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Why This Daytona 500 Will Be the SLOWEST in Nearly 50 YEARS

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Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

Since the Next-Gen car was introduced, the Daytona 500 pole winners have gotten noticeably slower. In 2023, Kyle Larson clocked in a pole speed of 181.025 Miles Per Hour, which was the slowest Daytona 500 since 1967, when Curtis Turner sat on the pole at 180.831 MPH. As we see in the chart below from Trey Ryan, Daytona 500 pole speeds have generally gotten slower in recent years, but, why?

  • Daytona 500 pole speeds have gotten slower since their peak in the mid to late 1980s, and that can ultimately be traced back to one moment. A horrifying crash at Talladega in 1987, started the trend.
  • However, that trend has continued in recent years with multiple other rule changes slowing the cars down at Daytona. We break down some of these noticeable dips in speed at Daytona throughout the years, and what the Next-Gen car does to lower the single car speeds at Daytona.
  • Fans have noticed the decrease in speed for single-car runs at Daytona, and some fans do not like it. They want to see cars running the incredible speeds from the years past.

1987: The Beginning of the Slowdown

Since Daytona International Speedway was built in 1959, the track has been all about one thing, speed. Drivers mash their foot to the floor all the way around the track so the car can maintain incredible speeds throughout a lap on the 31-degree banks. While there was some fluctuation throughout the years, the speeds topped out in 1987 with Bill Elliott setting a pole lap of 210.364 MPH.

However, speeds were getting too high for the safety standards of the time. This all came to a head in 1987 at Talladega, when Bobby Allison blew an engine and flew into the catch fence, tearing down a large section of the fence in the process.

Thankfully, Allison was uninjured, and no fans were seriously injured in the accident. However, this was a wake-up call for NASCAR and those involved with the sport. According to a report from the offseason between 1987 and 1988, the insurance companies even stepped in and threatened to take away NASCAR’s insurance coverage if speeds were not limited.

As a result, NASCAR implemented the use of carburetor restrictor plates to reduce speeds at Daytona and Talladega. The plates resulted in large packs of cars running close together, which some argued was not any safer than the unrestricted engines. However, it did slow the cars down, so, NASCAR ran with it for two decades afterwards. It began an eternal battle of keeping the cars at “reasonable”speeds on superspeedways.

1988-2021: The Eternal Battle To Reduce Speeds

Between 1988 and 2000, the cars stayed between the high 180s up to the mid 190s in single-car speeds for qualifying. There were some noticeable blips throughout the 2000s, however.

In 2001, Bill Elliott clocked a speed of 183.565 miles per hour, which can be credited to rules changes NASCAR made that offseason. To improve the racing product at Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR added an extra spoiler on top of the roof of the car to punch a bigger hole in the air and increase the effect of the draft. As a result, drag increased, which slowed the cars down.

While that aero-package was dropped at the end of 2001 speeds still stayed mainly in the mid to high 180s throughout the decade before another increase in 2012. That year, NASCAR made more aero package changes to discourage the “Two car tandem” that had been prominent at Daytona and Talladega in 2011. The decreased spoiler height decreased the drag of the car, which gave Carl Edwards a 194.738 MPH pole lap, the fastest since Jeff Gordon’s 195.067 MPH speed in 1999.

Speeds stayed in the 190s throughout the rest of the 2010s as the Gen-6 car was introduced. There was one blip, which was in 2015 when Jeff Gordon posted the first 200 MPH pole lap for the Daytona 500 since 1987. However, this was primarily because of the group qualifying where cars would use the draft to increase their speed on their qualifying lap. This was the only year that the method was attempted.

Starting after the 2019 Daytona 500, NASCAR dropped the restrictor plate in favor of a modified tapered spacer for superspeedways. The tapered spacer was implemented to decrease horsepower on all other tracks, but the holes were smaller at Daytona and Talladega to keep the speeds lower.

However, while qualifying speeds were down in the 190s during this era, speeds in the pack were often more than 200 MPH. Serious crashes including Ryan Newman’s flip in the 2020 Daytona 500 and Joey Logano’s flip in 2021 at Talladega forced NASCAR to slow the cars down once more. The final two races that year saw NASCAR implement new rules in an attempt to reduce speeds by “7-10 MPH” at these tracks.

2022-Present: The Next-Gen Era

In 2022, NASCAR switched to the Next-Gen car, and the superspeedway package was adjusted as a result. After offseason testing, NASCAR decided to implement a 510 horsepower package (down from 670 at all other tracks) with a 7-inch tall rear spoiler. Again, all were aimed at keeping speeds down, within the context of NASCAR already looking at reducing speeds at the end of 2021.

As a result, the 2022 Daytona 500 pole winner, Alex Bowman, posted the slowest pole speed in 45 years, and Kyle Larson was even slower in 2023. However, NASCAR fans can see why the slower speeds were implemented when looking at how fast the packs are at Daytona and Talladega.

In the video below, we have timestamped the finish to stage two. Fox follows Joey Logano as he pushes the car in front of him, and, in the draft, the car reaches a top speed of 194 MPH.

If the Next-Gen cars were able to qualify at 190 MPH, speeds in the pack could easily be in excess of 200 MPH with how powerful the draft can be. That’s ultimately why the current qualifying speeds are so slow. It’s not about slowing the cars down by themselves as much as it is slowing the cars down in a pack.

While NASCAR has always been about allowing a car to go as fast as it can be, safety always comes first, and NASCAR will never waver from that. The sport has seen 0 fatalities since 2001, and NASCAR and the fans both would like to see that record stand.

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