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Daytona gloves come off as racing moves to ‘real’ season after 500


DAYTONA BEACH – There were puddles of antifreeze, brake fluid and motor oil in the Daytona International Speedway garage area after Monday’s rain-delayed Daytona 500.

Piles of crumpled fenders and sheet metal lay in heaps, ready to become instant mancave souvenirs for the most passionate collectors.

Some of the cars in Monday night’s demolition derby were so badly twisted crews had to cut quarter panels off so they could cram what once was a $400,000-speed machine into the hauler.

Car owners come to the season-opening race, considered the Super Bowl of stock-car racing, with dreams of taking home the Harley J. Earl Trophy, no matter how fleeting. Still, they understand there’s a greater chance of coming home with something that will end up in a junkyard.

Unlike any other race, the risk is worth the reward at the Daytona 500. Teams spent three months in the offseason building, rebuilding and messaging a car they hope will carry their driver to racing perpetuity. Engine builders worked around the clock looking for one extra horsepower that may make a difference in a photo finish.

They hope for the best but expect the worst.

Drivers approached Monday’s race differently, too. Despite racing on the grandest stock-car stage, they generally have more tolerance for aggressive moves and stupid mistakes that turn an opportunity into a shower of sparks and smoke.

Call it a racer’s hall pass.

“It’s speedway racing,” said Joey Logano after leading a race-best 45 laps but crashing with eight laps to go. “It’s a lot of fun until it sucks.”

Logano should have won this year’s 500. Brad Keselowski was hard to beat, too. So were David Ragan, Christopher Bell, Austin Cindric, Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch.

Heck, if you had a seat and a steering wheel, you had a chance.

Longshots like Derrike Cope, Ward Burton, Michael McDowell, Cindric and Trevor Bayne have won the 500. Former champions Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, Keselowski, Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott have not. Nobody said Daytona was fair.

Three-time 500 winner Jeff Gordon once said: “When you’ve got the Daytona 500 out there at stake and everything riding on the line, guys go for it. And the guys that go for it are the ones that are either going to win, or they’re going to wreck.”

There were only three wrecks on Monday, but they involved at least 26 cars – six driven by former 500 winners.

If it were any other track and race, many drivers would have been waiting for race winner William Byron and second-place finisher Alex Bowman. They probably would have been chastised for their unbridled aggression, resulting in an 18-car crash with eight laps remaining. Those involved know it’s difficult for emotions to go from 185 mph to a sudden and screeching stop.

Keselowski was racing next to Logano in second place with eight laps remaining when Bowman gave Byron a hard bump from behind. The impact turned Keselowski sideways and head-first into the outside wall after caroming off Logano and Blaney. The crash involved 18 cars, but Byron and Bowman managed to escape the carnage to finish one-two eventually.

Logano attributed the mess to what speedway racing has become.

“The wreck always starts up front. You hope you’re in front of it. Second place isn’t far enough ahead. The pushing is stupid. It gets more and more intense. You know it’s going to happen. Anyone can see it happening. It’s usually the people who start the wreck that stay alive. That’s the frustrating part.”

Instead of being mad, Keselowski chalked up the crash to everyone’s intense desire to win the Daytona 500.

“That’s just the way Daytona goes,” he said.

Neither threatened retaliation. After all, it’s Daytona. But that will change next Sunday when racing starts its “real” season. Once the Daytona gloves come off, there is no patience and forgiveness for reckless moves.