DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Don’t expect NASCAR to make any changes to the package for this week’s Daytona 500 after several lackluster races at Daytona Int’l Speedway in the last week, including Thursday night’s Gander RV Duels.
That is the general consensus from several prominent team owners before Friday’s first practice session for this year’s Daytona 500.
Teams were judicious with their time on the track Friday as they fine-tuned the cars for Sunday’s 200-lap battle on the high banks of Daytona. Before long, however, seven teams had topped the 200 mph mark in practice.
In Friday’s first practice session, Kyle Busch’s Toyota was the fastest at 200.284 mph. Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota was next at 200.2 mph followed by rookie Ryan Preece’s Chevrolet at 200.169 mph, Erik Jones’ Toyota at 200.155 mph and Ryan Newman’s Ford at 200.093 mph.
When teams and crews hit the garage area to prepare for practice, there was little discussion about any changes being made to make the final race of the restrictor-plate era more entertaining. The three Cup races held at Daytona so far during Speedweeks have been single-file affairs with little passing.
One caveat, however, is those were small fields – half of the field that will make up the 40-car starting lineup in the Daytona 500. With more cars on the track, the nature of racing will change.
“NASCAR hasn’t given us any indication they’re going to change anything,” Team Penske owner Roger Penske said. “I think we have to put it in context. The 125s quite honestly, you have your 500 car, you have less of a field, so there’s less cars out there to maneuver with or draft.
“The racing will be certainly better on race day than maybe you saw last night. Cars are trying to get up last night to the front and draft. From a show perspective, I think you’re going to have a blanket over the cars that can win. Just a matter of staying out of trouble on race day, working with your other Ford teammates here.
“NASCAR has made no adjustments as far as I know.”
Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart believes the rules shouldn’t be changed based off a qualifying race.
“The thing about the qualifying races, the majority of the field is locked in anyway,” Stewart said. “The worst thing you want to do is put yourself in a bad position to have to bring a backup car.
“From 20 years ago when I started, the backup cars weren’t near as good as the primary cars. Nowadays, the backup cars are almost identical to the primary cars coming out. Still, you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that car that you qualified for the race.
“Guys are a lot more careful. But we saw guys like Chase Elliott last night, Daniel Suarez, that were trying moves by themselves. That’s something you typically don’t see a lot of, where guys can move and pass by themselves. I thought that was encouraging to see you’re not having to rely necessarily on a whole pack of cars to help you move through the field. Watching that, to me it was a show. As a driver and car owner, I caught myself paying attention to those two guys, their races, the effort they were making to try to figure out how to get around somebody, get back in a hole, get back in line. From that standpoint, I was entertained from it.
“The big thing is, like Roger said, the more cars you get out there, the more the pack racing gets a lot better and bigger. Qualifying races typically aren’t as exciting from that standpoint, but it’s because guys are really trying to take care of their equipment.”
There is little reason for any driver to be too aggressive in a qualifying race because there is more to lose than there is to gain.
“The goal at the end of the day is to win the Daytona 500,” Stewart said. “I don’t think we put a lot of emphasis on winning the qualifying races. If you can win it, great. In no way do you want to jeopardize your primary car to do so.”