By Cole Cusumano
Typically, once teams across NASCAR load up following the season opener at Daytona International Speedway there’s a sense of relief, but the events that proceeded at the venue’s 3.61-mile road course could be summed up by one constant variable: chaotic — and maybe even more so than the Great American Race.
Between all three National Series we’d been exposed to everything from relentless racing, blunders from the best and unsuspecting victors when it was all said it done. The fact of the matter is, the Daytona road course made for a highly entertaining and dramatic event from start to finish.
Among all the unpredictability, there was of course one unwavering theme spawning back to 2018 – Chase Elliott’s dominance at road courses. The reigning NASCAR Cup Series Champion looked well on his way to his fifth consecutive win on the winding tracks after winning Stage One and dominating for a race-high 45 laps.
It wasn’t until the final stop of the day brought out by a controversial caution for rain that the road course ace was met with adversity for the first time in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253. Mired back in 15th with 13 to go, Ellliott was charging his way through the field until Corey LaJoie forced his No. 9 into the grass, in which the 25-year-old made a tremendous save.
After a quick caution enabled Elliott to clear his grille of grass, emotions got the best of him. The Team Chevy driver punted the No. 7 of LaJoie and impatience took hold. In surging his way all the way up to fifth following another yellow of his doing, the Georgia native stalled out by an aggressive Brad Keselowski unwilling to surrender to fourth-spot.
Wedged between Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, a forceful maneuver in front of the No. 11 sent Elliott spinning in Turn 6 with only five laps remaining.
Although Elliott was unable to get the job done, one thing became evident — he’s still the benchmark for success at these road courses and with six remaining on the circuit, the field will have some work to do to catch up. Or at the very least they’ll need to hope for an uncharacteristic flaw.
In the end — similarly to the Daytona 500 — spectators were treated to a first-time winner in Christopher Bell, who put on a masterful performance to get by Joey Logano coming to the white flag. Not only did this take a ridiculous amount of talent for the 26-year-old to get by one of the most notoriously toughest drivers to pass coming to the finish, it also took an admirable amount of respect from the 2018 Champion, who has a reputation for being aggressive late in races.
It wasn’t just the Cup Series that produced a surprise winner; Ty Gibbs, the grandson of Joe Gibbs, won the NASCAR Xfinity Series event in his debut. Make no mistake, this wasn’t a fluke; the 18-year-old led 14 laps and out dueled the current Champion in Austin Cindric in a thrilling overtime finish.
Not only did Gibbs win in his Xfinity Series debut, this was his first NASCAR sanctioned race period. With 11 wins amassed throughout the variations of ARCA Menards Series and NASCAR K&N Series racing, he’ll be around the sport for years to come.
It ended up being a weekend sweep for Toyota, after Ben Rhodes won his second consecutive race to open up the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. While this race had anything but a shortage of carnage, full-lap cautions put a damper on this event, as 10 cautions accounted for 20 of the 44 laps completed.
Finally, the new low-downforce package used by the Cup Series made for some incredible racing, but also lent itself to an emphasis on precision. Each lap it seemed as if at least one car was sent spinning or a driver had to serve a stop-and-go penalty for locking the tires up and missing a chicane. This in turn made for some inspiring performances from many drivers.
On Lap 39, Kurt Busch had pulled out to a sizable lead before succumbing to a misstep and hitting the curb. This sent his No. 1 through the grass and back into 26th. By virtue or grit and heavy usage of the nose from his Camaro, the Las Vegas native powered his way to the fourth-place finish.
Behind him in fifth was Keselowski, who actually got turned by Busch while he was charging back from his spin from the lead. But this wasn’t the Team Penske driver’s only mishap of the day. Exposure of the No. 2 on Fox’s broadcast was plentiful, but not for good reason. He would often be shown serving penalties for missing the chicane or speeding through the grass; but in what was likely the most unexpected rebound of the day, he ended up with a top-five.
Holding up the seventh-spot was A.J. Allmendinger for Kaulig Racing, who ran around the top-10 all day after starting from 34th. At the end of Stage Two, the driver of the No. 16 was caught speeding on pit road, but managed to salvage a quality finish.
Daytona 500 Champion Michael McDowell started alongside Elliott on the front row, but was met with adversity before completing his first lap. Heading off into Turn 1, he lost a tire and was dealt with the task of an uphill battle all day. The driver of the No. 34 backed up his trip to victory lane with an hard fought eighth-place finish.
By the time the checkered flag waved, a few things became clear. One being that the Daytona road course is wildly entertaining and it should be a staple on the NASCAR circuit. Another being we could see a recurring theme of chaos throughout the field and unrelenting performances. And finally, the field will still be chasing Elliott at the remaining six left-and-right turn tracks, so they’ll have some work to do before heading to Circuit of the Americas on May 23.
Regardless, all three series produced incredible racing throughout the weekend and the case can be made that the action on display this week was better than the Daytona 500. At least for now, the road course heavy schedule could prove to be the right call by NASCAR after all.