Torey Fox | NASCAR Digital Media

When blocking goes bad: Daytona tactics turning 500 into a battle of survival

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Blocking on superspeedways isn’t new. Spin your television dial back to the 1979 Daytona 500, when Donnie Allison famously crowded Cale Yarborough, and broadcaster Ken Squier can be heard lamenting, “They threw the block. It didn’t work” on the cooldown lap.

Forty-plus years and many aero packages later, it’s still not exactly working. Last year’s NASCAR Cup Series opener was a battle of attrition, with just 19 of the 40 starters running at the finish. Sunday’s Busch Clash went to another level, with all 18 cars listed on the accident tally sheet and the half-dozen finishers all affected by some level of crash damage.

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Decades beyond the Yarborough-Allison tussle, Squier’s words still resound as true. As this the Daytona 500 (set to resume Monday at 4 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM) ticks closer, predictions of further chaos caused by bad blocks gone wrong have elevated the pre-race tension.

“I think it will be more of the same. You are going to have to survive,” said Kevin Harvick, the 2007 race winner. “I think survival will be more talked about this year than any year in the past. We have all been programmed to block and do things with the old package for so many years and this is not the old package.”

It hasn’t been, not since competition officials shifted away from restrictor plates last season as the required method to slow cars at the sport’s biggest ovals — Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. Cars now produce a targeted 550 horsepower — an increase over the previous plate-track output — but those gains are offset by larger spoilers and other aerodynamic baffles.

The result is an increase in speeds, but also cars that punch a larger hole in the way they cut through the air. Momentum and the closing rate from an aerodynamic push are now far more pronounced, so much so that a strong leading car is no longer able to easily block those advances and control the top spot.

That combination of factors left the field for the Clash exhibition in a smoldering heap as the laps wound down. When Joey Logano’s aggressive block of Kyle Busch’s charge went awry, six cars — including the dominant No. 2 Ford of Logano teammate Brad Keselowski — were swept into the fray. A succession of three more multicar crack-ups followed, with some form of pushing and blocking figuring into the cause.

During Wednesday’s Media Day at the track, Keselowski had simmered from his post-crash rant, but still dourly estimated the odds of finishing Sunday’s 500 without incident at 25 percent. He then echoed Squier’s long-ago words with a current-day critique.

“I don’t know how you couldn’t know, but it doesn’t seem to change the behaviors, which is mind-boggling to me,” Keselowski said. “You can’t win races that you’re not running at the finish of and when you’re making double and triple blocks with the closing rates that the cars have right now someone is going to the care center, more likely than not it’s gonna be the car that started the block. So it seems strange to me to make a move that had almost 100 percent certainty of not working, that everyone can see.

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“The same moves are being made over and over again and it’s the definition of insanity, but it is what it is and as it affects us, we just try to survive it and not be the one to cause our own demise.”

Changing behaviors won’t happen overnight, even though the specter of a longer, points-paying race would seem to have a calming influence. But rooting and gouging for position and trying to keep freight-train levels of momentum in check are the current rules of engagement.

“People are gonna block. I’m gonna block. We’re all gonna do it,” said Aric Almirola, whose final-lap block of Austin Dillon turned gnarly two years ago. “We’re all gonna make aggressive moves. We’re all gonna do everything we can to try to win the race. That’s what we get paid to do. Sometimes the block or the move is risky, sometimes it’s calculated, whatever you want to call it, but we’re going 200 miles an hour inches apart and mistakes happen, accidents happen. The unfortunate part is when accidents happen here and Talladega, they usually cause a big mess.”