Well the long awaited start to the season is in the history books. The racing was long hard and not overly exciting at times. History did indeed repeat itself. But not the history folks believed would repeat.
The Bud Shootout left most fans feeling disappointed and flat. The two car tandems were not fun to watch. Although NASCAR and the broadcast partners touted more lead changes and one of the closest finishes in the history of the race. The truth is the numbers are skewed. When cars have to run in pairs and have to switch places every 4 – 6 laps the number of lead changes is going to go up.
[media-credit id=22 align=”alignright” width=”270″][/media-credit]NASCAR assured a record number of lead changes in the top two series by making sure the tandems could not run for long periods of time. They made sure the cars would over heat if they did. In order to avoid blowing an engine they had to change up which would increase the number of lead changes recorded but the number is artificially skewed. You would have to divide the number by 2 to get an actual number of changes.
The race had an exciting conclusion but the only real racing occurred with 25 laps to go. The only problem with that, the race was 75 laps long. Which made the first 50 a time to scratch one’s head and say exactly what is this we are watching?
Take nothing away from Kurt Busch. He figured out how to work the situation to his benefit and he got Regan Smith to go along for the ride. Ryan Newman was in the worst place he could possibly be on the last lap he was leading coming to the checkers. Denny Hamlin choose to go below the yellow line and throw away both cars chances of beating the Busch and Smith tandem and then claim it was for the purpose of avoiding a wreck. Of course the next day it was because he was forced down there and had already taken the lead when he did it or so he thought. The controversy attempt did not work this time around and most simply ignored the attempt including race winner Kurt Busch. The big controversy was yet to come. But we wouldn’t see it until later in the week.
Qualifying was a series of surprises from the 88 on the pole to young Trevor Bayne in the top ten. But when the smoke cleared it was once again an all Hendrick front row with Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon on the front row.
Could it be? Was it possible? Could Junior really have a chance to win the 500 yet again and on the anniversary of his father’s death? It looked for all the world as though that was the scenario playing out in front of us. The 88 was fast. It was slick and scary fast. Dale Jr had that swagger back and a confidence in his voice and demeanor that had been gone too long. It appeared that the man once referred to as NASCAR’s Legacy, The Pied Piper of Daytona was back. But fate was not done yet.
On Wednesday, Dale Jr and the team had decided they didn’t want to practice. They had a fast car. They were comfortable and they were confident. But NASCAR would have none of it. They were required to take the car out and practice in order to enter the Gatorade Duels. It didn’t take long for disaster to strike after the several hours of rain delay.
A group of cars led by Robby Gordon and David Gilliland slide up in front of 5 time series champion Jimmie Johnson and his team mate Dale Jr. The 48, running at speed had to check up to keep from running over the slower cars. The pushing 88 checked up and steered away from his team mate just as Kasey Kahne gave the 56 of Martin Truex Jr a shove, right into the back of the 88. Around they went into the inside wall and through the grass.
The pole sitting car was destroyed. The Amp Energy Team immediately unloaded the back up with the assurances that it was just as good as the primary. Well not quite but really close. The 88 would start in the rear of the duels and the 500. He was one of only two cars that had actually qualified.
It didn’t matter what Dale Jr did in that race on Thursday he was going to start in the back. He could win by 2 laps and he would still start the Daytona 500 from the back. So why take the chance with the back up car. Rumors flew he wouldn’t run it. He would run it and he would start and park it. He would run it but he would run it in the back. NASCAR immediately made the statement that the 88 HAD to run the Duel. He was obligated by entry blank to run the Duel if he failed to start the duel he would not be allowed to run the 500 at all.
The rules for the Duels came under fire. With the changes NASCAR had mandated to the cooling system after the Shootout the field had already seen 4 engine changes due to heat damage or failure. There were 3 back up cars in the field because of the tandem racing. Speeds were still over 205 mph. Common sense should rule the day. But this is NASCAR and the only common sense that counts is the common cents that governs the profit ratios. Suddenly the cost containment concerns were out the window. It was not a secret that TV ratings and ticket sales for the Duels on Thursday were at risk if that 88 didn’t start the race. And the growing price of the junk yard was no longer an issue.
The duels saw more wrecks and a repeat of the Shootout in race one. The race was long with a few highlights and shining spots namely the consistency of a one car team from Denver Colorado with Ragan Smith at the wheel. Once again the young driver pushed past series champion Kurt Busch to the checkers. Smith showed the composure and the instincts of a wily veteran at speeds that made many cringe.
The second duel offered prophetic foreshadowing of the 500 when 4 time champion and winner of the 500 Jeff Gordon teamed up with 19 year old rookie Trevor Bayne who was piloting a historical Woods Brothers Ford. Their speed and Bayne’s consistency was not only surprising but refreshing. A car in the race not on points bought by a car owner. A ride earned through hard work and talent. And a driver with the humility to watch learn and emulate the master’s of the draft. It was only a last lap misfortune that ruined the young man’s day. But still there was a message there this rookie was not going to go quietly. He was going to be a factor in the race and he wasn’t afraid.
Friday, brought a beautiful day with little practice from the 500 field. But the NNS and the CWTS were out in full force. The truck series would start under the lights in its season opener but missing from the field for the first time in 7 years was past champion Mike Skinner.
Due to an error on the entry blank Skinner was not afforded the past champion’s provisional and his time did not put him in the race.
The pole went to Austin Dillon driver of the number 3 Bass Pro Shop Chevy. The race was nose to tail for most of the race. It wasn’t until there were 35 laps to go that the racing began.
The last 25 laps saw a race of attrition with only 6 trucks on the final restart that were had not been in a wreck or did not have serious damage. The final restart saw a determined Michael Waltrip take the lead out of 4 to take the checkers 10 years to the day after his first career win in that tragic running of the Daytona 500 that claimed the life of 7 time champion Dale Earnhardt. Waltrips truck was a tribute to his friend and car owner from that race carrying his number from that day and the NAPA sponsorship on the hood.
He was not given that respect. Pit Reporter Jamie Little continued to badger Waltrip in victory lane and put the veteran’s emotions on display as though they were entertainment fodder for the race. Her search for TV time in victory lane proved to be distasteful and disrespectful to Michael Waltrip his team and his memory of his friend.
The first race of the weekend in the books it was time for the second tier series to take the center stage on Saturday morning. With an all JR Motorsports second row, Jr Nation’s hopes were high. Would Dale Jr draft with Danica? Would he push her to the front? Would she push him to the front? It didn’t take long to find the answer. At the drop of the green Earnhardt Jr would set his Hellman’s Chevrolet to the front without Danica Patrick.
[media-credit id=22 align=”alignright” width=”218″][/media-credit]Patrick’s radio was filled with whining and complaining that no one would draft with her. Yet when she did get a partner willing to take a chance on her in Clint Bowyer who was driving the KHI number 33, when it came time to switch she raced for him for the position. Bowyer needing air to cool the car backed away from her and picked up another dancing partner. Patrick whined that she would do what needed to be done she “didn’t know how to push but she would try.” It was clear even amongst the boredom of the middle part of the race that she had lead her last lap and she lead it thanks to the partner she didn’t not want to give up a position to for the sake of the two car tango.
The entire first and middle part of the race was dubbed by past Daytona winner and series Champion Dale Jarrett, as “synchronized racing.” Featuring two car drafts that more resembled horse and cart racing than automobiles, which combined with a very poor broadcast whose camera work once again showed that ESPN is no longer the leader in motorsports coverage made for a long afternoon for TV viewers.
The broadcast team attempted to direct the camera team to the action with Brad Daughtery saying all the real racing action is from 12th on back. Still what we watched was 3 pair of cars who lead the pack around and around the 2.5 mile track.
It wasn’t until the final 25 laps that we actually saw racing as we know it. The exciting finish was close. The contenders fierce in their determination to take the win, but it would be Tony Stewart in the closest finish in series history at a super speedway.
It is important to add here that the finishes for all of the races thus far in speed weeks were close ones. The competition in the final laps was incredible. But in almost every single case the race was actually not a lot longer than a Saturday night race at your local track. With the go time being 25 to 35 laps to go, the real issue with that remains the length of the entire race.
The 500 now loomed large but the teams had not met their final obstacle from NASCAR as of yet. NASCAR announced shortly before the beginning of the NNS race that it had changed the grill opening for the Sprint Cup Cars by a half inch. Allowing them 3 inches of air intake instead of 2.5 inches, the move was made in response to the obvious over heating and engine failures that had been seen in the week preceding the 500. This change was announced less than 24 hours before the green flag was to fly.
The Daytona 500 began under conditions that were hotter than the rest of speed weeks. 43 beautiful, fast works of art and technology were led to the green flag exactly on time by three awesome tributes in the form of the Transformers cars of Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr. and Juan Puablo Montoya. Team engineers and crew chiefs uttered a sigh of relief. It was time to race. Time to deal with the obstacles that they made a living dealing with every single week of the 36 week season no more changes, no more chances just time to go racing for the Harley J. Earl trophy.
The first blown engine was quick to appear when on lap 10 J.J. Yeley’s engine let go. Very shortly after on lap 20 one of the major surprises of the day would occur when Kevin Harvick’s Budweiser Chevrolet also had an engine let go. The war of attrition had begun. But the lap 29 17 car wreck that would take out 2 of the HMS cars and damage a third and damage the Roush teams chances severely. That incident would contribute heavily to the rising totals of the million dollar junk yard that is always seen at Talladega and Daytona.
The two car tango was again the order of the day with NASCAR bragging about record amounts of lead changes, cautions, and close front runners. Again numbers that did not allow for the switching of lead cars to allow for the over heating of the pushing car. Although we did see some brief multi car drafts they quickly broke down into 2 car drafts.
Wrecks, Spins, Blown Engines were fairly evenly spaced throughout the event keeping the monotony broke up. But the real truth is that the quality of racing did not improve with the super bowl of NASCAR. What did improve was the honesty of the broadcast. Larry McReynolds relaying Tony Stewart’s comment of being white knuckled and holding his breath. Dale Jr’s comment of this racing sucks to his crew chief who agreed with him.
There were high points in speed weeks. Dale Jr won the pole. He ran good in the Nationwide race and he ran well being in the top ten most of the day and leading on multiple occasions until being taken out in a wreck 6 laps from the end of the 500. He and crew chief Steve Letarte proved who they are and what they are made of. They gave Jr. Nation something to be proud of and to look forward too.
Stewart Haas Racing was the strongest of all multiple car teams with both cars making it to the end. Even though Ryan Newman was also taken out in the same wreck as Earnhardt Jr which was caused when Robby Gordon attempted to re enter the track from the apron into a line of cars at speed.
Hendrick Motorsports showed their strength and dominance through out speed weeks with the front row and 4 cars and drivers that were pumped and primed and would undoubtedly have been a threat had they not been victims of circumstances.
Ford is back on track. For all the worshippers of the blue oval the long drought is over. Ford is once again a force to be contended with.
And finally, we have said our goodbyes, we have celebrated the life of one of the greatest heroes our sport will ever have, a man that continues to influence and change our sport and its fans even today 10 years after his passing. Now the time has come to move on. As his son put it, it’s time to go on with life. He will never be forgotten. But at last 10 years later perhaps the media can allow him to rest in peace and allow his son a measure of peace as well.
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Congratulations to Kurt Busch and the Penske team on their Bud Shootout win and their Gatorade Duel win. Congratulations to Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports on their front row positions. To Jeff Burton and Richard Childress Racing on their victory in the Second Gatorade Duel race. To Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip Racing on his moving truck series win. And to Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick Inc on his repeat performance in the Nationwide Series. And of course to Trevor Bayne and the Woods Brothers on their return to victory lane in the Daytona 500.
That said, to all the competitors in all the series thanks for giving us everything you have to give, you are our heroes. Most importantly, thanks to all the families who shared their loved ones with us so we could cheer our favorite driver and favorite teams. You are the true heroes of the sport and we are forever in your debt.