How to Win the Daytona 500

NASCAR's biggest race is dominated by drafting tactics, not fuel strategy. With the first-ever 'Pod'-style race coming up, prepared teams have been planning their moves all week long.

monster energy nascar cup series 61st annual daytona 500
Jared C. TiltonGetty Images

Daytona is synonymous with drafting. Since the track was built in the late 50s, the high-banked corners have left cars on throttle at top speed for so long that the impact on the air of the car in front of them is the biggest variable a driver sees at any given time. As that evolved into pack racing, and as pack racing evolved into a few sub-disciplines with every minor rule change, the strategies to win the race got more and more complicated. This is never more apparent than in the Daytona 500, NASCAR's biggest single race. This year, a new car that drafts in a unique new way has opened up an entirely new type of pack.

This is how teams are preparing to win a race run in it.

The Variables

Unlike the Indianapolis 500, the draft at Daytona makes fuel mileage and tire gambles take a back seat to teamwork and a clear understanding of when a team is safe enough to fight amongst itself. Since drafting gives a boost of multiple seconds to both drivers in the pack and those leading the pack, a team's goal is to preserve a place in a group for as long as possible and through as many situations as possible.

In the past few years, large packs aligned over the entirety of a race allowed teams to simply coordinate their pit stops as large groups (generally tied to whole manufacturers) to keep a drafting pack together. These larger groups were faster by size if everyone involved stayed in line together, so coordinated efforts could keep groups of five or larger together relatively easily and the sheer size of OEM packs from Chevrolet or Ford would generally lead the manufacturers back to racing one another.

That is not the case this year. In Thursday's duel qualifying races, the lead pack that formed at the race's start seemed to break apart within 15 to 20 laps as slower cars fell off the back. Pit stops broke groups down even further. During the long green flag runs to end both races, manufacturers had split up into pods of between 4 and 6 cars throughout the field.

This may have looked like coincidence, but it was not.

Welcome to Pod Racing

In separate interviews, both 23XI Racing driver Kurt Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Chris Gabehart predicted that these pods would define the race. Gabehart says that the change is a result of the shape of the cars, both in their new-for-2022 symmetry and their higher coefficient of drag:

"Drafting at this track is going to be very, very different. These cars are extremely draggy, from a coefficient of drag perspective. [Along with a symmetrical body] it does produce a very different recipe."

Busch sees four as the magic number. He thinks the Next Gen car's symmetrical body punches different kind of hole than the previous generation of cars that were subtly carved to race on these types of tracks:

"So what I'm seeing is that the air comes off the first car's windshield and four can stay tucked in by the time the air gets to the backside of that fourth car, but it lands on the windshield of the fifth and that guy gets pushed back. Four is the happy number of how you want to be positioned if you want to try to win it."

As a result, the second and third cars in line seem to be able to draft normally, but the fourth has to push more to keep up and the fifth car back is at serious risk of losing the draft.

Making a group bigger than four work is the major challenge teams are facing ahead of Sunday's race, but a few days of track time have helped. Gabehart sees this as a focal point of his preparations for race day:

"I think everybody is getting smarter in how to help that last car stay connected. It's part of what we worked on in [Friday's] practice. Ultimately, you want all of your cars to stay together when you come to pit road because, inevitably, the success rate of all six having a very clean stop isn't always great. You may leave pit road with only five or four, and, if you aren't able to keep all six together and you leave pit road with three, you have a speed detriment. You need a minimum of four to have a shot."

As these pods are smaller than packs, the conventional manufacturer wisdom of pitting an entire group together and hoping they come out as a group may not necessarily work. Instead, the larger organizations may need to intentionally separate out into smaller groups. The most logical way to do this is to divide by teams. That's tough at the six-car Toyota contingent, but both Ford and Chevrolet have enough close partner programs to easily separate out into groups of four or five. The question is whether or not the teams can coordinate well enough to actually do that.

The Favorites

When the "pod"-style racing first emerged in the second half of both Thursday duels, the pod in the front was a group of five led by four Fords. In both cases, as Busch noted, the car in fifth eventually fell off from that lead group and the car in fourth stayed in line.

That the group was all Fords was no coincidence. Elite coordination got the manufacturer group out together in a very intentional way after green flag pit stops, but what really impressed was what happened when the cars rejoined the track. The Fords, as we saw in live observation from the grandstands above the start/finish line, stayed together in an almost perfectly spaced group: One car, a third-car-length gap, another car, and so on through the line of four, all along the apron, without exception. At the same time, packs of Chevrolets and Toyotas had to work harder to stay aligned. Hard pushes in the top two of Toyota's line in the second race allowed the Joe Gibbs Racing/23XI alliance group to narrow the gap a half-second at a time, but the pushing maneuver seemed difficult to maintain. The Ford lines looked effortless.

This is at least a significant aerodynamic advantage. It may also be the result of a cooling advantage.

All three Next Gen cars are designed differently and balanced by NASCAR's aerodynamics team, but that process is a work in progress and even in the best years one manufacturer seems to have a significant aerodynamic advantage over the others. This year, Ford seems to have that strength. Toyota seems to be second, General Motors seems to be third.

The cooling systems are different, too. With taped-up grilles a thing of the past, each manufacturer was given the opportunity to develop how their cars cool themselves. Kurt Busch speculated pre-race that this could be part of Ford's current advantage:

"The way the Fords seem together, that's something Toyota needs to improve on... When you get too close to somebody, it starts robbing your horsepower. We've got to figure out why they're able to stay closer than we are, because, when you do that, your rear spoiler is more tucked in with that wake of the front car."

Immediately after the interview, Busch told Road & Track that he was headed to a meeting with a Toyota engines program employee to discuss how the team can learn from what they saw the Fords doing on Thursday night. 20 minutes later, Busch was seen in the garage area discussing something with his team over the car's engine bay.

In a separate interview, Toyota Racing Development executive Andy Graves stressed that, while all three Next Gen cars have different cooling systems, Ford seems to have the aerodynamic advantages, and the Toyota and Chevrolet pack formations definitely did not look like Ford's, this was more related to aerodynamics than cooling. No matter the reason, Ford's superior formations make them the pre-race favorite as a manufacturer.

Survival Is Crucial

Even in a race where larger packs are not expected to stay together, Daytona still has an earned reputation for wrecks out of a driver's control. These are "The Big One," the moments where a car loses control or gets wrecked during a blocking maneuver in the middle of a large pack of cars and wipes out everyone around them. In these moments, the most meticulously planned races of the year come down to dumb luck and pure instinct.

While some drivers are better at avoiding (and avoiding starting) crashes than others, the reality is that even the best wreck avoiders in the sport cannot account for a car sliding up the banking in turn 3 while they are pinned on the outside with nowhere to maneuver. In a crash like that, a plan is out the window immediately. At least one manufacturer or team will see an unexpectedly large number of their cars caught up in these crashes, something that will force that program to go off its plan and force their remaining drivers to scramble for any opportunity they can hang on to.

Fuel Saving Still Matters

While drivers and teams largely do not anticipate the race going green to the end after the second mandatory caution for a stage break, the reality is that some restrictor plate races finish completely green without any sort of "Big one" wreck. In these cases, the pod-like tactics are going to be even more important. A late caution at just the right time could even create a situation where drivers are borderline on fuel and need to save it within the pack.

In this case, the only thing you can do is find a spot where the draft is helping you and run at partial throttle. In a four-car pod, Busch estimates that drivers in second and third in line can both save fuel by running partial throttle, rather than lifting and going back to full throttle at different times. The lead driver still has to push hard, and the specifics of the wake these cars generate mean that the driver in fourth or further back may uncharacteristically have to stay flat out just to keep up with the draft. It means that teams making fuel saving a major part of their race-winning strategy will have to rotate positions within their drafts if they hope to keep their pod together after a final stop.

...But Restarts Happen, Too

Because drivers become more willing to take major risks in the final 20 laps of these races, they often end in a series of double-file restarts. NASCAR's overtime rules mean those restarts can continue a few times. When they do, tactics give way to chaos and the drivers that make the best moves at the best time come out on top.

On those restarts, the aerodynamic advantages that are determining the balance of power under green are slightly different. Without enough time for a pack to completely break up, horsepower becomes a bigger strength for maneuvering within the group and accelerating on a restart. Based on conversations with representatives from all three manufacturers this weekend, my estimate is that the horsepower war is currently in the opposite order of that aerodynamic balance: Chevrolet, then Toyota, then Ford.

Teamwork on a late restart can set up a great situation for a group of allies, like the three Fords that led the 2021 500 with half a lap to go. But it can also create internal problems, as all three Fords created when third-placed Michael McDowell attempted to give Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski a bump draft while they were misaligned. In what can be described as a wreck with all three drivers at fault, McDowell hit the Penske cars off-center and sent both spinning. It was McDowell that won for Ford anyway, but, if the caution had come out just a second later, the move would have handed the once-certain Ford win to Chevrolet's Chase Elliott.

But Kurt Busch sees that moment, the moment where pack racing gives way to individual drivers acting in their own winning interest, as the moment that wins the race:

"Five to go, there's no more rules, no more saving fuel. It's on. Whatever it takes."

No Matter What, Positioning Matters

Road & Track polled Gabehart, Busch, and Truck Series development driver Christian Eckes on where they would want to be heading into the final lap of the race. None wanted to lead, and both Busch and Eckes specifically wanted to be in second.

Eckes actually was in second on the final restart of Friday's Truck Series race. Although the drafting principles in that series are different, the same concepts apply. He found himself in position to win, with a teammate behind him ready to push and leader Zane Smith looking like a sitting duck. It was set up perfectly for him to turn a career of struggles on pack racing tracks into a triumphant moment, but, when that moment came, it all fell apart.

The moment was there, to the start/finish line before the end of the race, his spotter told him to go to the outside and receive a push from his teammate who was making his own move at that moment. In real time, the call seemed about a half-second late. Eckes saw teammate Ben Rhodes already alongside him and stayed in line, saving him a two-car crash and putting him in position to instead move around both Rhodes and the leading Smith later in the lap and win without help. Unfortunately for him, a crash further back in the field ended the race a corner later. He never got a chance to execute his own winning move.

It is the main peril of being the one in position to make the pass. Even a faster car with an unblockable run cannot compete with the timing of a caution, and, when these races seem to end at different times, there is no guarantee that your final move is going to be available. Sometimes, it really is just fortune.

For Gabehart, the focus is less on where the car actually is and more on that he did enough as a strategist and tactician to get his driver Denny Hamlin in position to fight for that win:

"Make sure you put him towards the front towards the end of the race. No matter how aggressive you have to be on the call, get him towards the front of the field, because their track record once they start sniffing the front is pretty good."

In three years together, he succeeded in getting Hamlin to the front in two of these Daytona 500s. Hamlin won both, in 2019 and in 2020.

Busch won the race, too. Just as he wants to be this year, he was in second on the final lap. He made his move as Kyle Larson ran out of fuel, swinging past before anyone behind him could get a run. The situation worked out perfectly. Busch is not particularly concerned about what exactly the situation looks like at the end this time, though. All that matters is that he's in a place to make his move and that he makes it when he gets the chance:

"You've got to make the move to go for the win. The key thing is getting into position for lap 199 to have a shot at winning. You don't have any kind of fear whatsoever of wrecking, or spinning out, or crashing. You go for the win. It's what we're here to do."

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