NASCAR Opening Weekend Was One to Remember

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by Ryan Isley

Deadpool may have had a great weekend at the box office last week, but NASCAR just had a hell of an opening weekend for the 2016 season.

Johnny Sauter won the NextEra Energy Resources 250 in the Camping World Truck Series Friday night in what was a great race from start to finish, Chase Elliott held off Joey Logano to win the Xfinity Series PowerShares QQQ on Saturday and then in the finale, Denny Hamlin edged out Martin Truex, Jr. at the finish in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history.

Here are some of my thoughts on all three series from the weekend:

Let it all hang out

“You have to make a move. It’s the Daytona 500,” Jeff Gordon said on the FOX broadcast in the final 10 laps. “I don’t care what kind of competitor you are (or) what teammate you have out there, you want to win this race.”

DISGordon’s comment was in response to broadcast partner Darrell Waltrip making an asinine comment wondering if the drivers would try to make a move late or just stay where they were to protect their positions.

Gordon, the winner of three Daytona 500s to Waltrip’s one, was right. He was also right about who that driver might be.

“There is no way Denny Hamlin is going to be content with fourth place, not without at least putting effort into trying to make something happen,” Gordon said with two laps left on the FOX broadcast.

When the field took the white flag signifying the final lap, drivers starting making their moves. Hamlin was able to jump in front of Kevin Harvick, who was trying to make the high line work to get around Matt Kenseth, who was protecting the bottom.  Once Harvick and Hamlin connected, they were about to freight train Kenseth. The driver of the No. 20 took a calculated risk and tried to block. The move didn’t work, as Kenseth was shuffled out of line and up near the wall, eventually saving the car and finishing 14th.

Kenseth didn’t hold a grudge towards his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, knowing what Gordon said was true. This is the Daytona 500 and you have to do whatever it takes (within the rules) to win.

“Safe bet would have been to stay on the bottom and finish second with the momentum he had,” Kenseth said on FOX after the race. “But we are here to try to win the Daytona 500, we went for it and came up short.”

The mentality to do whatever necessary to win becomes especially true in today’s NASCAR, where the Chase for the Sprint Cup has made it possible to have bad finishes and still compete for the championship at the end of the season.

Hat Trick for Danica

New sponsor, new season, same Danica Patrick.

With wrecks in the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday night, a wreck (somehow) in her duel on Thursday and then a spin in the Daytona 500, Patrick managed to wreck in all three races in which she participated in Daytona.

The wreck in the duel was especially confusing, as she was behind the original crash that involved Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger and Kenseth. As she approached where the wreck occurred, Patrick just careened off the track as if attracted by a magnet to the carnage.

And then in the Daytona 500, she pulled off a classic Patrick wreck. With 16 laps to go and running near the back of the field, she tried to keep Greg Biffle from passing her by pinching him down against the yellow line. Biffle didn’t budge, and Danica went sliding through the grass.

One thing is for sure – this isn’t the last time we will see Patrick with a banged up car in 2016.

Xfinity Series still needs changes:

As much as I am a fan of NASCAR implementing a Chase format in the Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series starting this season, there are still some ways in which the Xfinity Series race for the championship could be done better.

It a starts with how many times the Sprint Cup Series regulars are permitted to race in the Xfinity Series. Had the Chase been in place in 2015, only five drivers would have qualified for the 12 spots in the Chase with a win in the season’s first 26 races. That’s because Sprint Cup Series drivers won 18 of the first 26 races. And with the win by Elliott in this season’s initial race, it seems that trend is going to continue.

One thing I would like to see changed if they aren’t going to limit the number of races that Sprint Cup Series drivers can race in the Xfinity Series is to tweak the eligibility rules for the Xfinity Series Chase. While a win would still qualify you, the second tier of qualifying could be how many times a driver was the top finishing Xfinity Series driver in a race won by a Sprint Cup Series driver. They could use three spots in the Chase for those drivers if there were three available and then any remaining spots could be determined by points.

Stop the clock:

NASCAR announced prior to the season that it would be implementing a caution clock in the Camping World Truck Series. What happens is that there is a clock set at 20 minutes at the start of a green flag run in the race and if there isn’t a caution by the time that clock runs out, the caution flag will fly.

This never technically came into play at Daytona, but it did in a sense. As the clock was running down on lap 42, a number of teams tried to play into a pit strategy brought on by the expiring clock. What ensued was a wreck getting onto pit road that involved Cody Coughlin, Spencer Gallagher and Christopher Bell.

This seems to be one of those cases of NASCAR outsmarting itself. The usage of competition cautions after a certain amount of laps have been run with changing weather conditions and things of that sort are one thing, but to basically come out and say that the trucks aren’t going to be allowed to race more than 20 minutes without a caution when one isn’t necessary is crazy.

Strategy is part of the sport. There is no need for a clock. Let teams and drivers work out a pit strategy whether the race is under green or it is under caution.

Let them race

The NextEra Energy Resources 250 in the Camping World Truck Series was one of the more entertaining races you will see (with the exception of Eldora) from start to finish. Or at least until one lap before the finish.

As the final lap began, trucks starting wrecking behind the leaders. With Sauter trying to hold off Ryan Truex with one lap to go, the caution flag waved and ended the race. The wreck ended up being a big one, seeing Bell’s No. 4 flip several times before the driver was eventually able to get out. Despite the severity of the wreck, NASCAR could have allowed the trucks to race to the finish, as the wreck was not going to have a say in who won or who finished in the top-5.

One argument is that NASCAR needed to throw the caution to allows safety personnel the quickest access to Bell and the other drivers involved and that is a valid argument. It just seemed like an anticlimactic end to such a thrilling race.

Next time, I would like to see NASCAR allow the drivers to race to the checkered flag.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.