him on the final lap. As Keselowski slowed down behind him again, he tried to slow down too to keep Keselowski from getting too far behind. You never want a big lead at Daytona or Talladega.

That move didn’t work. Keselowski still got the run. And he moved first. By the time Logano reacted, Keselowski was already committed to the pass. And Logano never got Keselowski’s move covered by the time the two cars made contact to spur the fiery crash.

“The last lap you just lock bumpers and push as hard as you could,” McDowell said. “But I gave [Keselowski] a shove, but we actually got disconnected and thankfully we did because it’s when we got disconnected, and I didn’t see how Joey and Brad got together, but it’s when we got disconnected that the contact was made and that gave me a little bit of a gap to get through, otherwise I would have been right on [Keselowski’s car.]”

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 14: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 DoorDash Toyota, are involved in an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The last lap of the 2021 Daytona 500 included this. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The role of the push and the block

Keselowski was only able to make the move on Logano thanks to the help of McDowell. Had he tried the move by himself, his car would have slowed considerably if he had gotten alongside Logano. With McDowell and potentially others behind him, Keselowski was set up to have enough momentum to scurry past Logano.

Keselowski also set up his run knowing that he was going to get pushed by McDowell. With the cars so close together, drivers have figured out that the quickest way to get a burst of speed is to get a shove from behind.

That shoving is a devil’s bargain. That was plainly obvious on lap 15.

A 16-car crash happened minutes before a lengthy rain delay Sunday after Aric Almirola went careening off Christopher Bell’s bumper. Bell shoved Almirola after getting a shove from Kyle Busch behind him.

Bell’s shove, however, wasn’t square to Almirola’s bumper. Bell hit Almirola on the right side of his back bumper. The imperfect contact immediately turned Almirola’s car into Alex Bowman’s and ruined the days of numerous contenders before the race was even 50 miles old.

“I was shocked that there was as much pushing and shoving going on as there was there at the beginning,” second-place finisher and defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott said. “Not that that’s super abnormal, I don’t guess, but yeah, just really got to be careful about that, and the way these bumpers are on these cars, it’s just super easy to get somebody pointed in the wrong direction, between the bumpers not lining up and the cars being so low to the ground and stuff. It makes it kind of hard to control when you’re being hit like that.”

Yes it does. Keselowski’s car was already sideways from the push from McDowell when he made contact with Logano’s car. The shove had made Keselowski’s car unstable and that lack of stability was magnified as Keselowski had to keep turning down the track to avoid the last-ditch block from Logano.

The chaos is by design

As Elliott notes, drivers are now being asked to play a millimeter-perfect game while driving cars over 190 MPH for hundreds of miles at Daytona and Talladega. That precision is needed when pushing the cars ahead and when blocking the cars from behind.

Thanks to the massive spoilers that NASCAR has placed on Cup cars at Daytona and Talladega, drivers know that the car behind has a huge speed advantage. That’s why Logano made the move that he did — even though it appeared to be ill-timed. He was likely going to lose the Daytona 500 if Keselowski had gotten alongside him.

And it appears that desperation is what NASCAR wants. The sanctioning body has shown no willingness to change the Daytona and Talladega formula in recent years despite terrifying last-lap crashes like Dillon’s in 2015 and Newman’s in 2020. By doing nothing to drastically modify the way superspeedway racing has evolved in recent years, NASCAR is giving the chaos and danger a tacit endorsement.

The endorsement is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. McDowell’s win is both an upset and the product of the environment NASCAR created at its most famous track. A big wreck has more viral highlight potential than a deftly-executed pass. That’s important to consider as NASCAR and other sports governing bodies fight for eyeballs in a media world jockey for attention harder than ever.

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