Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, February 12, 2018, 10:08 a.m.
The Winter Olympics is a passive source of interest for me. Since the Games started in PyeongChang, South Korea — it’s a county, not a city — they have basically served as background. I type away at this laptop, occasionally looking up when calm announcers become agitated, and that seldom happens when figure skaters are involved.
NASCAR is another matter. I watched most of the Advance Auto Parts Clash with intense curiosity, trying to derive some insight from observations on matters such as what’s going to happen in the Daytona 500.
Okay, okay, I nodded off during the early going, but when Jamie McMurray crashed, Darrell Waltrip awakened me with all the fervor of Foghorn Leghorn, and I prepared myself a mug of coffee. Front-row qualifying preceded the Clash, and it may have led, along with advancing age, to the yellow-flagging of my attentiveness.
Watching individual cars zipping around the high banks ranks right up there with curling, in my estimation. For some reason, the pole winner seems to be something of a surprise each year, and this year’s Cinderella was Alex Bowman, who now drives the No. 88 vacated by the heretofore Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The Clash was no surprise. Brad Keselowski is a fine driver anywhere and a superb one in the high-speed Tetris of the high banks of Daytona Beach, where horsepower is limited in the interest of safeness and soundness.
Keselowski managed to fit his cascading blocks into spaces that would contain them, but the Daytona 500 next Sunday will be a longer, more complicated Tetris exercise. So far, so good. Keselowski has won a championship but not the 500 … yet.
“I feel like I’ve choked the 500 away a couple times,” Keselowski admitted to the interested parties in the media center. “I felt like I had a shot at it in 2014 and just didn’t make the right move on the restart. Felt like we had a shot at it last year and got caught up in a wreck, and it was 2013, I was leading it, and we ran over a piece of debris, and just different things happened.
“Some our fault, some not. That’s how racing goes sometimes. You put yourself in position, and some things you can control, some things you can’t.”
Keselowski started last, the result of a random draw, which was well worth it as it prevented the slumber of yet another ponderous qualifying process. The shorter race still afforded plenty of time to work his way to the front, and Keselowski used his canny Tetris skills to keep all the pursuers at bay.
“I think, with a lap and a half to go, there was a mini‑run but not a big run. I can’t say I was entirely surprised,” he said. “When the cars are tough to handle, it’s tough to build runs. It’s tough to do things, and … it’s interesting. You would think, with the ride heights dropped down, that conventional wisdom says the cars would drive better, but, basically, it’s allowed everyone to trim the cars out so much for speed that then the handling goes away.
“The cars are running faster. I was looking down while I was leading the race, and I ran a 40.50 (seconds), which is a 199‑mile‑an‑hour lap, leading the pack. Usually, when you see laps like that, that’s when you’re running like fifth or sixth and you time a run just right, not when you’re leading. I think that speaks to how fast the pace was, and when the pace gets really fast, handling becomes even more and more important because you’re putting more loads on the tires and so forth, and it’s an inverse of what the car has for aerodynamic grip with this package and the way you can trim the cars out.”
Discerning onlookers can thus surmise that the 500 will be more of the same, but with more money on the line — how much is now redacted by NASCAR since it made such information classified — more desperation will ensue. The Clash was simple. The 500 will be complex.
“You would think, when the cars drive worse, that the guys would wreck more, but the exact opposite happens,” Keselowski said. “Everybody loses confidence, and they fall in line, and they don’t make as risky of moves, and then they don’t wreck, which is, it seems, completely backwards and counterintuitive, for sure, but I think that’s what you saw (Sunday). I think the cars got to a spot where they couldn’t handle, and the drivers kind of fall in line, and so you see a less aggressive race, not a more aggressive race. And then, of course, you get less wrecks because the proximity is further apart.”
The Can-Am Duel, actually dual duels, will be run on Thursday because the schedule and TV listings say they will, but everyone in both races is going to make the 500, and anyone who crashes without a glitch of air pressure or mechanics is either going to be a fool or a Monster Energy drink fiend who didn’t get his pre-race fix. Everything is going to be fine because no track activity is scheduled until Thursday, so everyone can sleep in and be good and rested.
Things will pick up, though. They always do. They’ll show everyone but us the money.
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After the Advance Auto Parts Clash, I went live on Facebook to talk about the race and other mostly NASCAR related topics. Here’s the link.