Race Preview: O’Reilly Auto Parts 253

One week removed from the glamor and glory of the Daytona 500, NASCAR returns to Daytona International Speedway for a very different race than the season’s kickoff. 

For the second race of the NASCAR Cup Series season, the superstars of NASCAR’s premier division will race on the famous Daytona road course, which they last competed on during the Busch Clash on Feb. 9. Before the Clash, NASCAR had only held one race for the Cup Series on Daytona’s road course, which was last August when the Cup Series couldn’t run at Watkins Glen International due to local COVID-19 restrictions.

Like last year, the Daytona road course wasn’t on the original season-long schedule when NASCAR released it, but just weeks after the schedule was released, California COVID restrictions sidelined any hope of NASCAR going to Auto Club Speedway in late February, so the Homestead-Miami weekend was pushed back one week to replace Auto Club and the one-week gap between the Daytona 500 and Miami was filled with the Daytona road course.

Last August’s race and the Busch Clash were two very different races, despite being on the same track. This was mostly due to the difference in the aero package, but could have also had to do with many other factors. For starters, the August race was in the daytime and no one had ever turned a lap on the track. Drivers in the Clash competed at night, but with more experience at the track. The Clash was also a non-points race, which could have driven up the intensity as well.

One issue that was very prevalent during the Busch Clash was how dirty the track was becoming on the backstretch chicane. Drivers were clipping the grass and sending dirt and grass onto the track surface, something we didn’t see in the August race. This took a few drivers out of contention for the win, including Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr. NASCAR has addressed this issue by adding rows of turtles between the grass and the pre-existing rumble strips in turns 9 and 10 to prevent drivers from kicking dirt up and onto the racing surface.

This weekend’s race is also five laps longer than the August race was, and with tires making a big difference in the Clash last week, it isn’t a stretch to think that pit strategy may win a team this weekend’s race.

RACE AND TRACK STATS

Graphic by Joe Passero

Track: Daytona International Speedway Road Course

Track Length: 3.61 miles

Race Length: 70 laps/253 miles

Pit Road Speed Limit: 45 mph

Defending Winner: Chase Elliott

Package: 750 horsepower, low downforce

First Race: 2020

First Winner: Chase Elliott

Most Event Wins: Chase Elliott (2020)

Stage 1: 16 laps (ends on lap 16)

Stage 2: 18 laps (ends on lap 34)

Final Stage: 36 laps (ends on lap 70)

FIVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES ON

Chase Elliott

Photo credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

The obvious pick to win on Sunday is Chase Elliott. Elliott has won the last four consecutive points races at road courses in the Cup Series, including the only points race ever run to date on the Daytona road course. Elliott is also riding momentum from a strong showing during speedweeks – he finished second in the Busch Clash, fifth in his duel and second in the Daytona 500.

While Elliott did have a dominant performance during last August’s race at the Daytona road race, leading 34 of 65 laps and winning stage 1 along the way, that race was run with the high-drag-high-downforce aero package, where as this weekend’s race will utilize the low-drag-low-downforce package that Elliott won with at Watkins Glen in 2018 and the Charlotte Roval last fall, but those performances weren’t as dominant as his wins with the other package.

Ryan Blaney

Image result for ryan blaney daytona road course
Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In the Busch Clash just over a week ago, Ryan Blaney had one of the fastest cars and kept his nose clean throughout the race – two things he’ll need to do again this weekend for a shot to win at the Daytona road course. He also had a fast car and was able to make aggressive moves, pointing to a good handling car as well. Furthermore, in the last nine NASCAR Cup Series road course races for points, Blaney is the only person not named Martin Truex, Jr. or Chase Elliott to win. His strong showing in the Clash could be a sign of another strong weekend at Daytona’s road course, but also strong performances across the remaining road courses throughout the year.

Kyle Busch

Photo credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kyle Busch won the Busch Clash by leading just the final few-hundred feet of the race, stealing the victory from Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, who collided coming to the checkered flag. Busch, however, didn’t just ride his luck into victory lane that night – Busch ran in the top 10 most of the night, avoiding any issues in the pits or on the track. Busch has proven his talent on the NASCAR circuit, especially on road courses, where he’s won four times before. Busch, however, did not have the strongest car that night. Busch’s crew chief, Ben Beshore, confirmed after the clash that the no. 18 team had a new car being prepared for this weekend’s race, so if it’s any better than the Clash car, Busch will certainly have a say in who takes home the check on Sunday.

Martin Truex, Jr.

Photo credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Throughout the Busch Clash, Martin Truex, Jr.’s no. 19 Toyota Camry was one of the best cars all night. Truex Drove through the field twice successfully, and had it not been for a few mistakes on the track, Truex likely would have dominated the race en route to a victory. He’ll be fast again on Sunday, but he needs to fix those mistakes he made in the Clash in order to be in contention again.

Additionally, Truex’s stats at road courses are impressive, rivaling Chase Elliott’s. Truex has won four times at road courses, including the last two races at Sonoma. He also finished second to Elliott in both of the last two races at Watkins Glen after winning at the track in 2017. Truex also performed well last summer at the Daytona road course where he led 10 of the race’s 65 laps and finished third, proving his strength on this specific track.

Michael McDowell

Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

By virtue of his win in the Daytona 500, Michael McDowell has just about secured his place as one of the 16 drivers who will compete for a championship later this year. Knowing this, the no. 34 team has already addressed that they want to be more aggressive. McDowell’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, said this after the Daytona 500:

“We don’t have to points race for the next few weeks… I can make calls at both road courses and the Poconos and the places like that where we’re looking for stage points; how do we win a stage, how do we get stage points, how do we do things like that.”

Based on this, we can expect McDowell and his team to make strategy-based calls that might help them collect points and run up front. Furthermore, McDowell has had strong showings at road courses, including Daytona’s road course where he finished 10th last summer. 

BROADCAST INFORMATION

The Busch Clash will air live on Sunday, February 21 at 3 p.m. ET on FOX and Motor Racing Network (MRN).

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