Race Preview: Dixie Vodka 400

This week, author Joe Passero was a guest on The Grip Strip podcast and discussed the latest NASCAR races with hosts Philip Mathew and Josh Huffine, covering topics like the Daytona road course and drivers to watch this weekend. You can listen to the latest installment and previous episodes of The Grip Strip podcast on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora and other platforms now.

The Florida sun will continue to shine over NASCAR’s young 2021 season as the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Cup Series head to Homestead-Miami Speedway for a race that never fails to excite fans.

Homestead-Miami Speedway, a 1.5-mile paved oval, has been on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule every year since 1999. It hosted the Cup Series’ penultimate race in 1999 and 2000, the third-to-last race in 2001, and then went on to host every Cup Series championship race from 2002 through 2019. In 2020, as part of a massive schedule overhaul, NASCAR had planned for Miami’s race weekend to be in March but took place in mid-June because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s race will be the earliest in a season Homestead-Miami Speedway has ever hosted the NASCAR Cup Series.

The speedway has been a fan-favorite among the intermediate tracks because of the action it produces. One of the elements that plays so heavily into this has been the track’s progressive banking in turns 1 through 4, which means that rather than having the whole corner banking at a certain degree, different lanes have different degrees of banking. At Miami in particular, the inside has 18 degrees of banking while the outermost line around the track has 20 degrees. This may seem like a very minimal difference, but the effect it has on the racing is massive. With more banking, drivers can hold more speed in the center of the corner, so even though the outside is the longer way around the racetrack, drivers can carry more speed and accelerate better off of the corners, which creates big runs and lots of passing on the straightaways.

Another factor that has made the racing at Miami amazing is the tire wear. Homestead-Miami Speedway is a high-wear racetrack for the tire compound that Goodyear brings to the track. The asphalt surface of Homestead is abrasive and eats into the tire rubber, causing cars to lose a lot of grip even after just five laps, which more than likely means that during every caution, drivers are going to come down pit road to get new tires. Drivers seem to find more grip on the outside over the course of a long green-flag run, so expect to see drivers against the wall during the race. The loss of grip also seems to favor drivers who have experience racing on dirt, because dirt racers almost always fight little to no grip in their cars.

RACE AND TRACK STATS

Graphic by Joe Passero

Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway — Homestead, Florida

Track Length: 1.5 miles

Race Length: 267 laps/400.5 miles

Pit Road Speed Limit: 45 mph

Defending Winner: Denny Hamlin

Package: 550 horsepower, high downforce

First Race: 1999

First Winner: Tony Stewart

Most Event Wins: Greg Biffle (2004, 2005, 2006), Tony Stewart (1999, 2000, 2011) and Denny Hamlin (2009, 2013, 2020)

Stage 1: 80 laps (ends on lap 80) 

Stage 2: 80 laps (ends on lap 160)

Final Stage: 107 laps (ends on lap 267)

FIVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES ON

Kyle Larson

Coming off a rather good few weeks in Daytona, Larson is now returning to a track that he has said many times is one of his best. The racing style at Homestead-Miami Speedway falls right into Larson’s wheelhouse as a former dirt racer who is used to fighting sliding rear-ends and low grip levels. His ability to run an inch from the wall to (and that really isn’t much of an exaggeration) has also helped him succeed at Miami. His most recent start at the track resulted in a last-place finish due to an engine failure, but he has three top-five finishes which, had Larson been less forgiving to the drivers battling for a championship in those years, probably would have been wins. Now, paired with Hendrick engines and chassis, this year might prove to be Larson’s best chance to win at Miami yet.

Tyler Reddick

Last year, Tyler Reddick made his very first start in a NASCAR Cup Series car at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finished fourth after starting the race in 24th and running laps comparable to the three who finished in front of him. In the two years prior to that, Reddick won both Miami races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and clinched series championships in each of those races, making it pretty needless to say that Reddick knows how to get around the speedway. With finishes of 27th and 38th in the first two races this season, Reddick will start deep in the field this Sunday, but with a style of driving which mirrors that of Kyle Larson’s, Reddick surely will fight through the field and have a say in who wins this weekend’s race as he tries to become the third first-time winner in three weeks.

Chase Elliott

Last season, there were a handful of races that slipped out of Chase Elliott’s reach in the final laps. This was one of them.

Elliott made a hard charge on Denny Hamlin but got into the wall and couldn’t make anything happen. Had Hamlin slipped up, it’s likely that Elliott would have passed him for the race win. This season, Elliott is coming off two fantastic weeks, despite having a poor finish  after being involved in late race incidents last week at the Daytona road course. Additionally, in the five Miami races Elliott has competed in at the Cup Series level, Elliott has 2 top-fives and 3 top-10 finishes, and a worst finish of 15th. More so than looking at if Elliott will win, the strength of the no. 9 team could indicate what type of performance we could see out of Elliott this season.

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin is the most recent winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway as well as the active driver with the most wins at the track. In fact, he’s in a three-way tie with Greg Biffle and Tiny Stewart for the most all-time wins at the track, which likely makes him the odds-on favorite coming into the weekend. Hamlin has also been off to a fast start in 2021 by winning three of the four stages so far and having finished both races so far in the top-five. If that all wasn’t enough to make you believe that Hamlin will have a good shot this weekend, here’s one last note: he’s starting on the pole and away from the chaos on restarts.

Even though we’re only two races in, Hamlin’s no. 11 team has been the best so far in 2021 and was strong all of last year. All of the momentum he had in 2020 seems to have carried over into 2021, despite coming up short on the championship which he is so surely hungry for. A win this weekend could be the start of Hamlin’s bid for the championship title for 2021.

Christopher Bell

Last weekend, Christopher Bell didn’t just win at the Daytona road course, he earned every bit of it. He was the only driver that could hang with Chase Elliott’s dominant car under long green-flag runs, and the strategy that Adam Stevens employed in the final 20 laps sealed the deal for Bell to take home his first win. Now, he’s almost guaranteed a playoff berth  and can be even more aggressive with strategy throughout the year, including at this weekend’s race at Homestead.

Last season, Bell finished eighth in his first Cup Series start at the south-Florida track after starting 36th. Like Kyle Larson, Bell’s background in racing is heavily based on dirt tracks, which has seemed to be advantageous experience at Homestead-Miami for quite some time now. With a little strategic help from Stevens again, Bell could go back-to-back, which would be a serious warning to the field.

BROADCAST INFORMATION

The Dixie Vodka 400 will air live on Sunday, February 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and Motor Racing Network (MRN).

Featured graphic by Joe Passero

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