How is it that already the first chapter of the season has come to a close? It literally feels like we had a late night in Daytona where an unexpected face stunned the fans in attendance to get the season-opening win, and his first career win, at the biggest event of the year. It seemed to be a theme since it happened 10 years earlier with Trevor Bayne, and 20 years earlier with Michael Waltrip.
Then it’s been a year where firsts have seemed to be a theme. First-time tracks were abundant throughout the entire first 25 races, from road courses to ovals, and even a familiar track with a different surface.
It’s been a year of dominance for one driver, while those that dominated a year ago are shut out from victory. New teams, new drivers, familiar faces in new places, and even the introduction of the new car that will be taking over at season’s end.
And yet, here we are, at a familiar track, but one that now is a bookend event to decide who is fighting for a title.
Yet, this year it’s not about how many are fighting for spots, but more about an all-or-nothing approach for so many that are on the outside looking in. Entering tonight’s action at Daytona, 15 of the 16 playoff spots are taken. Normally there’s a lot of drivers fighting for that spot, whether it be trying to enter in by points or by victory.
That is not the case this time.
Only two drivers are coming in with a guarantee that they could get into the playoffs just on performance. After that, it is truly a battle of who is willing to put everything on the line to get in a victory.
Drivers like Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace, Matt DiBenedetto, and so many more are at the track knowing there is no other alternative to see their season continue in the quest for a championship. Any one of those drivers could play the ultimate spoiler, as we have seen a few times this season at certain points. The only guarantee is that one spot is available, and the only way to get in for a majority of the field is to take the checkered flag.
At the same time, it also means trusting the field to not make an early mistake, and to help when needed to get in the correct position.
Even with no restrictor plates on the cars any longer, the way this facility is raced hasn’t changed. Using the draft, knowing when a line has a run, and when to push all still remain even though the spoilers are taller, and the spacer is on the injection rather than a plate. It still remains as a mentality of how to race this track, and to ensure the car is handling as it should. Normally, handling is not a big aspect at the superspeedways, but that is not always the case, especially with this aero package.
Being able to either have a strong handling car to stay out front, away from the chaos, or a decent handling car that can maintain and avoid the chaos, will win.
Who’s taking the checkered flag? Who’s getting that final spot? Who’s going for a championship while others just salvage something out of the remaining season?
Dust off Daytona, because this is not going to be a beach party at night’s end.