If there’s any indication of an even playing field in NASCAR qualifying for the Daytona 500 was a perfect example.
Four representatives from each manufacturer advanced to the second round of qualifying and will comprise the first three rows in the Duels on Thursday. Although three Hendrick Chevrolets posted top-five speeds, all four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas qualified in the top seven.
But it's going to take more than just a fast car to win the Great American Race.
Hamlin surprised by speed
Denny Hamlin held the provisional pole on Sunday but settled for second after Alex Bowman topped the No. 11 car by .13-seconds. Still, Hamlin’s results were far better than he expected after the JGR teams worked overtime to dial their Toyotas in.
“It was very unexpected from our standpoint,” Hamlin said. “I'd never even sniffed the top five in Daytona 500 qualifying. And you know, for us, we made one sort of mock run yesterday and then we were so far off that we just switched to really race trim. We know that the race is really won on Sunday, really Thursday and Sunday of next week, and even though the front row is nice, it was probably unrealistic.
“So we really worked on race trim and ran in the pack for most of the practice yesterday. Before that we were in the Clash (practice) and noticed that handling was going to be a big issue, so we tuned our car to try to race well and win the race next Sunday.”
In an effort to improve handling, Hamlin’s team found speed along the way. And Hamlin is no stranger to winning at Daytona. He’s the only driver to pilot a Camry to Victory Lane in the Great American race and won the Clash twice.
But his car felt significantly different in practice and running in the draft than on single-lap runs.
“I realistically set my expectations ‑‑ probably I would have been happy with about 18th, so this was way out of the blue for me, and it just means that the team did a phenomenal job overnight of checking every detail and making sure we had a car that was fast,” Hamlin added. “To me, this is probably going to be another great opportunity to try to win our second Daytona 500, and obviously a great run for Toyota, as well.”
JGR teammates not far behind
His JGR teammates Kyle Busch, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez qualified fourth, sixth and seventh, respectively. Each of the drivers echoed Hamlin’s sentiments—regarding an element of surprise with the teams qualifying performance.
“I think it was good, much better than I was expecting,” Suarez said. “We worked very hard to have the car drive well in the draft and sometimes that doesn’t help in the qualifying runs. We weren’t expecting to be super strong, but I felt like we’re very fast.”
With no practice prior to the Duels the drivers will have to settle for their current set-up for Thursday’s races. And as was the case with Daytona before the 2010 repave, handling will be key.
“Well, what I notice is that you have a lot of grip until you don’t,” Hamlin said. “It almost feels like a new paved racetrack where the speeds are higher, but when you break traction, it's bad. And so I think that it's going to be very much a handling race.
“Just in the four‑car pack that we had yesterday with the Toyotas, handling was an issue for us, and that's when we were so caught off guard that we were like, wow, we've really got to work on our handling and not worry about qualifying speed. So yeah, I think it'll going to be interesting.”
With NASCAR removing the ride-height rules at restrictor plate tracks, the cars should be less stable than in the past. Teams will rely on springs and tires to replace the grip that’s missing in the cars.
“It's so much different because typically as your car comes out of the corner, the rear spoiler comes up and the car gains downforce,” Hamlin said. “These cars are so planted to the racetrack, we're doing everything we can to get the spoiler out of the air, which in turn means less grip. I think it's a little bit of a balance. You know, you gain some grip by getting your car lower, but the spoiler is so much lower now to the ground that it's difficult.
“I think what will be hairy is those three‑wide situations on older tires. It will be tough for drivers to hold their lanes with the cars down as low as they are. So we're just going to play it by ear. Literally, we just had about a 10‑car pack yesterday to see what was going to be coming, and we'll do our best to predict it. But yeah, it's going to be different. Daytona 500 will be different.”