NASCAR’s introduction of a new staged format in the 2017 NASCAR Cup season opener Daytona 500 made for exciting racing but a huge headache for team owners and engineers as only five of the 40 cars taking the green flag finished the race without damage.
Stewart-Haas Ford driver Kurt Busch took the win as both pole sitter Chase Elliott and then previous winner Kyle Larson ran out of fuel while leading during the final two laps.
Busch chalked up his win to perseverance and a bit of luck, having avoiding the many incidents in the middle part of the race, and recovering from a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pit lane early on.
The race featured a new format, which divided the 200-lap race into two stages of 60 laps each with a third, final stage of 80 laps. The format was intended to make the race more exciting, and avoid the situation that has become common in recent races where most of the race is spent with the entire field in a single-file, high-speed parade around Daytona’s iconic oval.
The stage system awarded championship points to drivers inside the top 10 at the end of each stage, presumably to give them incentive to race. As it turned out, however, action was cautious in the first and most of the second stages of the race as teams employed a variety of pit stop strategies to make the most of the enforced breaks in the action.
Late in the second stage, as the teams and drivers sensed the end of the race drawing near, the crashes began. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Daniel Suarez and Matt Kenseth were taken out in accidents, while Penske’s Brad Keselowski also ended his race in the wall. The “big one” – considered almost inevitable at Daytona – happened early in the third stage, with a 16-car melee taking out contender Kevin Harvick, who finished the first stage in second place and won the second stage, as well as reigning series champ Jimmie Johnson and last year’s Daytona winner Denny Hamlin.
With the third stage being longer than the first two, a number of teams miscalculated their fuel needs, leading to Elliott and Larson fading with empty tanks, finishing 14th and 12th, respectively, as well as Martin Truex Jr., who coasted over the line in his Toyota in 13th place after a good showing throughout the afternoon. Through either crashes or fuel issues, only 15 cars of the 40 that started managed to complete the full 200-lap race.
Ford dominated the results, taking six out of the top ten places, with Toyota failing to live up to its early weekend strength with only one top ten finisher, the retiring Michael Waltrip, coming home in his last Daytona 500 in 8th place. Underdogs Ryan Blaney of Wood Brothers, who was lucky to escape damage in an earlier crash, and AJ Allmendinger of JTG Daugherty Racing, joined Busch on the podium in 2nd and 3rd places.