Why the Daytona 500 Remained Single File Until the End

Denny Hamlin controlled the pace and complexion of the 63rd Daytona 500 until he didn’t.

Seeking a third consecutive win in the Great American Race, Hamlin swept the first two stages and led 98 laps, but lost control of the race after his final green flag pit stop with 25 laps to go.

By that point, the Chevrolet and Ford frontrunners had already completed their final pit stops, pitting with their respective manufacturer teammates. The Toyota drivers were the last to do so but they came off pit road too far apart from each other, and too far ahead of the field.

As a result, the single-file leaders just drove by Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Bubba Wallace. After leading so much of the race, Hamlin suddenly found himself at the back of the leading group of cars.

“We were too far out front,” Hamlin said. “We got on-and-off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack. I figured the Chevys would make a move from two or three to go, because they are not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth. I was able to gain some positions. I think I was 12th and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me.”

In fact, it looked as if the group of leaders were all handcuffed … together.

With 20 laps to go, this was the running order, not including Wallace who had to pit a second time due to a vibration.

1. Joey Logano
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Cole Custer
4. Brad Keselowski
5. Michael McDowell
6. Ross Chastain
7. Austin Dillon
8. Chase Elliott
9. Kyle Busch
10. Ryan Preece
11. Kyle Larson
12. Denny Hamlin

This is also what the running order looked like with 10 laps to go, five laps to go and two laps to go. They took the white flag in the exact same order.

Hamlin had spent the past 20 laps trying to encourage the Chevrolet teams that ran sixth, seventh and ninth to join him and Busch and the bottom, but they just wouldn’t budge off the wall.

“Selfishly speaking, I’m wondering ‘what in the world,’ why are we running in a single-file line at the white flag running 10th, 12th, 8th, 6th, whatever,” Hamlin said. “Are you happy with that finish or are you going to go for it?

“There were no Fords past fifth-place and then there was everyone else, and surprise, everyone else didn’t go for it.”

Brad Keselowski made the first move, lagging back over the final several laps to time a run, that he attempted to execute on the backstretch. Carrying a big push from McDowell, Keselowski ducked to the bottom and towards Logano, who darted left, collectively triggering a race ending crash.

The melee featured a giant fireball when Keselowski was sent airborne towards the catchfence and into the path of Busch, collecting Wallace, Custer, Preece and Austin Cindric.

The caution lights came on just as Elliott pulled even with McDowell, with NASCAR taking a full cool down lap to verify the results, confirming the Front Row Motorsports upset over the defending Cup Series champion.

Dillon, Harvick and Hamlin avoided the carnage to complete the top-five but were immediately subjected to questions from the media over why no one made a move until the final mile of the race.

“We were so afraid that (because) there were only a few Chevrolets left there at the end, that even if we all got bunched up, I wasn’t sure whether or not it was going to be enough,” Elliott said. “Obviously, everybody else was thinking the same thing because everybody was content to ride around the top until the very last second.

“I just didn’t think it was going to be enough for guys to jump out any sooner than that (final) lap to go to make anything happen.”

Dillon agreed that he had the same working mindset as Elliott.

“(Ford) had numbers on us there at the end, we had a couple of more cars back there,” Dillon said. “But with the speeds they could carry out front at the top, it was tough.

“We’re on older tires, and when you’re on the bottom it works the tires harder, and it’s harder to keep the nose under you and make speed. (Chastain) popped out with five to go and I just felt the momentum die really quick, and I just knew we had to get back up (against the wall) as fast as possible.”

And he did, until the final lap.

The dynamics of the race seemed to change on Lap 15 when 15 contenders were eliminated in a massive crash on the backstretch. The first 15 laps featured pack racing but it proved to be short-lived with the exception of the two stage finishes.

Harvick says there just weren’t enough good cars left create a second line with equal speed to the dominant top side.

“Anytime you have less cars on the racetrack, it becomes harder to make moves,” Harvick said. “You have that many torn up cars and it changes the complexion of the race.”

Elliott says he wasn’t sure if it was the temperature, lack of cars or humidity, but that the bottom literally was incapable of matching the speed of the top unless there was a disproportionate number of cars down there instead.

“I would love to know why, but there was a bigger difference from top to bottom than normal, and I just don’t understand why,” Elliott added.

Elliott tried to lag back and carry a run under Dillon and towards the front, but the energy would dissipate as soon as he left the draft, forcing him back up against the wall.

“We saw him hanging back behind us to get a run, but he just didn’t have enough energy to pull out,” Dillon said. “It’s even harder when you have five (Fords) in front of you because they’re working together.”

If the move was going to be made, it was going to be made by one of the Fords in the top-five and that wasn’t going to come sooner than it had to. If they pulled out any sooner than two to go, they would risk triggering a giant crash or losing the lead a lap after working so hard to get it in the first place.

But from sixth on back, where Ford transitioned to Chevrolets and Toyotas, there was seemingly nothing that could be done with just a 12-car group.

“I didn’t really know what to do,” Elliott said. “I felt like my hands were tied. I hate that.”

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