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Daytona 500 preview: Winning NASCAR’s biggest race requires as much skill as luck

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Restrictor-plate races have a reputation for being more about luck than anything else, but a look at the list of winners shows a lot of the same names showing up multiple times.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500
Denny Hamlin (left) and Martin Truex Jr. (right) speed to the checkered flag in the 2016 Daytona 500, the closest finish in the race’s history.
Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Conventional wisdom suggests restrictor-plate races are proverbial crapshoots where with good fortune, just about anyone can win if circumstances break their way. The list of unlikely winners certainly supports this thinking with a bevy of drivers whose lone NASCAR Cup Series victories occurred at either at Daytona International Speedway, site of Sunday’s Daytona 500 (3 p.m. ET, FOX), or Talladega Superspeedway.

Perception doesn’t align with reality, however. While there has been a surprise winner or two over the last five seasons -- David Ragan (2013, Talladega) and Aric Almirola (2014, Daytona) more than qualify -- a look at drivers who’ve won the previous 20 plate races shows a lot of the same names. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have won 16 of those 20 races, an 80 percent winning clip.

“They know when to make the moves, the right moves,” said defending Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr., who’s winless in 51 career plate races. “They also have the car fast enough to make the moves they know how to make. You have to mesh all those things together.”

Earnhardt may have retired after the 2017 season, but the other five who have dominated in recent years are entered in the Daytona 500. And with the exception of Johnson, who’s had a rough Speedweeks that’s seen him heavily damage two cars, Hamlin, Logano, Keselowski, and Stenhouse are regarded as potential winners Sunday.

That status is earned by more than having a car with an engine full of oomph, though that too is a contributing factor. To be successful in plate races requires one to have a feel for what is going to happen before it transpires — an ability to anticipate when a run will happen — and position themselves to take advantage. On some level it is part chess, only at speeds flirting with 200 mph.

“It’s like they’re outside the car and they can see the things that are happening behind them better than I can,” said Kyle Busch, whose last plate win came a decade ago (Daytona, 2008). “Like, I can only see what’s happening behind me, the guy that’s directly behind me. I can’t necessarily tell the run that he’s getting and where the energy is coming from behind him. It’s like those guys are standing outside their car, they’re feeling or seeing what all is happening, where to get that energy from.”

What separates Keselowski and Logano from the others and makes them especially formidable is they both drive for Team Penske, where they often act as a de facto wingman for the other. It’s common to see them hook up and push one another forward, and when they do inevitably move into the top two positions, they know how to hold those spots with blocking moves that stymie any potential runs from their pursuers.

The rapport between the teammates on the track is so strong, Logano says, because they’re good friends off the track and share a similar mindset. That bond allows them to know what the other is going to do before they actually do it. And in a race where being able to deftly maneuver carries great significance, it ascends the Penske duo to a higher plane at Daytona and Talladega.

“There is a trust level,” Logano said. “I know that he isn’t going to leave me hanging or bail on me to do something or do something that hurts both of us. I think we both understand that. We don’t talk about it anymore. We used to before speedway races. Now it is just kind of like, ‘All right, see you out there.’ You know it is going to happen.”

The common characteristic among those who frequently do well in plate races is patience. Although a trait not associated with races where chaos and mayhem reign, being able to lay back and wait for holes to open is a big element in capitalizing when an opportunity arises.

Aggressively making passes may draw a lot of attention, but more often than not being bullish will come back to bite you. With drivers running in a large pack with little avenue to escape should trouble break out, one slip can lead to disastrous results.

”I think me and Brad [Keselowski] have similar driving styles on the superspeedways in how to do things,” Hamlin said. “Bold moves looks good for a highlight reel, but it’s not always great for winning a race.”

Experience is also important, Hamlin stresses. Being in a given situation and banking that knowledge, and then later applying it at an applicable time can pay dividends.

When Hamlin won the 2016 Daytona 500, his winning pass involved him jumping in front of a charging Kevin Harvick through Turns 1 and 2. Then, using Harvick’s momentum to propel himself, Hamlin shot forward around Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. Hamlin came up with that idea when he saw Harvick pull off something earlier in that race that mirrored the spot he found himself in on the final lap.

Hamlin won the race over Truex by 0.011 seconds, the closest margin of victory in NASCAR’s marquee event.

”It’s impossible to replicate it,” Hamlin said. “You have to just see that situation come up again and then put yourself back in the position to make that move. Literally, you just can’t fabricate it. You have to see it happening in front, the hole opening for you to make the move, and then you have to place your car in the right spot to do it.

”I’ve worked on it a lot. I’ve really spent a lot of time working on it, watching a lot of film, looking at data.”

The unmistakable truth regarding plate races is a driver can do everything correctly and still be victimized by the “big one,” the multi-car accidents that are a staple anytime a lap is turned on NASCAR’s two plate tracks. That these wrecks can strike any time and don’t discriminate in who they collect only furthers the perception that winning at Daytona and Talladega is about happenstance above else.

Last year, Busch won a crash-marred Daytona 500 with a car that appeared destined for the scrapheap; the Talladega playoff race featured 11 cautions where only 14 of 40 starters finished.

And yet, while luck is unquestionably intertwined into the fabric of plate races, that six guys have won the 80 percent of the plate races since 2013 is a strong counterargument why skill matters at Daytona and Talladega.

“You’ve got to put yourself in position to finish those races, and those guys have been positioning themselves,” Harvick said. “Whether it be fast cars, strategy, driver decisions, it takes a lot.”

And who prevailed at Talladega last fall? Keselowski, who on the final lap, used a timely push from his teammate Logano to nudge by leader Ryan Newman.

“There is some luck involved to not wrecking, without a doubt,” Keselowski said. “Last year in the [Daytona] 500, we missed three wrecks but got in the fourth one. That’s just timing. I don’t feel like there was anything I could do different, so that part takes a lot of luck. But to think that the person who wins [Sunday] is just lucky, his success is solely reliant on luck, is probably false.”