The 2016 Nextera 250 for the Truck Series had it all. And when it was over - well past the expected time, frustratingly common to NASCAR races - Johnny Sauter and team owner Maury Gallagher had stormed to a spectacular win in a spectacular race. There was a lot to view in this fight and three things stood out above everything else -
NASCAR's caution clock actually made the racing better
- Everyone scoffed at NASCAR's caution clock for the Truck Series, but in the Nextera 250 something eye-popping happened - the racers fought to beat the clock, not only in going harder than expected for the lead, but diving into the pits with one minute to go before the caution. It disproved the theory going in that the caution clock would lessen incentive to race hard, that drivers would ride and wait for the yellow to get work on their racing machines. For Atlanta and going forward we still have to wait and see and the concept remains gimmicky, but it's clear for now the caution clock surprisingly added legitimate incentive to race hard and thus beat the clock - and the Truck Series has produced some spirited battles on intermediates the last five or so seasons, thus adding more optimism about this change going forward.
The racers made push-drafting effective again - Last year the Xfinity series started making push-drafting at the plate races effective again within the absurd rules box NASCAR has put them in. The Trucks at Daytona have struggled for years to produce more passing, but now they finally made the push-draft work again. Not only did the outside line - which has long been something of a liability for the Trucks at Daytona - kick in and storm into the lead, push-drafting gave the racers reason to stop blocking each other, a problem that has gotten more noticeable in the Cup series. Not that it stopped blocking altogether - far from it; several times Johnny Sauter nearly got waylaid into the wall entering Three by Trucks trying to get into the front of his drafting line.
Of course if you live by push-drafting you can die by it, and the two big melees of the night exploded as a result of ill-pressed push-drafts, the nastiest of which ruined Christopher Bell's spirited race for the win and ended in a vicious tumble almost scarier than Austin Dillon's dead-stop spearing of the fencing last July.
Sauter makes Chevrolet history - Sixteen previous tries, zero wins. Back in 1977 Talladega promoted the Winston 500 by asking whether a Chevrolet would finally win there; Darrell Waltrip made the answer Yes in that race; Johnny Sauter finally put Chevrolet in Daytona's victory lane in a Truck race this time; previously the closest a Chevy had come to winning was 2000 when Andy Houston stormed to the lead on the final lap but Mike Wallace and Kurt Busch stormed back in the final mile for the win.
The win was Sauter's eleventh career Truck win, first with a team other than Curb Motorsports, and first in a Chevrolet since 2011 at Miami. It was also curiously reminiscent of his 2013 Talladega win, a wildly competitive race that also saw a vicious last-lap tumble.
Other notable performances - Former Indycar driver Shigeaki Hattori entered the #81 for Ryan Truex and Truex came from nowhere to finish second.
Super runs by Cameron Hayley - who always seemed to get forearmed out of the way as he reached the lead - and Grant Enfinger disintegrated in the big melee with seven to go.
Daniel Suarez kept trying to make the extreme outside line work and never could, and he got eliminated in the wreck before the finish.
The last-lap melee ruined a quietly stout night for John Hunter Nemechek.
After the encouraging start to Speedweeks with the ARCA 200 and the Shootout last week, we now enter the meat of the weekend with one feature winner down and two to go.