From the Pit Box: Daytona 500 crew chief analysis
February 25, 2014, Chris Rice, special to NASCAR.com, NASCAR.com
Nationwide crew chief Chris Rice breaks down his takeaways from the Daytona 500
Editor's note: Chris Rice, crew chief for the No. 99 Rheem Toyota for RAB Racing and driver James Buescher in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis on the top storylines from Sunday's Daytona 500:
If you could call it a perfect world, other than the rain, it was a perfect world.
The No. 3 car of Austin Dillon sat on the pole and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 in the 13th year since Dale Earnhardt Sr. passed away. It was like something you couldn't have written up in a story book. It was pretty impressive as far as media, ratings and national attention.
None of that would've been possible without how hard NASCAR worked on the race track, how much money they spent on the Air Titans and how they worked through the storms to allow us to race after the six-hour delay. They raced the full length and that's something about it, they don't want the Daytona 500 to be cut half short. They wanted the fans to get their money's worth out of it.
After the green flag came back out, they did. You could tell as soon as they went back racing at night, they were racing to get to halfway. They were racing every lap just in case that pop-up storm came, so it was just like every lap was going to be the last lap. That's why the intensity picked up, and people were pressing and making more pit-road mistakes. It was pretty cool to see how many cars were on different pit strategies, and it made it a different race for everybody.
Honestly, you can look back at Junior's career and his dad kind of taught him how to speedway-race at an early age. Yes, his car was very strong and very good, but Junior knows how to speedway-race. He knows how to break the air, how to keep the wind in his favor and that makes it to where you've got to outthink the next guy. That's why you always see him checking the mirror and knowing where the other drivers are on the race track.
That's what made his car look so strong because he's very smart when it comes to speedway racing, and that all plays in to making your race car stronger. Hendrick Motorsports has good motors and they've got good bodies, but you know all four of their cars are probably identical. It's just, when it comes to speedway racing and it's time to go, Junior's always up front. He always knows how to make the most speed out of his car at Daytona or Talladega.
I was very impressed with how well the No. 2 Ford ran; Brad Keselowski hasn't run that well at a speedway race in a while, but his car was super strong. He ran well in the race, but Denny Hamlin showed his speed all weekend and just came up short. Darian Grubb, Hamlin's crew chief, has done his homework this year and I think they're going to be crazy-tough wherever we go.
The cars you might not think of that stuck out to me were the Swan Racing cars. Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman ran very well, were able to pass cars and were able to run by themselves. That's all a credit to NASCAR and how well they've gotent the rules and how equal they've gottent stuff to be able to put your car back together from early trouble.
But it was easily Junior's day. Us crew chiefs, we're racers at heart. Steve Letarte's a racer. He grew up building race cars. He came up with our team owner, Robby Benton, and they kind of went through the ranks together. Even when Steve goes into the TV booth next year, you're still going to have that competitive edge that makes race cars run fast. I think it's a hard mix to take care of your family and still have family time while being in racing, but Steve is just showing that, "Hey, just because the media thinks I'm going to be done racing, I'm still wanting to race, run good and win, and I'm going to do everything I can."
He's done as good of a job with Dale Jr. as anybody has. They always run well, they're always fast ... sure, they've run good at Michigan and won the fuel mileage race and everything else, but last year, they ran in the top 10 just about everywhere they went. Steve's still got it, and he'll have it until he spends a lot of time out of the sport. But deep down, he's a racer and I guarantee he's giving it everything he can today and he'll do it until Homestead is over. It'll be cool to see him walk out of this deal with a championship and see him go right into the TV booth with a trophy.
Now on to Phoenix, where we'll see how the new qualifying deal and new ride-height package work on a mile track. The qualifying format for the Nationwide Series cars is going to be even more fun the more we learn it. It's up to us crew chiefs to figure it out.