DAYTONA BEACH — NASCAR legend Richard Petty liked to have the steering wheel and destiny in his hands.
But The King expects the fate of drivers to be largely out of the control of Sunday’s Daytona 500 winner. The Great American Race has become an annual coin toss decided by late-race chaos and multi-car crashes, bringing chance into play as much as skill.
“I feel sorry for the drivers who have to drive right now,” Petty said Saturday on the eve of the 500-miler’s 65th running. “It’s not the decision you make as much as the decision somebody else makes. It’s a real crapshoot.”
These days, a 200-lap affair on the 2.5-mile oval is an ambitious goal.
Four of the past five winners have won in overtime, twice with multiple green-white-checkered sprints to the finish line. Denny Hamlin’s 2019 victory required 209 laps to complete after 3 wrecks and 2 red-flag stoppages during the final 10 laps of regulation.
Twelve of the past 18 races have required extra time to decide a winner.
“There’s a damn good chance it happens again,” 31-time Cup Series winner Martin Truex Jr. told The Orlando Sentinel.
A mad dash at the end is a certainty Sunday during NASCAR’s crown jewel event.
The high stakes, including a $27 million purse, historical significance and car setup are a “recipe for disaster,” 2015 winner Joey Logano said.
The reigning Cup Series champion and among Sunday’s favorites, Logano said the Next Gen car arrived in 2022 with rounded bumpers and extremely stiff springs. The new bumpers cause drivers drafting with adjacent vehicles to be off center. The suspension change keeps cars low to the ground and enhances aerodynamics, but reduces traction.
“When you start bumping them and you’re off center and you have no mechanical grip, you wreck,” Logano said. “When that intensity level picks up at the end and everyone’s willing to push and it’s take, take, take but no give, they wreck.”
The mayhem is sure to provide hair-raising, nerve-wracking entertainment for an expected crowd of over 150,000. The pandemonium also could produce another unexpected winner.
Michael McDowell’s 2021 win remains his sole Cup Series victory. The 2022 winner, Austin Cindric, signaled the arrival of a promising driver, yet was just the second rookie to win. Trevor Bayne was the other in 2011. Bayne never won a again. Austin Dillon counts his 2018 among his 4 wins in nine seasons.
Meanwhile, 60-time winner Kyle Busch enters his 18th Daytona 500 heading a trio of elite drivers, featuring Truex and 35-time winner Brad Keselowski, still seeking the one race that will complete their sterling resumés.
Busch’s transcendent talent has not been enough to overcome the whims of the storied superspeedway and a shift in strategy.
“The whole thing kind of changed probably 2012-2013-ish where it just became a complete disaster and a total wreck fest at the end,” Busch said. “Before that, I felt like there were times where there were some good races and some good racing. You had to be a fast car, you had to have a good handling car, and you had to put yourself in the right spot at times.
“It was a bit of a chess match.”
The lead-up to a wild finish can be less-than-scintillating single-file racing with no one willing to exit the draft.
“The cars are so close and they don’t have any horsepower,” Petty lamented. “One car can’t do anything … somebody pulls out of line they got to have help. That’s because they don’t any horsepower.”
The 2019 introduction of stages mitigated the monotony. On Sunday, drivers will push to win points at the 65- and 130-lap marks.
The third and final stage is winning time. Until then, the race is one of survival.
“There’s always going to be a lot of attrition.” Keselowski said. “You start 40 cars and at the end there are probably only 10 to 15 that really have a shot at winning it.”
Pole-sitter Alex Bowman will start on the front row for a record sixth straight year. He failed to crack the top 10 during the previous five 500s.
“The 500 is just a really hard race to get through,” he said. “It gets very intense out there. It’s really hard to make that whole race without getting caught up in somebody else’s mess.
“We’ve had a lot of really fast race cars just a lot of bad luck.”
Hamlin said lady luck surely had a hand during his three wins, but execution and his skill set played as big of a role.
“You’ve got to have all three to win this race,” he said. “It is hard to get all three of those lined up on any given day.”
Winner of a record seven Daytona 500s, Petty had more good days than anyone.
But the 85-year-old also said winning didn’t used to be quite so complicated or capricious.
“In our day it was four or five cars, we didn’t draft and had horsepower to get by people,” he recalled. “You could out figure somebody. You could out figure four or five people, but you can’t out figure 15 or 20 people.”
Yet, Petty also had his own final-lap mix-ups and heartbreak at Daytona International Speedway.
Running side-by-side with rival David Pearson in 1976, Petty’s No. 43 car bumped No. 21. Both hit the wall 20 yards shy of the finish line, but Petty ended up in the infield stall while Pearson took the checkered flag.
“That still bothers me,” Petty said. “Did I make the mistake or did he make the mistake? It must have been I made the mistake because I ran second.”
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Another driver is likely to ask himself the same question Sunday evening.
1. Joey Logano. The 2015 winner is the reigning Cup Series champion. He won one of Thursday’s Duels and ran the second-fast practice lap Saturday. Logano’s No. 22 will be hard to beat.
2. Denny Hamlin. One of six three-time winners could join Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough as the only drivers with four 500s. Hamlin’s smarts, experience and aggressive style are sure to give him a shot.
3. Brad Keselowski. A superspeedway maestro at Talladega, where he has 6 wins, Keselowski has experienced hard luck during the Daytona 500. The 39-year-old did win the summer in 2017, but just has just three top-10s in February. He during Daytona ran fastest laps during Saturday’s practice.
4. Ryan Blaney. Blaney was on 2022 winner Austin Cindric’s tail but could not pass his teammate and dropped to fourth place. A runner-up in 2017 and 2020, Blaney won the 2021 summer race. The 29-year-old clearly has a feel for Daytona International Speedway.
5. Aric Almirola. The 39-year-old from Tampa said this will be his final Daytona 500 as a full-time driver. He might rethink the decision the way he is driving. Almirola won one of the Duels and was fourth in qualifying. One of his three Cup Series wins in the 2014 summer race.