NASCAR: New problem emerging for superspeedway races?

NASCAR's superspeedway races have always required strategy and luck to win. But the 2024 Daytona 500 may have gone a little too far and exposed a bigger issue.

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NASCAR / Mike Ehrmann/GettyImages
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Superspeedways, also known as "drafting tracks", produce some of the most beloved events in all of NASCAR every single season.

Every single time NASCAR visits Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, and most recently, Atlanta Motor Speedway, the close quarters racing, even playing field, big crashes, and unpredictability that fans get to see is unlike any kind of sporting action on the planet.

NASCAR's biggest race, one of the greatest spectacles in all of motorsport, falls into this category. Given that the Daytona 500 is the sport's biggest race of the season, its Cup Series season-opener, and a superspeedway race, the action, atmosphere, and hype around the entire weekend is always a sight to behold.

Even with the 2024 event being held on a Monday due to a weather postponement Sunday, the grandstands were still packed, and the spectacle very much alive with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson giving the command to start engines. Furthermore, had the race not been rained out on Sunday, D.J. Khaled would have waved the green flag, and Pitbull would have performed the pre-race concert.

But even with a ton of late drama and a first-time Daytona 500 winner in William Byron, there was one particular element that grabbed much of the attention and stole the headlines afterward.

Fuel strategy was paramount for much of the Daytona 500, and a lot of people were not satisfied.

Of course, fuel strategy is an element involved in nearly every NASCAR race in some capacity. Sometimes, it can really separate the men from the boys, and the great from the elite. However, in the 2024 Daytona 500, it was taken to a whole new level, and not necessarily in a good way.

Throughout the opening two stages (65 laps each around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) high-banked Daytona Beach, Florida oval), saving fuel was the only thing on my teams' minds.

The No. 16 Chevrolet of A.J Allmendinger, who had lost the draft in stage one and was seriously in danger of being lapped, suddenly began chasing down the massive lead pack all by himself, sometimes running as much as five miles per hour faster than the drafting leaders.

While he was pushing hard to not have his race ruined by being lapped, the rest of the field were driving around at 50% throttle, or even less, while using the massive draft of the cars around them to avoid burning fuel. If done well, drivers could spend a few seconds less in their pit stalls to fill up their tanks on the next stop.

This is not something entirely new. Ever since the Next Gen car debuted in the 2022 Daytona 500, it has become more and more common, albeit to a lesser extent.

On the Tuesday after the race, Joe Gibbs Racing driver and 23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin took to his Actions Detrimental podcast to show his displeasure with the strategy game.

Hamlin further described the issue at hand, and how it played out in Monday's Daytona 500.

"Over the last few years of Next Gen racing on superspeedways, it’s been a dramatic deal. With the field all compressed into a one-and-a-half second group, you can save enough gas to be the last car in line and then jump to the first car in line after a pit cycle... You can flip-flop the field."

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin wasn't the only driver to air his grievances. Legacy Motor Club's Erik Jones spoke with Toby Christie after the race to share his feelings.

"It’s frustrating, I don’t know how to fix it. It’s really hurt the racing for sure at these tracks. It’s a 480 mile fuel saving race and a 20 mile sprint of chaos to the finish. I wish we could race more during the day."

Erik Jones

However, the criticism didn't end with just a few drivers. NASCAR senior vice president of competition Elton Sawyer also took notice during the Daytona 500, and he discussed on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio what the sport's outlook could be.

"I think that’s something that just over time, 76 years of NASCAR racing, our race teams are just so good, and our teams are so good, and our drivers are so good, and the strategy and the preparation that goes into these events, they don’t leave any stones unturned... Ultimately, we want to drop the green flag on the race, and they’re racing as hard as they can until we drop the checkered flag. There’s some strategy in between there. We’ll definitely take a much deeper dive at this particular situation and the strategy that goes into it."

Elton Sawyer

Whether that actually means anything will change remains to be seen. What is clear, though, is that this recent trend at superspeedway tracks is not sitting well with the drivers, those at the top, and a good portion of the fanbase.

What are some possible solutions?

Unfortunately, that is quite a difficult and complex question to answer, especially in a short period of time. To come up with the most effective solution, if there even is one, it will take a lot of studying of certain trends with the teams, drivers, the cars' characteristics, and what the fans want to see.

The easiest thing to do would be to remove stage breaks for the five remaining superspeedway races. Since teams knew exactly when the caution flags would come out, they targeted fuel mileage numbers and the laps of their pit stops to fit their strategies to a tee.

Virtually every team chose the fuel-saving strategy in the Daytona 500 because the length of the stages meant that anybody who ran at full tilt and burned fuel wouldn't have had time to catch and pass the fuel savers before a pre-determined yellow came out.

If stage breaks weren't a thing and a group of cars were still running slower to save fuel, another group could run as hard as they could, making it interesting to see if the faster cars could catch back up after spending more time in the pits.

Should these races be scheduled to run from green flag to checkered flag with no planned caution periods, it would not allow teams to manipulate the strategy in their favors -- and better yet, create some variety and intrigue.

However, given the fact that NASCAR re-introduced stage breaks on road courses after a few spread out, caution-free races, this seems unlikely.

NASCAR could also opt to change the lengths of the stages, making them shorter so that each team will already have enough fuel to complete the laps without needing a pit stop, but then that removes nearly every element of strategy altogether, since everyone will just pit under the stage caution and fill their cars with fuel for the next stage.

It's a tricky situation to solve fully, and there aren't any clear answers at the moment. It's not as simple as just mandating that every driver use 100% throttle the whole race.

What is important to note as well is the fact that not everybody is against this more pedestrian style of racing. There are lots of people who are intrigued by the number-crunching side, the fact that there may not be as many big wrecks since drivers aren't pushing as hard, and the fact that the pack is guaranteed to be bunched back up at least twice in every race.

It's all subjective to one's wants and needs, and any change, or lack thereof, will inevitably anger somebody.

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That's why NASCAR needs to be careful with whatever they do moving forward. Clearly the drivers and a large portion of the fanbase are unhappy with the direction in which this style of racing is going, but what NASCAR can't do is make a change and risk making the problem worse, creating a different problem altogether and alienating a part of the fanbase that may not be asking for a change.

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