CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “Anything can happen at Daytona.”
If you’ve been following the chaotic NASCAR Cup Series regular season at all these past few weeks, you’ve probably heard the above sentiment before. Drivers have said it. Analysts have, too.
Ryan Blaney, who is third in points but hasn’t yet secured a win and thus his playoff position remains up in the air, even addressed it head-on after his finish at Watkins Glen last weekend. He was asked by Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass if he thought he controlled his own destiny heading into the final race of the regular season, and he responded resolutely, “Not at Daytona, no.”
So what’s the deal with Daytona? Is it truly anyone’s race? And why do people care if it’s anyone’s race?
Steve Letarte, an NBC analyst and former crew chief to some of NASCAR’s biggest names, helped answer those questions in an interview with The Charlotte Observer. Here are some highlights from the conversation.
Daytona represents one last chance
Part of the reason why there will be so much intrigue at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night is because the race invokes three of the most thrilling words in sports — “one last chance.”
ourteen drivers have cemented their spots in the 16-car playoff field. Fifteen are fighting for the final two spots. And 13 of those 15 — the 13 besides Ryan Blaney (third in points) and Martin Truex Jr. (sixth), who can get in on points alone — need to win the race outright in order to get that spot.
It’s a “win or go home” race for the ages, a prideful pinnacle in a season defined by parity. And, for only the third time since the inception of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in 2004, the regular-season finale race is taking place at Daytona, a spot Letarte called “The Great Equalizer.”
“When we talk about it being ‘The Great Equalizer,’ we talk about everyone having a chance,” said Letarte, who’s served as crew chief to several drivers who’ve won at Daytona, including Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Everybody has a chance, but everyone is not equal. Don’t confuse the two.”
Daytona International Speedway is home to a 2.5-mile paved superspeedway oval located in Daytona Beach, Fla. It’s a racetrack that has produced 69 NASCAR Cup Series winners in the 150 Cup Series races it has hosted, per the racetrack’s media notes — 15 of which are active this weekend. (Denny Hamlin has won at Daytona three times. Kevin Harvick has done so twice. Blaney, Austin Cindric, Michael McDowell and William Byron have all won since 2020.)
Letarte said that racing at Daytona enables a different style of racing — one of drafting, track positioning and other strategic maneuvers.
Speed alone, he said, won’t perfectly indicate a driver’s finishing position at this year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400.
“Cars are going to go down there and run by themselves in qualifying, and then when they go down there and run in a pack, they will run almost three seconds faster, probably 20 miles an hour faster down the back straightaway,” Letarte said.
That heightened importance of drafting, among other factors, can keep some Cinderella cars in contention, Letarte said.
“What it is, it’s a much bigger equalizer,” he said. “There are more drivers in the field who are going to have a chance to win because it’s in Daytona versus, say, if we were going to Kansas or Charlotte.”
How Cup Series came down to this
It’s one thing to know that this year’s Cup Series has featured a deep garage, and thus has set up Saturday’s exciting finale. But it’s another to get at the “why.”
Limited practice time and “seat time” is one reason for the parity. NASCAR’s relatively new charter agreement, which generally speaking makes it so 36 race teams earn shared perks of competing under the NASCAR Cup Series umbrella, is another.
But one of the biggest reasons for this year’s level playing field is the Next Gen car.
“In the old car, you could see exactly what one of these teams had under the hood, but you couldn’t have it because they built it themselves,” Letarte said. “They had all the intellectual property, the design and the components were all custom-made for that car and that car only.
“Now the new car is built out of single-source supplied components, which means all the cars had the same components.”
Letarte added that the new car’s impact on this year’s season has been “fantastic.” Among the many reasons it’s been great: In some ways, it has created some room for creativity — to find advantages in a level playing field.
“People want to talk about this as if it’s something new: It isn’t new at all,” Letarte said. “If we go back to 1985, no one built their own chassis, no one built their own spindles, no one built their own steering component — everyone purchased the items from one of the builders who built that component.
“When NASCAR really blossomed in the mid-80s there ... no one built their own stuff. It was the transition into the mid-90s, into what just ended a year ago, a two and a half decade transition that we kinda ended, and we’re getting ready to celebrate 75 years of NASCAR next year. So we’re talking 25 years of what we’re trying to slow down, not 75 years.”
He added: “So I think this is more back to the roots of the racing, which is: Who can take the components and assemble them more correctly? Who can be more efficient? Who can find the advantages? Because like I said, and I’ll reiterate it 100 times, while the cars are mostly all the same components, that does not make this an (uninteresting) series. The cars are nowhere near the same speed.”
NASCAR the real winner
For Letarte, almost any outcome at Daytona International Speedway will produce a good result for NASCAR.
“I don’t think it matters (who wins), and I think that’s the perfect point,” he said. “Viewership is up. The number of winners is up. The personalities are more captivating. I don’t think there’s one driver, one person, one team that makes a difference when we see who wins it Saturday night.
“What can hurt Saturday night: rain. You don’t want weather. We don’t want a huge wreck early that eliminates 20-25 cars that takes out a lot of the energy of the races. That’s it. I don’t think from NASCAR’s standpoint or specifically from NBC or me as a broadcaster, I don’t care who wins. I just want it to be a normal Daytona race.
“I want to see some captivating drafting. I want to see some strategy, track position, trying to find your way to the front. I want to see some pushes to the end of those stages to get some playoff points. And I know we’re going to have wrecks, but I want to make sure that we have enough cars around to make that final push to the checkered more captivating.”
He added: “The fact that it doesn’t matter who wins tells me that NASCAR is in the position it needs to be in.”