Veterans, rookies, back-up cars make volatile mix
February 22, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Daytona 500 has historically delivered on the excitement and hype leading up to NASCAR's biggest Sunday afternoon of the year with thrilling last-lap passes and unexpected winners.
This year there will even be massive passing on the pace laps.
Per NASCAR rules, six drivers -- including outside polesitter Martin Truex Jr. -- will slow and drop to the rear of the field during the ceremonial pace laps after having to switch to back-up cars for the race. Three other drivers-- including last year's Daytona 500 pole-winner Danica Patrick and her team owner Tony Stewart -- will fall back on the grid for having to replace their engines before qualifying, bringing the total number of drivers moving to the rear to nine.
It's a significant grid shape-shift that left many in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage shaking their heads at its magnitude and quality.
"I thought about that a lot last night, I was having trouble sleeping," said Carl Edwards, who will line up in 30th but improve six positions on the grid after the others are relegated to rear. "But I think this race is so chaotic that anything can happen and there is no safe place. You can wreck leading, you can wreck riding around in the back. You just have to do the best you can to make good decisions. Hope for the best, make sure you're living right and praying to the right god."
Truex is one of those drivers Edwards will pass before the green flag falls, a disappointing circumstance for the front-row qualifier.
But Truex is taking it in stride, considering the usual run of the race.
"We really felt like our back-up car was just as good," said Truex, who is in his first season with the single-car Furniture Row Racing team. "(Crew chief) Todd (Berrier) told me it was just as good as the primary so I believe him, because so far everything he's told me has been right. Honestly starting in the back isn't a big deal.
"The cool part for the team is we still get our picture on the front row, we still roll off the front row and that's the main thing. They earned that. They still had the second-fastest car here. Unfortunately, we just can't race that car."
For Patrick, it may be a case of misery loving company. She, Stewart and Bobby Labonte knew last week when their engines blew in practice they were going to be penalized on the grid. She just didn't expect she would be surrounded by so many other good teams and experienced drivers.
"There's definitely a security blanket having those fast cars back there to help (move up and) get into the thick of things," Patrick said. "As we've seen, the danger is being on the back end of the line and possibly losing the draft. I think definitely shuffling up the order, the advantage of having them back there with me is making progress and moving forward. But, on the other hand, it makes for a lot of movement with people passing and shuffling around, more opportunity for things to happen when you need to get to the end to have a shot.
"It'll be about picking and choosing your moments like always, and hope for a little luck out there."
Stewart, who will make his first Sprint Cup start in six months after breaking his leg, insisted it made absolutely no difference to him where he started this race.
"Listen, if you can't get to the front in 500 miles, you're not going to get there anyway, so it doesn't matter where you start," Stewart said last week after his team made the initial engine change in his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevy. "I feel like I've got a car that can go up and win the 500 anyway no matter where we start. … They could start me a lap down and I don't care. We could get back on the lead lap and win the race.
"I always like my chances here. You can't look at record books and say we have a great shot at it because we've never (won the 500) before. But you can't win 19 (other) races here and not win the big one at some point in the deal. I don't have any reservations about where we start. It's no drama to me, just focusing on what we have to do to go fast."
And if all that starting-grid shuffling didn't make a typically unpredictable race more unpredictable, here's another variable of volatility: 10 drivers -- nearly a quarter of the field -- will make their first or second Daytona 500 start. Seven drivers are making their Daytona debut, the largest group of first-time starters in recent memory.
Like a lot of other veterans, Edwards said he didn't realize the large size of the newbie entry list.
"It's not a knock on those guys but this place has a way of teaching you things that you can only learn with experience," Edwards said. "I talked to (first-time starter) Brian Scott about it last night. He did an awesome job (in the qualifying race), but the way he saw that race and the way I saw that race were completely different. He didn't think there were risks and I thought there were at certain times and that's only because I've seen things go wrong in these Cup cars that he hasn't seen yet. But you have to go through it. I know no one could tell me."
Truex, however, said he was less concerned about the newcomers than the veterans.
"They'll be fine," a smiling Truex said of the inexperienced drivers. "It's like a meteor falling out of the sky. The 'Big One' could happen at any time. It seems like to me, the veterans cause the crashes more than anyone else because they're the ones being aggressive. They want to get to the front, look like heroes and make the big moves then all of a sudden they screw up.
"At some point in this race everyone is going to be mid-pack. That's just the way it works. You get shuffled out, take four tires when others don't, the only concern is getting through the first couple laps when the field gets itself lined up and then the chaos comes.
"Typically in the last couple years we've had an early 'Big One' and that's what you worry about. If we can get through that it's not a concern at all."