Questioning the relevancy of Cup qualifying

HAMPTON, Ga. – I put the question out there because a) NASCAR rarely has more than 40 cars attempt to qualify in the Monster Energy Cup Series these days and b) with charters, 36 teams are guaranteed a starting spot in every race even if they don’t make a qualifying attempt.

I asked through social media – is qualifying really necessary today? And if so, why?

Most folks who said yes questioned how NASCAR would determine the starting lineup if there was no qualifying. There are many options – including set the field by blind draw or base it on practice speeds.

If you based it on practice speeds, there’s always the chance a team goes out with something akin to a “qualifying setup” in an attempt to start on the pole. If that’s the case, what’s really been accomplished? I get that.

But if you’re willing to go to all that trouble then I say have at it. Dialing in a race-day setup would seem to be much more important to me.

Others said qualifying is still important because pit stall selection is based on qualifying results and as passing becomes more and more difficult, track position becomes more and more important. We’ve seen the team with the first pit stall manage to stay out front on many occasions by just rolling a few feet ahead of rivals as the field came off pit road.

There is something to be said for that, particularly now with stage wins providing playoff points and the top 10 at the end of each stage earning race points. Those points can be the difference in making the playoffs, or even advancing once the playoffs have begun.

And track position is particularly crucial at short tracks, where a driver can find himself battling just to stay on the lead lap right off the bat if he starts the race in the rear of the field at a Bristol or Martinsville.

Setting the lineup based on practice speeds, however, would accomplish the same thing as qualifying. The very same thing. Fast speeds in practice would result in a higher starting position and a better pit selection.

Eliminating qualifying would mean teams could focus on what’s important, race-day setups. Officials could also shorten the race weekend for Cup teams by scheduling two practices on Saturday, for example, when Sunday races were scheduled.

For the night race at Bristol teams practice and qualify Friday and race on Saturday. That system would work just as well at other venues.

Travel costs would be less. Time and money would no longer be necessary for qualifying packages.

A few stats:

o The average starting position of race winners in 2017 was 7.6;

o Six of 36 races in 2017 were won from the pole;

o 10 races in 2017 were won from a front-row starting spot;

o 19 races in 2017 were won from a top-five starting spot;

o 10 races in 2017 were won from a starting spot outside the top 10.

I’m not saying starting up front and having a good pit stall isn’t important. I’m just wondering if determining the lineup and choosing pits could be done without going to the trouble and expense of qualifying. Is there a better way? A more cost-effective way?

There was a time when qualifying on the pole meant something; it was a big deal for a driver and team to post the fastest lap.

I’m just not so sure that’s the case today.

Busch to pole, inspection issues for Truex

HAMPTON, Ga. – Kyle Busch won the pole here Friday for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway while defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing team failed to make a qualifying attempt.

Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota) captured the pole with a third-round lap of 184.652 mph. His run knocked Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet) off the top spot.

No pole winner has won a NASCAR premier series race at the 1.54-mile Atlanta track since 2006 (Kasey Kahne).

Truex, who scored eight victories last season on his way to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title, did not make a qualifying run after his No. 78 Toyota failed on its first three attempts to pass pre-qualifying inspection.

This weekend’s race is the first for teams on an intermediate track with the new optical scanning station, a system of cameras and projectors that record measurements of both the car body and chassis.

“It’s unfortunate that we had a situation where we had multiple failures in what was otherwise a very successful debut of the optical scanning station here for a downforce track,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told FOX television after qualifying had been completed.

“We had rear-wheel alignment problems and we had body scan problems and we just weren’t able to get all of the things legal in those attempts and here we are,” he said of the Truex situation.

Because of the multiple failures, NASCAR ejected Blake Harris, car chief for the No. 78 team.

“We have the option to suspend a crew member,” Miller said. “It doesn’t have to be a car chief; that’s at our discretion. We have tapped the car chief as an important individual so that’s likely what we are going to do but by rule it’s a crew member ejection and 30-minute practice hold.”

Miller indicated that the body scan issues involved the “rear wheel openings” while there was a failure of the rear-toe as well.

In a release from the team, Furniture Row president Joe Garone said that the new inspection process “is just that, new.

“The tolerances are very tight, within thousandths of an inch. It’s difficult to push the limits where you feel you need to and still be within the tolerances of the new system.”

Garone said one thing the team will not do is “leave anything on the table and expect to get poles and wins.

“We will always push for the maximum,” he said.

As a result of the inspection failure, Truex will start 35th on Sunday. Only 36 cars are entered in the series’ second event of the season.

Not just another race name

HAMPTON, Ga. – The first official race day for the folks from Folds of Honor was eye-opening.

The organization’s web site crashed due to the tremendous amount of traffic generated by the affiliation with convenience store group QuikTrip and sponsorship of the NASCAR premier series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That was in 2015. Thankfully, such technical issues are no longer a problem.

The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, now in its fourth season, is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 25 at AMS.

It is not your typical race sponsorship. It is one of the most impressive sponsorships in NASCAR. And racing. And maybe sports in general. It is much more than just a name on a race weekend.

o o o

“Ten years ago, I ended up on a commercial airline flight with Cpl. Brock Bucklin who was killed in Iraq and his twin brother, Cpl. Brad Bucklin who was bringing him home,” said Maj. Dan Rooney, a fighter pilot and founder of Folds of Honor.

“That night, despite the (pilot’s) request, half the people got off the plane and left. I watched Brock’s four-year-old son watch his father’s American flag-draped coffin as it inched down the ramp.

“God told me I needed to do something.”

What Rooney did was go home and start Folds of Honor, a non-profit organization that provides scholarships to the spouses and children who have had a family member in the military killed or disabled.

The organization began in a room over Rooney’s garage. This year, they will award their 20,000th scholarship.

The growth “has been exponential,” Rooney said. “When we showed up here we were giving $3 million a year in scholarships; last year we gave $16 million. It’s been amazing.”

o o o

Corporate headquarters for Folds of Honor and QuikTrip are both located in Tulsa, Okla. Rooney said he walked into QuikTrip’s offices “and they believed in us early on.

“Their core values align with our core values,” he said, “and those align with the core values of NASCAR and its fan base. Flag-waving, hard-working, beer drinking fans. They get it and appreciate the fact that freedom isn’t free. … That’s what brought QuikTrip and Folds of Honor together and then to bring it full circle, to have a NASCAR race (named after both).”

Folds of Honor is one of QuikTrip’s primary charitable causes. There are 131 QT stores in the Atlanta area so sponsorship of the race at AMS makes sense.

“They wanted an anchor event to reach all these folks,” Rooney said.

o o o

Kobalt Tools, Cracker Barrel, Advocare, NAPA. AMS has had a long list of race sponsors through the years. Ed Clark, the track’s general manager, said talks with QuikTrip came about through a relationship with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola.

And the focus began to turn toward Folds of Honor, he said, early in the conversations.

“Chuck O’Dell, who is vice president of sales at QuikTrip, is on Folds board,” said Clark. “Both being in Tulsa they’ve been a big supporter. As we noodled around how this thing could work, the whole concept kind of came to life of them doing the event and giving a lot of the assets to Folds of Honor.”

Early on, the aim was to raise awareness for Folds of Honor. Today, it’s more about generating funds to fulfill scholarship requests.

“I think it speaks volumes for the quality of company, the approach that QuikTrip takes,” Clark said. “They are first-class in everything they do. For them to take this asset and roll it over to Folds and support them, when they could selfishly just make it all about QuikTrip selling more gas and getting more people in the stores says so much about them.”

o o o

Jacob Bucklin was the four-year-old watching his father’s coffin come off the plane. He was the first Folds of Honor scholarship recipient. He’s 15 and lives outside of Grand Rapids, Mich.

“I started this … trying to help that one little guy and 20,000 scholarships later I think we’re on the right path,” Rooney said. “I know we’re on the right path.

“Little did I know where we were going to go.”

Eury: They’ve got the ability to race like that

Tony Eury Jr. looked at the car. Actually, he looked at what was left of it. He glanced up at the scoring pylon, then looked back at what had been a race car only moments earlier.

“The old points system, that right there just took you out of a championship for the whole year,” Eury said. “Now it doesn’t mean anything to anybody; they’ve got the ability to race like that.”

Wide open. Go for broke. Push and shove and root and gouge and when the dust at settles you’re either in the winner’s circle or hooked to the saddest end of a wrecker.

Stage points and bonus points and playoff-earning wins make the NASCAR world go ’round these days and that’s either good or bad, depending on where you wind up at the end of the day.

Years ago, when championships were determined based solely on points earned throughout the entire season, one bad day could definitely put a dent in a team’s title hopes. It might not ruin the entire year, but it held that potential.

That’s still the case today, in some ways, but regular-season missteps aren’t the title-killers they once seemed to be. They’re potholes. A minor nuisance.

Maybe that’s part of the reason for the multiple multi-car incidents in Sunday’s Daytona 500. The penalty for a mishap was enough of a deterrent at one time. That time has passed.

It’s just as easy to say the incidents were the result of the racing being the Daytona 500 and you don’t get many opportunities to win that race and if it takes getting a little bit more physical, then so be it.

I’ve heard drivers apologize for incidents that occurred during a race from time to time. I’ve yet to hear one apologize for winning a race, however. And I’ve never heard a driver, crew chief or owner apologize for winning the Daytona 500.

Eury has served in a variety of roles during his two-plus decades in NASCAR. From 2006-08, he was crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the most popular driver wound down his career at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and made the move to Hendrick Motorsports.

Eury served as Danica Patrick’s crew chief when she began competing in the XFINITY Series and stuck around for a couple of years before she made the move to Cup.

That relationship is what brought them back together this past week at Daytona.

Their race ended much sooner than hoped as Patrick was swept up in the third multicar crash of the day. Officially, her final start resulted in a finish of 35th.

She wasn’t injured. Her car wasn’t as fortunate. It barely resembled the familiar green Chevrolet that had begun the race a couple of hours earlier.

One race remains for one of NASCAR’s most popular personalities – a final trip to Indy in May for the Indianapolis 500.

Eury, meanwhile, says he has no inclination to climb back into the fray.

“I’ve had a couple of people talking to me about ‘Hey can you do a couple more of these?’ he said.

“It’s like I’ve said before, I like the competitiveness of the Cup series, I don’t like the schedule. When you’ve done it for 23 years, you know everybody at every front desk of every hotel. To me, you’re not living life, not being with your family.

Eury said he likes being able to spend time with his father, Tony Eury Sr. – the two operate Fury Race Cars in Mooresville, N.C. The elder Eury won Cup races with Earnhardt the father and Earnhardt the son. A pair of XFINITY Series championships with Junior, too.

“A very important part of me is to be with my dad as much as I can right now,” Eury Jr. said. “That’s probably the biggest reason I’m not doing this (fulltime).

“I spent half my life in this Cup garage … I thought it was time to take a step back and take care of family.”

Dillon wins Daytona; Wallace impressive

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 and that’s an impressive accomplishment but much of the focus after Sunday’s race was on Darrell Wallace and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports organization.

Wallace finished second in his first start as the full-time driver for RPM. He fought hard to finish second; he crashed on the final lap, in overtime, but still finished second.

His mom didn’t get to see him until Wallace had come in the media center and there the two hugged and cried and then a sister arrived and they hugged and cried and it was a pretty rare and powerful show of emotion.

Wallace is black and that shouldn’t mean anything but in a series that’s had only one black driver win a single race in its’ 70-year history, it means a lot.

RPM has been a shell of what was once Petty Enterprises long ago – 10 championships between father and son Lee and Richard Petty. There have been few wins – recent years have been more about keeping the team afloat than winning races.

An off-season move from Ford to Chevrolet and a new alliance with Richard Childress Racing (home of the previously mentioned Dillon, by the way) was expected to be problematic, slowing any potential progress.

And the Daytona 500, being a restrictor-plate race, doesn’t give a clear indication of how well a team will likely perform in the coming weeks and months.

But RPM’s group performed surprisingly well over the course of this year’s Speedweeks program and it would be wrong to chalk it up to nothing more than good luck.

Of course, time will tell. Still, it was refreshing to see as it all played out in the season-opening race. And of course afterward.

o Let’s don’t cut Dillon and his No. 3 team short. Winning a plate race isn’t as easy as some folks would like you to believe; winning the Daytona 500 takes a monumental effort.

Dillon led only the final lap but that’s the one that pays and how many folks weren’t even around to contend for the win at that point? Too many to count.

o Most impressive was the run of Ryan Blaney, the Team Penske driver who led 118 laps and appeared en route to his second career victory before damage to the front of his car in a late-race incident took him out of contention.

Blaney ended up seventh, but it’s evident he’s become quite competitive at restrictor-plate racing. With teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano also accomplished plate racers, Team Penske could be the biggest threat on the plate tracks this season.

Chasing ghosts in Daytona Beach

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The cemetery is located between the beach and the speedway and I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven past and thought “stop and take a look around. You know there are stories there.’

Instead, I would keep driving, headed either to the track for some early morning press conference or back toward wherever it was I happened to be staying that particular year, long after sunset, to wash the sand and grit of the track away and perhaps grab a bite to eat.

Friday I stopped. At Daytona Memorial Park.

I wasn’t disappointed.

o o o

According to newspaper accounts of the day, nearly 1,000 mourners paid their respects to E. Glenn “Fireball” Roberts when the NASCAR superstar’s body was returned to Daytona Beach following his death in 1964.

Close to 300 vehicles brought friends and family, fellow competitors and fans to the graveside services at what is still called Bellevue Memorial Park by locals. It was Sunday, July 5 and a time of mourning for the sport.

Roberts’ vault sits on the left just past the entrance, easy to spot below the monument of a tremendously oversized open bible. A plaque in front reads in part: He brought to stock car racing a freshness, distinction, a championship quality that surpassed the rewards collected by the checkered flag.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Daytona International Speedway Vice President Bill France Jr. speaks during a memorial service at the speedway for NASCAR great Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts on July 5, 1964. Roberts died on July 2, 1964, after suffering serious burns in an incident during the World 600 race on May 24, 1964 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)
“I went to high school with his brother Tommy,” says David Collins, a 51-year-employee of the park. “I remember going to watch the beach races back then.”

Collins says the park gets a fair number of race fans stopping by on a regular basis, particularly during race weekends when NASCAR cranks up over at Daytona International Speedway. “Probably 10-15 a day,” he said, adding that besides NASCAR folks, there’s a baseball standout or two buried here as well – Hall of Famer Napoleon “Larry” Lajoie for instance.

Roberts was considered NASCAR’s most widely known stock car racer of the day, a winner of the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 and about as many smaller races as one could imagine. He had 33 career wins in 1964 when he was severely burned in a crash during that season’s World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Less than two months later, he was gone. Pneumonia and blood poisoning, resulting from the burns to 70 percent of his body listed as the cause of death.

o o o

The name on the mausoleum reads “France” and it’s where NASCAR’s Bill France Jr. was originally interred. It’s built of dark stone, with vases on each side of the doorway, and sits next to a small pond. A palm tree is on the right, the grounds are neat, the surrounding grass and hedges are green and trimmed just so.

The mausoleum sits empty now, according to the park’s employees.

France, the son of NASCAR founder William H.G. France, passed away in 2007. Taking over from his father in 1972, he ushered the sanctioning body and the sport into what is known as its’ “modern era.”

The peace and tranquility of the location changed in recent years according to some, with the building of a large apartment complex just off the back side of the cemetery.

For that, or whatever reason, a similar mausoleum was purchased/erected at Volusia Memorial Park, less than three miles away. It is there that Bill Jr. and wife Betty Jane France, who passed in 2016, are now interred.

o o o

A bit further into the park, up the slight hill but no different from so many others that are marked by a simple stone placed in the ground sits the final resting place of one Marshall Teague.

Teague, pilot of the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, was as big of a star as there was in auto racing during his time. A winner of seven races in only 23 NASCAR starts, Teague’s prowess on the old Daytona Beach and Road Course was legendary – twice he won the feature on the 4.1-mile course. More times than not he was in contention before his entries were sidelined.

Teague was only 37 when he was killed while attempting to set a closed-course speed record at Daytona International Speedway in 1959. The test wasn’t stock-car related, however. Teague was chasing speed records in his Sumar Special, an Indy entry. In addition to his stock car endeavors, Teague made three career starts in the Indianapolis 500, finishing a career best seventh in 1957.

o o o

Friday I finally stopped. And wondered what took me so long.

Youth edges experience in Can-Am Duels

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It wasn’t teammates who pushed Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott into the lead during Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel races at Daytona International Speedway.

Unusual on the surface perhaps, but such is often the case when it comes to restrictor-plate racing.

Both Blaney and Elliott wound up with wins just the same.

Two young drivers pegged for stardom in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Series didn’t disappoint, winning their respective qualifying events. Youth edged experience this time around.

Officially, the field is now set for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500.

Blaney will line up third, inside the second row of the 40-car field. Elliott will start fourth, alongside Blaney. Alex Bowman (Hendrick Motorsports) and Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) won front-row starting positions four days earlier.

Blaney has new team. Sort of. Elliott has a new car number. Sort of.

For Blaney, his No. 12 Team Penske crew is made up of most of the folks who helped field last year’s No. 21 entry when he drove for Wood Brothers Racing. That includes crew chief Jeremy Bullins.

Elliott’s still at Hendrick Motorsports, but his car number now stirs memories of his father, 1988 series champion Bill Elliott. What had been No. 24 is now No. 9. Natives of his hometown of Dawsonville, Ga. rejoice.

Blaney spent most of the opening qualifying race running with teammates Logano and Brad Keselowski at the front of the pack. But in the closing circuits it was a push from Darrell Wallace that sent him shooting into the lead.

“I apparently don’t have any friends,” Logano said of the Blaney/Wallace tandem.

“I’ve seen you race before,” noted Wallace. “You’re not anybody’s friend.”

“I know. I could tell,” responded Logano.

They were smiling and joking. But there was a tinge of disappointment underneath.

Blaney, 24, scored his first MENCS win last season. Elliott, 22, is still chasing his first points win.

Victory lane doesn’t differentiate between points and non-points wins, though. Elliott came home first, withstanding the charges of Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones and Clint Bowyer for a final two-lap push. It was Harvick, the ’14 series champ and a former Daytona 500 winner, that gave Elliott the boost past then leader Hamlin.

Some drivers and teams took chances. Some did not. Sunday there will be no holding back.

“Heck yeah man,” Harvick said when asked if drivers would be braver come Sunday. “It’s the Daytona 500. If you back her in the fence going for the lead, so be it.”

o Roll out the backups. Wrecks by several drivers in Thursday’s Can-Am Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway sent teams scurrying to the transporters where backup entries were quickly unloaded.

Among the automotive wounded were the No. 48 of Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson, the No. 2 Team Penske Ford of Brad Keselowski and the No. 42 of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson.

The three drivers were among the favorites heading into Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, perhaps none as much as Keselowski, last week’s winner in the non-points Clash race at DIS.

The price for the car exchange? All will start from the rear of the field.

Can-Am Duels could be wild or mild

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s a race, actually two of them, with points on the line so the general consensus here is that drivers will be as aggressive as necessary when the Can-Am Duel qualifying races get underway here Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

There’s concern about keeping one’s primary ride for Sunday’s Daytona 500 sleek and slick and without wrinkle. But these guys are racers, we’re told, so once the green flag drops who knows? Could be crazy, could be calm.

Their cars were a handful, for the most part, in last Sunday’s Clash and teams are still trying to figure out how to keep that extra speed but regain some of the control. Bodies are closer to the ground, some are set more cock-eyed than others and spoilers are hidden from the wind.

“Speed is up but the lack of stability down the straightaways is probably the most challenging part for most cars out there that I see,” Joey Logano, driver of the No. 22 Ford for Team Penske and runner-up to teammate Brad Keselowski in the Clash, said during Wednesday’s Daytona 500 Media Day.

“We saw the crash with (Kyle) Larson into (Turn) 1 and the 48 car (of Jimmie Johnson) getting pushed on the backstretch and how unstable those cars were. And I know where my car was. I think the lack of downforce has kind of changed the game quite a bit.”

Johnson, seven times a series champ and twice a winner of the 500, said the difference between 2017 and ’18, as far as he can tell, is “just the pace.”

“Basic handling characteristics, if you looked at my notes from ’17, ’18, tight, loose, we’re just going a second faster,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said. “The intensity is higher because you’re on edge going faster. The general handling characteristics are just the same.”

Johnson and other Chevrolet teams are breaking in a new Chevrolet this season, the Camaro ZL1. It has appeared no more nor no less stable here than the Toyota Camrys or Ford Fusions thus far.

It may be a bit dicier this time around but Logano said the game plan remains the same: “I just get to the front and hopefully they crash behind you,” he explained. “Other drivers may run around the back and wait for the crash. That has never been my way of doing it. … I want to race up front and lead every lap if I can.”

Alex Bowman, pole winner for Sunday’s Daytona 500, will start on the pole in the opening Duel with Johnson also on the front row.

Toyota teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing) make up the front row for the second Duel.

Both races can be seen on FS1, beginning at approximately 7 p.m. ET.

Points will be awarded only to the top-10 finishers in each Duel.

o The Item That Won’t Go Away: Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. says he is still waiting to “hear back” from NASCAR concerning his penalty for advancing his position below the yellow line in Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash.

Stenhouse, driver of the No. 17 Ford, doesn’t deny passing Kyle Busch while out of bounds – “Yeah, I definitely advanced it. I was in the process of advancing it before I got below the yellow line, but I would definitely say that I advanced it,” he told reporters Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day at DIS.

His question, he said, involves the portion of the rule that states a driver who forces another competitor below the line also runs the risk of a penalty. The last time a driver was so penalized isn’t clear.

“I guess the next time somebody gets to the inside of me I’ll force them below the yellow line and then they’ll have to pit and they’ll be in the same position that I was in,” said Stenhouse, twice a winner last season.

“If that’s the way they’re going call it, then I guess we’ll race that way. We’ll see if they get back to us before we race tomorrow (in the Can-Am Duel qualifying races).”

Stenhouse has every right to be concerned – as a result of the infraction, he had to make a trip to pit road under green-flag conditions and eventually lost him a lap to the field.

But it’s not as if the penalty hasn’t been enforced in the past – it’s a rule that exists solely for races at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s only two restrictor-plate tracks, and it’s been called often enough in the past to cause a few raised eyebrows anytime a driver flirts with the line circling the bottom of the track.

o Patrick, Carpenter set for Indy 500: Rumors of Danica Patrick joining Ed Carpenter Racing for a final run in this year’s Indianapolis 500 were confirmed, albeit unintentionally, by Patrick Wednesday.

Asked about turning her focus away from NASCAR and toward Indy, Patrick noted that she “didn’t have time to meet up with Ed and the people” before stopping herself and then adding: “Did just say that out loud? Oh well.

“I’ve never done that in my career,” she said of the slip.

Patrick, 35, is scheduled to make her final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start in Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500. She’ll drive the No. 7 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. calling the shots.

o The final word: Courtesy of Clint Bowyer, who was asked about Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring from competition due to concussions: “I don’t know if that was primarily because of concussions. I think it was because he was wanting to cover the Olympics and Super Bowl and make just as much money as he was racing.”

Trying to figure out this year’s Clash

I started writing a column earlier basically saying this year’s Advance Auto Parts Clash was a boring race. I wanted to call it a clunker, one full of single-file driving around the 2.5-mile track. Limited action.

And then I went back and watched the race again and while I still can’t say the race had me on the edge of my seat, it did have its fair share of side-by-side racing. Particularly in the first 30 laps or so. I guess clunker would have been a little harsh.

There were times in the latter stages when the Clash showed promise, too. But honestly, for the most part the final laps at Daytona International Speedway did turn into a case of follow-the-leader and let’s see what happens.

Thank goodness for Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott, two drivers who finally decided to break ranks and try to form up an inside line in an attempt to get to the front. And who was it? Martin Truex, who decided to tag along and see what those silly kids were up to?

The last-lap crash that kept Jimmie Johnson from finishing under power for the seventh consecutive year wasn’t the result of drivers putting it all on the line – it was a mere miscalculation, a tap from Kyle Larson that sent the Hendrick driver into the wall.

Maybe distance was partly to blame – I witnessed this one from nearly 500 miles away and saw only what the network, in this case FS1, chose to show me. I’ve often felt that you get a much better sense of what’s taking place when you’re actually at the event.

Maybe the new “no ride height rule,” a move that erased minimum ground clearance for cars at the superspeedways this year, had something to do with it. Maybe that was part of the reason the cars seemed a bit more difficult to handle in traffic and kept drivers in check and in line for most of the afternoon. Maybe other pieces of the rules package (a bigger spoiler?) had an impact.

Maybe the fact that there were only 17 cars in the field played a role. When 40 cars hit the start/finish line Sunday for the start of the Daytona 500, there will be several more drivers willing to take chances and a few more willing to go with those who take those chances. For whatever reason, there seemed to be too little of that Sunday in the Clash.

Sunday’s race wasn’t a clunker, but it wasn’t quite what I expected or hoped for either.

There were fewer leaders and lead changes in last year’s Clash, but that race seemed much more exciting. And that was before Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski tangled on the last lap, allowing Joey Logano to sweep past for the win.

I won’t say drivers were just “riding around” Sunday. But for whatever reason or reasons, there didn’t seem to be a lot of folks eager to jump out of line and take a risk until the very last moment.

Maybe that’s what it takes to win on a restrictor-plate track and anything attempted prior to the last lap is foolish and destined to failure.

But in a race with absolutely nothing on the line other than bragging rights, that feels more than just a little disappointing.

Not Your Average Rankings

Face it. We could do driver rankings every week or so just like everyone else but where’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s occasionally take a look at another side of motorsports.

What to do for a debut then? Since the Advance Auto Parts Clash is scheduled for Sunday at Daytona International Speedway (3 p.m. ET, FS1) and it’s a non-points race …

Best Non-Points NASCAR Races

7 – Daytona 500 Consolation Race: From 1959 through 1962, the race was a 10-lap, last-chance qualifier for drivers to earn a spot in the starting field for the Daytona 500. When it returned for 1981-85, it was a 30-lap race for drivers who wouldn’t be appearing in the 500. No points, just glory.

6 – Suzuka Thunder Special/Montegi: A three-year exhibition stint at Suzuka Circuitland, a 1.394-mile road course in Suzuka City, Japan (1996-97) and Twin Ring Montegi (’98), a 1.5-mile venue in Motegi City, Japan. The racing wasn’t tremendously memorable but give NASCAR and the teams an A for effort. And expense. It wasn’t the first time the series had ventured outside the U.S., but to date it’s been the last. Perhaps for a reason.

5 – Duel at Daytona: OK, sadly this one is no longer eligible since the top 10 finishers in the two qualifying races now receive points. Of course, there was a time when wins in the qualifying races counted toward a driver’s career total, too. Thankfully, that practice ended in 1972. But there were times when the race to snatch up one of the final spots for the Daytona 500 was more exciting than the actual race for the win. With only four positions up for grabs now, and teams not wanting to risk tearing up their cars before the 500, the wow factor isn’t what it used to be for this event.

4 – Clash at Daytona: Hardly a better way to kick off the season than with a short, fast-paced race featuring many of the same drivers that will be vying for a Daytona 500 win the following week. Now back as part of a Sunday show that includes Daytona 500 qualifying and no longer run under the lights, the Clash should provide a little better glimpse of what the 500 might actually look like.

3 – All-Star Race: There have probably been more complaints lodged against this one event than any other non-points race on the NASCAR schedule. Mainly that it’s held at the same venue, Charlotte Motor Speedway, every year. And that the drivers are the same that fans get to see every single week during the season. Both are true. But the venue did move once before – a disastrous effort at Atlanta in ’86 – and since the drivers will ALWAYS be the same competing every week, officials have tried to juice up the format instead. Sometimes it has worked, sometimes it hasn’t. There have been several memorable All-Star races through the years, but few of late.

2 – Goodyear NASCAR 500: It wasn’t out of this world but it was out of this country. In 1988, NASCAR teams packed up and headed to Melbourne, Australia to compete at the Calder Park Thunderdome – after the NASCAR season had already begun. It was the first NASCAR race on a superspeedway outside the U.S. Neil Bonnett, winner at Richmond the previous weekend, scored his second consecutive victory, outdueling Bobby Allison for the exhibition win. A trip to Australia for a non-points NASCAR race has a major cool factor surrounding it even today.

1 – International Race of Champions: OK, I’m going to pull a fast one here right out of the box. The IROC series, which ran from 1974 through 2006 (with one brief interruption) technically wasn’t a NASCAR Series. The annual four-race platform featured many of auto racing’s most talented drivers from various disciplines. Where else could you see Bobby Unser and A.J. Foyt and David Pearson and Emerson Fittipaldi go head-to-head? Yeah it got a little NASCAR top-heavy toward the end of its run, and by then the races were all held on ovals. But the idea and the effort and the action ranks tops. For a non-points event, it didn’t get much better than this.

(Bear in mind this is far from a “complete” list of non-points races. There have been many, many other consolation races, hooligan races, etc. These are simply a few that stood out to me. Thanks for stopping by.)