Cup drivers are utilizing more data, film study to prep for Daytona 500

Jimmie Johnson looks over performance data during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Michael Conroy/AP Photo

On Wednesday night in the Daytona International Speedway infield, the windows of the tricked-out motor coaches parked behind the fence marked "Competitors' Lot" were flickering. The tell-tale flashes of light that indicate the use of smartphones, iPads, laptops and good old-fashioned big-screen televisions. While most of America's screen time was dedicated to speedskating, two-man luge and downhill skiing, these 40 men and women were consuming speed of a different sort.

"We all study film, just like any athlete in every sport, football, you name it," Brad Keselowski explained Wednesday. "That's especially true here at Daytona, where in-race strategy is so important." He spoke of the restricted engines that run at the 2.5-mile high-banked superspeedway and the increased dependence on aerodynamics, and most importantly, other drivers. "You watch races and you take constant mental notes. What moves work? What moves don't? Who is fast? Who is aggressive? Who is a good partner to have with a few laps to go?"

For many, the answer to those questions is Keselowski. After all, he won the last event run here, Sunday afternoon's Advance Auto Parts Clash all-star event. That exhibition race, albeit with just a 17-car field, was run in what will likely be very similar daytime conditions as the first segments of the Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox). The Great American Race should end under the lights and in cooler evening temperatures, conditions the racers expect to see during Thursday night's 20-car, 150-mile qualifying races.

With no eliminations, there won't be much drama, if any, when it comes to setting the field for Sunday's big show. But those races will still serve a critical purpose. While the drivers race, the DVRs and hard drives in their RVs will be running, creating film to be scrutinized every night between now and NASCAR's most coveted race.

This week's recordings of races and practice sessions are merely the latest additions to a library that includes all of the laps run during previous Speedweeks.

"Michael [McDowell] and I have already spent a good bit of time during the offseason watching film together at my office, of last year's two races here at Daytona," said David Ragan of his Front Row Motorsports teammate.

Last July they both finished in the top six in Daytona's 400-miler. Both of Ragan's career Cup wins came on NASCAR's superspeedways, Daytona and Talladega. "These cars and teams change so much year to year, comparing races is never apples to apples, but what you do learn that might transfer is about driver tendencies. The guy makes that big move with five laps to go and he makes that same move every year; if you like it, you look for him to do it again. If you don't, then at least you know it's coming. You train your mind and your eye. And when your gut says, 'OK, this is it" then you know to trust that instinct."

The instinct of the educated gut.

Austin Dillon, making his sixth Daytona 500 start, spoke of racers not driving individual cars but steering entire lanes of cars, and how those lanes ultimately dictated the finish of the Clash. Two-time 500 winner Jimmie Johnson also rewound that tape verbally, breaking down the timing of which opponents made what moves when, those who waited too long and those who waited just long enough. And Trevor Bayne, who pulled off one of NASCAR's all-time upset victories in the 2011 Daytona 500, pointed toward his study of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won at both Talladega and Daytona last year. All were quick to notice a major element missing from this year's film versus that of the previous couple of decades. There's no Dale Earnhardt, Senior or Junior. Which means no surefire alpha dog who is guaranteed to shift the entire grid based on every move he makes. So, who steps into that spot now?

"The guys who are really good at racing here at Daytona, they can feel what's coming before it happens," Kyle Busch said, shifting his eyes into that far-off look great athletes go into when visualizing. He spoke glowingly of teammate and 2016 Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and even Keselowski, who's certainly never been one of Busch's best friends. But if it means finally winning a Daytona 500 of his own, Busch will be willing to become Keselowski's pal for a few crucial laps. "Those guys have the ability to look into the rearview mirror and five, six cars behind them and know what those cars are all about to do. When I look into the rearview mirror, all I see is that one car, so clearly I still have work to do."

That work never stops. Neither does the torrent of data that can be increasingly layered atop the video. For better or for worse. Or both.

NASCAR's biggest teams have long employed internal open-book policies when it comes to sharing video and lap data. It's not uncommon for drivers to suddenly pick up speed at tracks where they've struggled after changing teams. Why? Because they have gained a teammate who has always excelled at that track and the information shared by that teammate helps to finally crack the code.

In the past, that information was kept internal. But that's about to change. NASCAR's television partners use GPS-based digital data devices to pump out information to viewers at home, but it's distributed only in bits. Those devices collect much more information, and that precious knowledge is given to manufacturers and teams -- but only the data produced by their cars. Now NASCAR has decided to open those books to the entire garage, meaning rivals can directly study the playbooks of other rivals.

Even for the sport's biggest film junkies, it feels like too much.

"Anybody can see my driver track wherever they are now, and that's a big issue to me. It's a big thing to some of the other drivers, as well. We're still trying to work on that," Busch explained passionately. "Driver track" refers to the virtual mapping of laps, a literal point-by-point layout that shows the lines run and where brake and throttle were used.

As a member of the drivers' council, Busch says he will take his case for stopping that plan to NASCAR officials, and he says he won't be alone. "That's our signature. Us driving a race car is our way of figuring out how to make a race car go around the track fast. It's not how we are driving our car at particular moments, it's how we set up our cars. ... Everything is on YouTube, but I can't give away everything. We look at it as proprietary, but NASCAR doesn't. It's like an NFL team giving the opponent their playbook."

That's a fight for another day. Before that comes Sunday's fight in NASCAR's biggest event. Before that comes the mapping out of that fight's strategy through screen time. Then, finally, the Daytona 500, when the field will be led onto the racetrack by, fittingly, the greatest film study addict in professional sports history, honorary pace car driver Peyton Manning.

"I don't think this is a room full of what you'd call great school students," Clint Bowyer joked, reminding us that most in Sunday's race never graduated from college, forgoing the classroom for track time whenever given the chance. "But we are studiers. Why? Because we are racers. And if studying means I might find that one little thing that gives me an advantage for that one second that can win me the Daytona 500, then hell yeah, I'll watch video all night long."