Daytona 500: What we learned during the Great American Race
Sunday night was good for NASCAR.
It’s no secret that the sport of stock car racing has been under a sort of malaise in recent years. Without Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart behind the wheel, the Cup Series needed to create new stars and needed to do so in a hurry.
NASCAR used to be weekly destination viewing.
But for whatever reason, the fan base didn’t fully embrace the stars from over the past decade. Either they were too rich, too unrelatable or too politically correct to offset the loss of traditional names like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace.
From that standpoint, the star-making machine of the Daytona 500 was a fantastic start to NASCAR’s new era.
A day after the fact, there are still strong opinions about what happened on the last lap of the Great American Race. Some say that Austin Dillon blatantly dumped Aric Almirola on the backstretch and others say Almirola was blocking to such a degree that he left Dillon no choice.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, strong opinions are cool. It’s what the sport needs moving forward — fans who care.
What we learned from the Daytona 500 can be viewed below:
Why does someone always have to be at fault?
It seemed that fans were angrier for Almirola on Sunday night than the man was himself. Almirola admitted to blocking down the backstretch, Dillon never lifted and they came together while racing head to head for the Daytona 500.
Almirola wasn’t even mad after the race.
He darted high to block Dillon. When Dillon ducked under, Almirola responded, forcing Dillon back to the high side. At the point, Dillon was already locked onto the bumper and spun the No. 10 when he darted back toward the wall.
“I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola said. “I wasn’t gonna just let him have it. I wasn’t gonna just stay on the bottom and let him rail the outside, so I blocked and he got to my bumper and pushed and I thought I was still gonna be OK, and somehow I got hooked.”
Collectively, we all have the benefit of hindsight.
For the last 12 hours, we’ve enjoyed the ability to freeze-frame each decision and dissect it for minutes at a time, forgetting for a moment that these are real-time decisions at 200 mph with a place in NASCAR history at stake.
Dillon said after the race that he was in a trance on that last lap, almost as if his eyes rolled back in his head and he wasn’t going to lift. Almirola said he knew exactly what he was doing in blocking Dillon, because they both had no choice.
“I think I blacked out,” Dillon said. “Your eyes roll back in your head, and you just go. I never lifted.”
If Almirola doesn’t block, he loses.
If Dillon doesn’t stay on the throttle, he loses.
Fans seem to think that these cars are point and click, like a video game, that decisions are as simple as throttle or lift and left or right. These were some of the most unstable restrictor plate cars that NASCAR has ever allowed on-track.
This isn’t a matter of Dillon blatantly dumping Almirola with no regard for life or limb. Drop the altruism. Restrictor plate racing, if you even want to call it racing, is a unique discipline with a unique set of rules. Drivers have to push and drivers have to block at Daytona and Talladega.
Does Dillon deserve some degree of scrutiny? Sure. But the fact that Almirola wasn’t the first one to levy criticism speaks volumes.
At the end of the day, these two drivers were racing for the Harley J. Earl Trophy. They put everything on the line to win the biggest race of the year. Someone has to win and someone is going to lose. Despite what nearly happened in the Xfinity Series on Saturday, there are no such things as ties.
Isn’t this kind of competition we should want as fans?
A star was born on Sunday, and it wasn’t the guy who won the race.
Perhaps history will eventually remember the 2018 Daytona 500 as the moment Dillon arrived as a NASCAR superstar. The 27-year-old won the Coca-Cola 600 last year and now adds the Daytona 500 to his resume. It doesn’t hurt that he has the luxury of driving the iconic Richard Childress Racing No. 3, either.
But it was the driver of another historic entry that won over hearts and minds on Sunday when Bubba Wallace finished second for Richard Petty Motorsports in the legendary No. 43.
In many ways, this was a story that NASCAR couldn’t script if it tried. The car made famous by Dale Earnhardt won the race with Richard Petty’s No. 43 finishing second. The NASCAR marketing machine has been pushing Wallace all offseason, hoping his charisma and exuberance would catch on with the coveted 18-34 demographic.
But everyone might have fallen in love with the 24-year-old after the race when he broke down in tears in the media center because his mom and sister hugged him onstage. Wallace buried his face in a towel and just openly wept in front of the media corps, telling himself to get it together.
“I’m so emotional over where my family has been the last two years,” Wallace said. “I don’t talk about it, but it’s so hard. Having them here to support me is … awesome. I try so hard to be successful at everything I do, and my family pushes me each and every day. They might not know it, but I want to make them proud. Second is horrible, but it’s still a good day. Having everybody here means a lot.”
Sweet Jesus, how can that not move you?
NASCAR spends so much time trying to sell winning as the key to marketability that it has forgotten that overcoming adversity is the most admirable trait of a champion. Sure, everyone likes a winner, but for NASCAR to build new stars, it has to spotlight the struggle, too.
It happened with Chase Elliott last year at Martinsville, and now fans are invested in Wallace’s ascension. But every ascension, by its very nature, starts at the bottom. The same could be said of Ryan Blaney after he led the most laps but got taken out in a late crash.
The journey to the top is what lures fandom. Now it’s up to NASCAR’s new faces to do their part and contend for wins.
Could Danica Patrick have seemed any less interested in being in the Daytona 500?
Patrick said goodbye to NASCAR over the weekend, and fans seemed equally eager to say it right back. First and foremost, it’s important to recognize her contributions to the sport. She is absolutely a trailblazer and served as a reminder that women deserve equal opportunities to compete at the highest level of the sport.
However, over the past few years, her personal brand became a priority over her racing ambitions and created a wedge between herself and her largest audience, race fans. It will be interesting to see if Patrick’s personal brand loses any of its luster when she is no longer the health-conscious, yoga-performing active race car driver that made her famous in the first place.
Based on Speedweeks, she just seems tired of the process and procedure. Last weekend, she was short with the media, suggested she will no longer watch racing on a routine basis and said she had no desire to mentor younger drivers in the spirit of Lyn St. James.
She’s done with motorsports.
That, of course, is her right. She has earned whatever career she wants for herself. But this weekend was an opportunity to make one last appeal for NASCAR fans to follow her into what comes next. She just didn’t seem that interested in making the effort.
Perhaps, going back home again to Indiana for the Indianapolis 500 will create more of a feel-good tone. And truthfully, she deserves it. Danica enjoyed moderate success in both IndyCar and NASCAR. Even during the driver introductions, she received cheers that equaled those for Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Maybe the microscope placed upon her personal life this weekend was too unnerving. Admittedly, maybe the media asked annoying questions and maybe she’s just grown disillusioned with racing.
But here’s to hoping her send-off at Indianapolis feels more optimistic and inspirational than what took place this weekend.