The Great American Race


Sophia Vlahakis

The Great American Race was far from uneventful with the exception of the last two laps where Denny Hamlin drove to his second Daytona 500 victory without a threat from behind. In the sports world, the Daytona 500 is more than just a race. It is the race that every driver dreams of winning and a Daytona 500 victory is arguably coveted more than a NASCAR championship title. Daytona is the birthplace of NASCAR and the importance that the Daytona 500 carries cannot be overstated. The only way one can really understand the influence of this race is to experience it for himself.

With more than 125 thousand fans in attendance, some staying in the infield of the track for nearly two weeks leading up to the big event, it is an experience unlike any other. These fans experience one on one encounters with their favorite drivers which would not be possible in any other sport. Fans are head to toe in gear and drivers sign autographs for fans up until the moment they get into their cars. The atmosphere at the racetrack is incredible and entire families from kids to grandparents attend.  The average stereotype of what a NASCAR fan is perceived to be is quickly dismissed because of the hospitality and genuine passion for racing that fans have.  NASCAR races may seem like they would not appeal to the average sports fan but attending the Daytona 500 can change that.

In most races during the 10 month season, the starting position of a driver and the average speed of the car may dictate the finishing position, but at the Daytona 500, nothing is guaranteed and even finishing the race is sometimes considered a miracle. The race is 200 laps and the cars race at nearly 200 miles per hour for about 4 hours. However, the real excitement of the race does not actually occur until towards the end of the 500 miles. Adam Stevens the crew chief of 2015 champion Kyle Busch said, “…this race doesn’t begin until 10 laps to go.”  It would seem unlikely that the last 10 laps could be where all the action is, but it is true. The final 10 laps of the Daytona 500 is what everyone is talking about the next day.

Throughout the race, there were 9 race leaders and 15 lead changes. Matt DiBenedetto led the most for 49 laps while Daniel Hemric led the least for only 1 lap. Other race leaders included William Byron, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, and Jamie McMurray. Busch won the first stage of the race and Blaney won the second. Both drivers have been successful at Daytona despite not winning the 500. Blaney came in 2nd two years ago and led the most laps last year at this race but his day ended with an accident. However, at one of his pit stops a crisp 5 dollar bill was found in the grill of his car, maybe a sign of luck for next year. Throughout most of the race, the only excitement really came from the lead changes and a couple of cautions from cars spinning out. The first real crash occurred on pit road, causing damage to only a few cars. It was the calm before the storm. The storm is the end of the race where drivers do whatever they can to win and put themselves in a good track position. Rules do not seem to apply at the end of the Daytona 500. Drivers make choices that they would not consider making at any other track because after all the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of racing.

There were 3 wrecks in the final 10 laps that led to cautions and caused the race to go into extra laps. On lap 191 there was a massive crash that involved 21 cars. This crash has since become known as “The Big One” and was the first of two red flag delays that delayed the race by 25 minutes.  Red flags cause the race to stop completely so the track can be cleaned of debris and wrecked cars can be cleared off. The wreck was caused by Paul Menard hitting into the bumper of Matt DiBenedetto, and it forced 10 cars to retire back to the garage. Soon after the flag turned green, a 7 car crash occurred. This was followed by a nine-car crash that brought out another red flag and delayed the race by 15 minutes. Each wreck occurred within the first green flag lap and left some fans cheering and others rolling their eyes.

Among these wrecks, the lead changed between Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Both drivers are on the same team; Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch has never won the race before and Denny Hamlin won in 2016 however his win did not come easily. Hamlin won by a margin with Martin Truex Jr. one- hundredth of a second behind. On the last restart of this 2019 race, there were under 20 cars left in a field originally of 40. It seemed like a miracle that the last 2 laps went by without a wreck or even debris flying on to the track. Denny Hamlin ultimately took the lead on the last restart and pulled ahead so that this time his Daytona victory would come without his foot stomped on the gas pedal all the way to the checkered flag as a competitor was directly next to his car for a photo finish.

When it comes to Daytona, the finishes, the crashes and the victories seem like they are taken out of a movie; the Daytona 500 was an unforgettable and emotional day for Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin had not won a race in the entire 2018 season and people were predicting that Denny Hamlin would never win again. The team finished in the top three positions with Kyle Busch finishing second and Erik Jones finishing third. The team’s success at the Daytona 500 was remarkable because of the heartbreaking circumstance that Joe Gibbs’s son, J.D. Gibbs, died at 49, a month earlier from a neurological disease. J.D. was the Gibbs Racing president and co-founder. Ironically his favorite number was 11, like Hamlin’s number. J.D. was honored on lap 11 by crew members but the win made it feel like J.D. was there with his team and always would be.

Perhaps racing seems boring to some but the Daytona 500 is more than just a race. This is evident by the way drivers race like they have nothing to lose even when there are only a couple laps left and a win at Daytona means more than a win at any other track. Just witnessing this race proves that. From the national anthem where the Thunderbirds fly over the speedway to Denny Hamlin mentioning J.D. Gibbs, it becomes clear that there is something special about the Daytona 500 that no other event can ever compare to.  Everyone should experience the Daytona 500 at least once, and it will be immediately clear that this race is never just about one person, but much more. When drivers win they honor racing legends like Dale Earnhardt Sr., who lost his life on the last lap of this very race. Drivers take the time to thank the military before the race starts and when it’s over they thank their sponsors and families for giving them the opportunity to be a part of something so prestigious. All 125 thousand fans wait until the last lap because they know they are watching history and that is enough to keep them on the edge of their seat for a race that could be anywhere from 3 to 5 hours. The Daytona 500 truly is and always will be The Great American Race, and a once in a lifetime experience.