The 2017 Daytona 500 will go down as the most competitive running since 2014 - 37 official lead changes seems low given how sustained the nose-to-nose battles for the lead were - and one of the more bizarre runnings and one that decidedly didn't go according to anyone's plan. It was also a humorously fitting debut for Monster Energy Drink's sponsorship of the Winston Cup Grand National series, not only for the intensity of the racing but also for the imaginative nature of some of the promotion - in a clever crossover of sports Patriots tight end/controlled party star Rob Gronkowski was part of the prerace show (adding to the irony the prerace show proceeded amid the Boston Bruins' 6-3 whipping of the Dallas Stars, a nice synergy of racing, football, and hockey) - was won by a car whose primary sponsor is also the series sponsor - a scenario the sport has seen play out from such races as the 1975 Purolator 500 (won by the Purolator Mercury) to the 1981 Mountain Dew 500 (won by the Mountain Dew Buick) and so on. There is plenty to break down in this one -
The curious case of Joe Gibbs Racing - NASCAR's new segment format saw the first case of raceteams trying to beat the format with strategy, and the result was farce. Joe Gibbs Racing put themselves behind the eight ball by short-pitting fifteen laps in, and cost themselves a lap doing it again later. Stewart-Haas Racing short-pitted and caught a lucky caution courtesy of rookie Corey LaJoie, who committed the dumbest rookie mistake we've seen in a while. Kevin Harvick cycled into the lead, but it seemed he would have done so without short-pitting - the whole strategy of working pitstop sequencing backwards as if a superspeedway were a road course did nothing but put the teams who kept short-pitting behind the eight ball.
Kyle Busch wound up winning the first segment and the bonus points resulting, this after some of the best Daytona Cup racing in many years, and after two days of terrific racing from the Truck and Busch/Xfinity Series.
But Kyle Busch's day ended past halfway after JGR yet again short-pitted and were barely on the lead lap during a lengthy green flag run - and a tire went down (the resulting melee also saw the third red flag in two days of racing). Kyle Busch's criticism of Goodyear was refreshing given Goodyear's seeming sense of entitlement for being an exclusive tire supplier and also its inconsistent and generally mediocre record with raceable tires - and in an odd coincidence 2017 marks the last year of Goodyear's present contract.
The net result was a confusing series of pit strategies, the likes of which Daytona hasn't really seen since the ill-fated 1991 500 when NASCAR banned tire changes under yellow and teams insisted on strategizing to avoid green flag stops.
Chase Elliott channeling Ernie Irvan - Chase Elliott won the pole and won his qualifying race, and he showed true aggression fighting to get to the front. The problem was Elliott at times looked less like his dad and closer to Ernie Irvan, looking out of control at times - before the race NASCAR gave a mild warning about "the consequences" of blocking, which had become more pronounced for the Cup side not just this Speedweeks but last season as well. Elliott got damage in one of the crashes, but the theme all week was cars getting damaged and roaring back to the lead anyway - "these cars look like they've been running Martinsville" was a phrase Darrell Waltrip first used at Talladega in 1996.
Five years ago this July Kurt Busch was in what amounted to NASCAR exile from his firing from Penske Racing thanks to chronic psychopathic behavior on the track and in his treatment of people around him - he exploded to one of the signature races of the decade in winning the 2012 Firecracker 250.
Five years later Busch's Ford was crunched up and he clawed to steal the win from Kyle Larson. It is his fifth win for Stewart-Haas Racing and first in a Ford since the Summer 500 at Pocono in 2005 driving for Roush Racing.
Pearson/Petty reborn plus a whale of a day for darkhorses - Not that Richard Petty qualifies as a darkhorse in the traditional sense, but the struggle for success for Petty's raceteam the last thirty-plus years doesn't require elaboration, and seeing Aric Almirola claw to finish fourth was something to behold. Even more magical was that Petty's #43 and the Wood Brothers #21 were in the lead draft at the end - though Ryan Blaney raced closer to Tim Richmond than David Pearson en route to a spectacular second and an eye-opening Speedweeks.
And muscling into the fray was AJ Allmendinger, driving Brad Daugherty's #47 and finishing a solid third. And the way the finish shook out it was a big payday for team owners Jay Robinson, Archie St. Hilaire, and Mark Beard, whose cars all finished in the top-eleven.
How much more incentive is there to go for the lead? This much..... - Kevin Harvick finished 22nd and outpointed all but four other cars - Joey Logano finished sixth and outpointed all but two other cars. In the Truck race Johnny Sauter finished 15th and is second in Truck points - all because the new bonus points structure rewards going to the front sooner rather than later. Incentivizing going for the lead - it may be just one race weekend but it's clear there is more incentive to go for the front now - and that is only a good thing for racing.
In all, it was by far the best Speedweeks in years, and a great start for Monster Energy in NASCAR. It can become even more competitive down the road - and this start gives reason that it will.