DAYTONA BEACH â€” About 90 minutes before the official 7:35 p.m. start of Saturday nightâ€™s NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Coke Zero Sugar 400, it all seemed so calm.
All 40 cars were lined up on pit road while country crooner Josh Turner performed to a sizable crowd, and even the crews were watching, which presented an unusual opportunity: A chance to inspect all 40 cars — the 20 Chevrolet Camaros, the seven Toyota Camrys and the 13 Ford Fusions, placed in order of how fast they qualified. Up front was Chase Elliottâ€™s Camaro, which ran a lap of 194.045 mph. In 40th was J.J. Yeleyâ€™s Camry, which qualified at 182.730 mph.
Whatâ€™s the difference? The cars are essentially the same: Yeleyâ€™s slow Camry looks exactly like Martin Truexâ€™s Camry, which was the fastest Toyota with a speed of 191.209 mph. The same for Ray Black Jr.â€™s Chevrolet, admittedly a little rough around the edges — he qualified 39th, with a speed of 183.146 mph, considerably slower than Elliottâ€™s Chevrolet, which ran about 11 mph faster.
The slowest Ford was Matt DeBenedettoâ€™s Fusion, qualifying at 188.336 mph, compared to third-place starter Brad Keseloskiâ€™s Ford, which ran 192.802 mph.
Walk the row of 40 cars, and there is no hint why some are so much faster than others of the same brand.
The answer to that question: â€śMoney,â€ť said one of the owners of a back-marker car that typically makes the field but has never won. â€śIf one team has sponsorship of, say, $2 million and another team has a $20-million sponsor, no amount of talent or desire can make up that difference.â€ť
That difference is manifested in ways typically not seen: The rich guys can afford to massage the body and, just as important, the undercarriage in a wind tunnel that can simulate what the wind does when you drive 200 mph.
They can afford to put the cars on a â€śshaker rigâ€ť that is programmed to move the tires and wheels up and down and sideways exactly like an upcoming race track — you can see how the suspension works on every bump and dip.
A new engine for every race. A new windshield, the best brakes, parts machined in the teamâ€™s own shop instead of purchased over the counter.
And they can afford more engineering help. The days of building a NASCAR Cup car in your barn — as appealing as that might seem in movies like â€śDays of Thunderâ€ť — are long gone. One of the engineers for Hendrick Motorsports said they are no longer looking to gain a second a lap: â€śYouâ€™re looking for a hundredth of a second. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked.â€ť
And while the cars may look the same, a pre-race visit of the pit stall for individual teams can be telling, too. The No. 96 Toyota driven by Canadian racer D.J. Kennington, fielded by Gaunt Brothers Racing, operates on a shoestring compared to the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Clint Bowyer, which was in the pit stall next to Kenningtonâ€™s car.
Kennington had four sets of tires while Bowyer, and the other well-funded teams, had six. Kennington had five or six crew members, about half of the uniformed crewmen in Bowyerâ€™s stall. The rich guys have pit signs that light up, making it easier to see when a driver is speeding toward his stall. Kennington started the race with three cans of gasoline while Bowyer had six.
Yet the Daytona and Talladega Superspeedways are great equalizers: The tracks are so fast that the engine horsepower is choked down from about 750 to 450, so even the richest guys canâ€™t just press the accelerator and pass a slower car. The â€śdraft,â€ť which helps a slower car catch up to a faster car if they are in line with each other, means that in traffic, everybody is running about the same speed, regardless of where they qualified.
The two restrictor-plate tracks mean the underfinanced cars have a chance to run up front. And thatâ€™s why Kennington was running a stunning second late in the race until he spun on the backstretch on Lap 134, having not changed tires during his last pit stop. He still finished a respectable 14th, the last car on the lead lap.
Daytona is a 2.5-mile field of dreams. Erik Jones had never won a Cup race until Saturday night. Third through seventh was AJ Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon and Matt DiBenedetto — five drivers who seldom make the top 10. At Daytona, as crazy as restrictor-plate racing is, it gives good drivers a chance to show what they can do against teams that outspend them five to one, or racers who have years more experience.
Like Jones said: â€śWinning here is a dream come true.â€ť
And four times a year — twice at Daytona and twice at Talladega — every driver who makes the race has a reason to dream, too.