Duels reveal handling as biggest factor for Daytona 500

By Jeremiah Davis

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The word of the day at the on Thursday at Daytona International Speedway was “handling.” The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am Duel qualifying races taught the racers and those watching a little about what the Daytona 500 is going to look like Sunday.

Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott raced to victories in Thursday night’s racing action, and both were asked repeatedly about what they preferred in their cars headed into the Great American Race: speed or handling?

With the ride height rule a thing of the past at superspeedways, the way the air comes off the back of the cars has changed, thus changing the affect on and from trailing cars. On three occasions Thursday – twice in Duel 1 and once in Duel 2 – cars spun without contact from another.

“The cars are already so unstable, you don’t even have to touch them to make that happen,” Elliott said. “I think all of us being aware of that more is going to weigh on our minds and just try to keep from wrecking people. I’m sure everybody is paying attention to it, and I think it’s going to be key to have your car driving pretty good on Sunday, which is exciting.”

In the first two wrecks, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was making a move inside, attempting to side draft and use that to slow cars ahead of him to make a single-file pass. Both times, the air coming off the spoiler of William Byron and David Gilliland resulted in those cars spinning. In the second Duel, Elliott was in the same spot and had the same effect on Erik Jones, who spun as well.

Stenhouse said after his race he expected the air to behave that way, and that he knew what he was doing in trying to manipulate it in order to make a pass. The change in the ride height rule, he said, “definitely changed how these cars are driving,” and that they’re “driving a lot worse now that we’ve got them lowered to the ground.”

When it came to why exactly Byron and Gilliland ended up wrecked without touching, Stenhouse said how those cars were handling made that change in air all the worse.

“Their cars weren’t driving good,” Stenhouse said. “We worked on our car in drafting practice and got it driving good. We opted to get it driving good instead of trying to qualify on the front row and I think that paid off so I could do whatever I wanted and maneuver as quick as I wanted left and right. That’s what I was trying to do to work my way to the front.”

Elliott said there’s not a lot the car in front can do to change that effect, and that “you’re at the mercy of the people behind you when it comes to that, and they know now where the vulnerable spots are.”

The three accidents caused by the issue weren’t the only time cars were upset by that same situation – a handful of near-misses across both qualifying races showed it was a consistent issue.

Feb 15, 2018; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR driver David Gilliland (92) spins behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr (17) during the Can-Am Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Busch, who finished second in Duel 2, offered his take on how the new package is changing the way the air comes off the cars and why a car closing on the left rear of another is having a bigger effect than it did a year ago.

“The air speed coming out from the back of the cars versus the air cushion on the front of your car is what’s making these guys get loose,” Busch said. “You’re packing so much more air into their left rear quarter, that’s what’s sending them around. That’s the difference I feel, anyway. That’s the only difference. Everything else is similar.”

Sunday, then, should be interesting as that plays out in much worse conditions in terms of handling. Thursday night’s races ran in optimum conditions for mechanical grip (cooler temperatures, no sun, etc), and when an aging Daytona International Speedway track surface is met with the heat of the day, even more handling issues could surface.

That, combined with a good chunk of the field focusing on single-car speed as opposed to handling so far could make for a much trickier race with cars bunched up in a big pack.

Blaney’s win in Duel 1 came ahead of teammate Joey Logano and saw the three Team Penske cars work together to control that race. Elliott’s came as he and Kevin Harvick broke up the Toyota tandem of Denny Hamlin, Busch and Jones.

Those with good finishes all touted their handling as why. It’s a throwback of sorts to Speedweeks of the past, where that was the biggest factor to winning the biggest race in the sport.

“There are some cars that I could see that don’t drive very well – I think they set them up for speed,” Blaney said. “There are some cars that are more in control than others, that haven’t tried to get too much single-car speed. I think that goes back to where I think our cars are great is I think we have a good bit of both. There are some that are pretty wild right now and that’ll make for a handful on Sunday.”

The Daytona 500 is set for Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on FOX. Alex Bowman will start on the pole, with Hamlin outside pole. By virtue of their wins Thursday, Blaney will start third and Elliott fourth.

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