Over the past several seasons it has become abundantly clear that the three auto manufacturers involved in the NASCAR Cup Series intend for their drivers to work to together to produce the best possible result at the sport’s two super speedway tracks. And this most recent Daytona 500 provided a clear example that nothing has changed in that regard.
Virtually every time a race is aired from either the Daytona International Speedway or the Talladega Super Speedway, we are told by the media present at the track that each manufacturer held a meeting with its drivers and team owners prior to the waving of the green flag and made it clear that they expect cooperation within the brand. And for the most part, those marching orders have been carried out in recent races on those giant speedways.
During the middle stages of the Daytona 500 there were long stretches in which the Toyota cars of Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing ran in line at the front of the pack clicking off numerous laps with the race lead. Denny Hamlin led a total of 98 laps while pulling that formation around the tri-oval while Christopher Bell added another 32 circuits to the Toyota totals. With cars playing a game of high speed follow-the-leader around the top lane of the 2.5-mile speedway there was rarely a time in which drivers from within the same manufacturer’s camp challenged one another for position.
But after the final pit stop of the night shuffled the running order, it was the Fords of Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Michael McDowell who led the Chevrolet duo of Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott with no one looking to get out of line for fear of losing the help of their fellow brand and dropping to the tail of the line. Coming to the white flag, the Fords running behind the leader finally made their move when Keselowski and McDowell drafted by Harvick which then opened a door for the Chevrolets of Dillon and Elliott to advance.
Ultimately, there was contact among the top-3 entering turn three which sent Logano and Keselowski spinning and parted the way for McDowell to take the win. But the real story is that no one looked to race for position over those closing laps until the final turn of the last circuit. And it seems fair to say that such was the case in large part due to the fact that the brands stuck together until the very end.
Three-time and defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin expressed frustration over that very thing in his post-race interview with the media.
“The single-file, especially when you had the manufacturer alliance at the front, I just thought for sure that the Chevys would do something but nobody wanted to,” Hamlin lamented. “That’s just kind of the way it goes.”
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With there only being five Toyotas in the race and one of them(Martin Truex, Jr.) damaged in an early race incident, Hamlin knew the odds were stacked against him and his brand due to the overwhelming numbers of Fords and Chevrolets remaining. That was particularly true when he and JGR teammate Kyle Busch got separated coming off of pit road following their final stop.
“There’s power in numbers and the numbers that you need is leaving pit road,” the No. 11 driver explained. “I think it’s like two seconds that your car is slower leaving pit road all the way to the start/finish line if you don’t have anyone behind you. I don’t know if the 18 didn’t have a great stop or what. I’m not sure why we got so far apart leaving pit road but we came out 30 lengths apart.”
Looking back, Hamlin felt like he might have been better off to link up with his fellow Toyota driver sooner than he did.
“In hindsight, I probably should have backed off and got back there to him quicker so we could make up the difference,” he recalled. “We were going to have to hold off ten cars because the Fords and Chevys had already formed up and we were too late to pit. It just didn’t work out, we just didn’t have the numbers to get up to speed in time. This was one of the few 500s where we were helpless because of our numbers.”
Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott and Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon tried to work together to keep their Chevrolets in contention during the closing laps. Eventually they would come home second and third respectively.
“We were definitely trying to work together, as the other manufacturers were, for as long as we could,” Elliott said in his post-race Zoom call. “The top was just so fast. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t an option. Today, the top was just ridiculous and it made to where nobody wanted to pull out of line until the very last lap.”
Dillon agreed that he and Elliott did all they could for Chevrolet. He added that the crash that took out numerous cars in the early going hurt the chances of the drivers with “Bow-tie” emblem on the front of their cars.
“I thought Chase and I worked really well together all night,” the 2018 Daytona 500 champ declared. “We lost some of our bullets in some of those wrecks with the Chevrolet camp. We had gotten to a point where we were in a decent position but Ford had those first four cars or so. We were just waiting as long as possible for them to start fighting for the win. It kind of happened the way we wanted it to. We were really close. We had two Chevys finish second and third. We needed a couple of feet, both of us.”
Elliott felt as if he and Dillon had no option other than to stay in line and work together whenever they could.
“Nobody wanted to pull out of line and we were afraid with only a few Chevrolets left right there at the end,” the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion stated. “Even if we had all got bunched up, we weren’t, I wasn’t sure it was going to be enough, and obviously everybody else was thinking the same thing.”
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Dillon says that the degree to which the teams within the same manufacturers’ stables work together definitely impacts the strategy each team employs as the races play out.
“It’s hard when the manufacturers are so tight and they’re working together very well,” Dillon said. “They(Ford) had numbers on us there at the end. We had a couple more cars back there at the end but the speed that they were able to carry running wide open around the top was tough. The 42(Ross Chastain) popped out there with probably six or seven to go and as soon as we got down there I could feel the momentum of our line start to die pretty quick. We knew that they were going to have to race for the win at some point, the Ford camp, and it gave us a shot.”
Almost certainly for the remainder of the 2021 season, the races held at Daytona and Talladega will look as if they have been renamed the Manufacturer 500. Beyond this year, we will see if or how the NextGen car will change that.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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