Observations: The NASCAR Clash at Daytona

We learned a lot about the Daytona 500 on Sunday even if it wasn't the things we most wanted to know.

Most notably, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets are really good in single car runs, while the new Ford Mustangs are really good running nose-to-tail in a single-file line. Unfortunately, neither of those things should apply to the Great American Race seven days from now unlesss, to disastrous results, it does.

Stewart-Haas Racing made a mockery of restictor plate racing last October at Talladega Superspeedway, running away from the rest of the field no matter where they restarted each segment of the race. They formed a 1-2-3-4 train and just pulled away from the pack.

And based on The Clash, the new Ford Mustang might share similar attributes to the recently retired Ford Fusion.

Paul Menard started from the pole and led the most laps and couldn't be touched once he got out front. There were certain points where the  Team Penske cars were all lined-up within the top-five and rival manufacturer driver's said they couldn't touch them.

The air just comes off the Mustang differently, and they suck up to a trailing car more efficiently than the Camaro or Camry.

Kurt Busch drove a Ford last year with Stewart-Haas and now he's on the receiving end while driving a Chip Ganassi Chevrolet.

"Apples to apples, I feel like I had an easier time sucking up to a car last year than I did in today's race," Busch said.

He also believes, just like at Talladega, if any combination of the Penske-Wood or Stewart-Haas Fords get together at the front of the field, it might be a blockade against the other two manufacturers.

"The Fords win in numbers and they're just as strong," Busch said. "There's a lot of them."

Interesting race was hoping for some more side by side racing. The top was very dominant. 40 cars should def help the racing. Maybe next Sunday the sun will pop out and get the track hot and slick. @DISupdates

Single-file and can't Pass … Unless you drive a Ford

The most frustrating thing about watching The Clash at Daytona on Sunday was that after just one single lap, without fail, the entire field would move against the wall and form a single-file train.

Any attempt to rally together a group of cars on the bottom would be dismissed once the leading car cracked the top-10. The cars on the outside would side-draft the oncoming group and the dirty air would break them apart.

Denny Hamlin often found himself leading the bottom group of cars and he just couldn't crack the top-10 — regardless of who was lined-up behind him.

"Any time you can get up beside somebody by an inch or so it just is such a big parachute on either side of the car," Hamlin said. "The moment you can break that plane, it’s amazing how much these cars get drug back versus cars in the past."

Once again, it seems like the only cars that could make headway on the bottom were the Penske Fords, when that group was led by Joey Logano.

"If you can get a few cars to commit with you, you can make it happen," Logano said. "It shows that we’ve got speed in our race cars.  That’s a great thing, and then after that it’s a matter of getting people to work with you, which we did. They were our teammates, but I think we showed that we’ve got plenty of speed, which will help us in the 500."

Austin Dillon, the defending Daytona 500 champion said he was "really disappointed" in how everyone kept moving up against the wall. However, he believes having double the number of cars will change the dynamic on Sunday for the main event.

Especially if it's warmer.

"It’s hard at plate races when you don’t have enough cars on the track, but I was shocked by everyone's running the top," Dillon said. "For the 500, people usually don't care if they have to go to the back so they will make it two-wide and it certainly got racier towards the end.

"The 150’s might be similar (to The Clash) but the 500 will be totally different and hopefully it gets hot. If it gets hot and the track gets slick it will be way different."

On the other hand, Kyle Busch doesn't think handling will come into play enough to make next Sunday that much different than The Clash.

"The track hasn't aged enough, grip seems decent still, that I don't see us spreading out enough to race like we used to here," Busch said.

Of course, every year we get done with The Clash and try to extrapolate a conclusion in advance of the 500 and the conditions just aren't the same.

Maybe it was a combination of the cooler conditions, the lingering mist and the shorter field that made for so much single-file racing. Maybe drivers were tip-toeing around the 1.5-mile speedway, creating a rainy conditions, and this will mean nothing come next Sunday.

Crash and Win

Not unlike the 2018 Daytona 500, the winner of The Clash earned that distinction by wrecking the leader on what proved to be the final lap of the race.

Last year, it was Dillon turning Aric Almirola into the wall and coasting to the finish line. On Sunday, Johnson ducked out under Paul Menard and the air seemed to suck the two cars together.

Menard went around and triggered a 15-car pile-up, while Johnson went below the double-yellow line and was declared the winner once the race-ending deluge began to fall from the sky.

There's a lot to unpack here.

Is this how races are going to be won here for the time being? Unlike Talladega, where three-wide racing is the norm, Daytona is much narrower and is more of a side-by-side restrictor plate race track. But on Sunday, it was very much a one-groove race track, right up against the wall.

Johnson very clearly didn't intend to hook Menard. He had momentum, it carried him under the Wood Brother No. 21 and they were sucked together.

Johnson said there definitely wasn't intent.

"I didn't hit his rear bumper cover," Johnson said. "I made a move and got to the inside and was side drafting him, and his car started wobbling.  So I don't know what caused it.  It's the last way I want to win a race.  I've lost plenty this way.  Restrictor plates usually do end this way.  So I don't know — it's plate racing.  I'm here to win races, and I hate there are a bunch of tore-up cars, but I didn't drive through a car and create a wreck."

Kurt Busch, who was riding behind both of them, said Johnson stayed in Menard's 'no zone' too long, referring to his left-rear quarterpanel, which is what sucked him into the No. 48.  

"It just drug Menard around with him, and that's some of the instability in the draft that these cars show," Busch said. "And that's why we end up single-file a lot is just trying to make sure we're making our move because sometimes your final — your move is your last move because the cars are so unstable."

Lastly, NASCAR made the right call on calling the race when they did.

It was well past halfway, the forecast called for rain throughout the evening, and it was clear that the race was going to come down to a series of demolition derbies to decide the outcome.

It's unfortunate, because the fans deserved so much better than a single-file parade, followed by intermittent rain and a 15-car melee to end the race.

But as the kids say, 'it be that way sometimes.'

It really do.

Onwards to The Duels and the Great American Race.

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