Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Daytona 500 Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kurt Busch stuck to Ryan Newman‘s rear bumper on the final lap as the Dodge boys repelled the Toyota invasion.

In a Nutshell: Tony Stewart might have landed a cheap shot on Kurt Busch in the trailer, but Busch got the last laugh, pushing Newman to a win over the clearly faster car of Stewart.

Dramatic Moment: You sort of knew those last 10 laps were going to get ugly… and they were all of that.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

All week, it seemed that the battle was between the Joe Gibbs Toyotas and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his new ride at Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt took the Shootout and his 150, while the Gibbs drivers took the other 150 and the Busch, er, Nationwide race. The media, myself included, thought one team or the other was sure to take the big prize. Well, I guess that’s why they run races on the track – and not in the newspapers or on the Internet. Congrats to Newman, Busch, and the whole Penske organization on the “surprise” win.

For anyone who might have forgotten, tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. And in case you’ve forgotten, it wasn’t Bill Simpson or Sterling Marlin that killed him. These SAFER barriers and HANS devices have worked out pretty well, despite NASCAR’s original contention they were unworkable and the cure was worse than the disease. I’m glad they were adopted – even if it was a decade too late to spare many innocent lives.

Based on the last two years here, maybe this race should be shortened to the Daytona 25… since it seems few drivers actually start racing for the win until the final 10 laps, anyway.

So, why wasn’t the field-decimating “Big One” a part of this year’s Daytona 500? To give credit where credit is due, when these new cars with the big wings on the back get out of shape – ugly as they are – they are a lot easier to gather back up than the old cars.

What in blazes happened to the left-rear quarterpanel of Denny Hamlin‘s car? You’d think with 70 cameras, FOX might have had some video evidence to show the incident.

Editor’s Note: After the race, Hamlin admitted he got the damage through pit-road contact with the No. 43 car of Bobby Labonte.

The “gopher camera,” huh? If I recall, the last time such a device was used, it wound up through the radiator of a Craftsman Truck competitor named Kevin Harvick, who’d been leading the race that night.

I mean, damn, Stewart can be one sarcastic SOB in his post-race interviews when things don’t go his way. FOX and Krista Voda made sure his comments were brief and didn’t include any sponsor plugs.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Tony Stewart's Daytona Near Misses Inching Him Ever Closer to Earnhardt

Has NASCAR given Toyota the keys to the candy store in order to avenge their humiliation last year? Dyno tests after the 150s indicate the Joe Gibbs Toyotas had 15 more horsepower than Hendrick Chevrolet engines, the previous horsepower benchmark.

With the open-wheel wars apparently over – and the IRL the winner – can Tony George and Company make open-wheel racing a legitimate contender to the NASCAR juggernaut once again? My guess is no. Too much damage has been done during the insane feud between the two open-wheel organizations, and too many bankable stars have already left the open wheel ranks to run stock cars.

As Chris Myers noted, “There’s plenty of good seats left” for next week’s California race. Gee, I wonder why?

Isn’t an hour and 40 minutes a little excessive for a pre-race show? No. It’s very excessive. Say the prayer, sing the Anthem, fire ’em up and drop the green.

NASCAR proved they weren’t afraid to throw a caution for debris nobody else could see when the field got too strung out.

A record number of lead changes, huh? Has anyone else noted during races with long green-flag periods where teams have to pit under green, there might be six or seven lead changes as the pit sequence cycles through – but it’s not like there’s any actual passing for the lead. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Wow, Jacques Villeneuve didn’t get much of a chance to establish himself as a Cup driver, did he? Shortly after he crashed out of the second qualifying race and missed the Daytona 500, owner Bill Davis announced Mike Skinner will replace Villeneuve starting at Fontana next week. Jolly Jacques only chance of getting the seat back now is if he can bring a sponsor to the team.

Earnhardt Jr. was a prohibitive pre-race favorite after his wins in the Shootout and his 150. But questionable pit strategy (haven’t I heard this tune before?) and the loss of his key wingmen, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson (who got turned), cost him a shot at a victory.

Gordon seemed to have the strongest Chevy, but he bent a control arm late in the race and was forced to the garage. Who knew that driving a racecar with the front end coil-bound over a bumpy track at high speed for 500 miles might damage suspension components?

Matt Kenseth usually lays back and waits for the end of the race to make his run towards the front; he was doing so again when the out of control car of his teammate David Ragan put him hard into the wall. Judging by the post-wreck radio transmissions, Kenseth wasn’t too pleased with the incident.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Busch had an eventful Speedweeks and an eventful Sunday. He started shotgun on the field, got run into the grass, penalized for speeding exiting the pits and missed his pit box. He had to charge through the field several times; but in the end, he managed an unselfish second.

Kyle Busch wasn’t happy after the 500, but he had a great Speedweeks, finishing second in the Truck Series and Nationwide races and fourth in the Daytona 500 after leading the most laps on Sunday.

Elliott Sadler had a tough Speedweeks with several trips into the wall, and he slapped the SAFER barrier again during the race – but he came away with a sixth-place finish when all was said and done.

With all the talk about the history of the Daytona 500 this week, it sure was nice to see Labonte in the King’s No. 43 car finish 11th.

With all the preseason hype directed towards his foreign-born, former open-wheel star teammates, it was Reed Sorenson who had the best finish of any of the Ganassi Dodges by a wide margin, finishing fifth.

PJ Jones was fortunate to walk away unscathed from a fiery wreck in Friday night’s Truck Series race. That was just plain frightening to watch… and I’m guessing the view from inside the truck was even more intense.

Worth Noting

  • Newman had not won a race since Loudon in the fall of 2005 (81 races). If you’re going to break out of a slump, the Daytona 500 is a nice place to do so; besides, it pays good.
  • Kurt Busch finished second in last year’s season finale at Homestead, and again in this year’s season opener.
  • Sorenson enjoyed his best finish (fifth) since Atlanta last fall.
  • Sadler scored his best finish (sixth) since last year’s Daytona 500.
  • Robby Gordon (eighth) scored his first top-10 finish since Watkins Glen last year.
  • Sam Hornish Jr.‘s 15th place-finish was the best by a rookie on Sunday.
  • The top-10 finishers drove six Dodges, two Toyotas, a Chevy (Earnhardt – ninth) and a Ford (Greg Biffle – 10th). It’s been a long time since Chevy suffered this sort of indignity at Daytona.
  • Despite all his success with Rusty Wallace, Newman and Busch, Roger Penske had never won a points-paying plate race – much less a Daytona 500 – before Sunday.
  • No driver who finished in the top five in the 2007 Daytona 500 repeated the feat in 2008; in fact, only Sadler and Kasey Kahne (seventh) scored top-10 finishes in both races.
  • Despite fears of major engine problems for all the teams, only Kenny Wallace is listed as falling out of the 500 with an engine failure – and even he drove to the garage area. (By the way, Wallace’s race winnings are listed at over $250,000 for finishing last; did I mention that the Daytona 500 pays well?)

What’s the Points?

Oddly enough, the points pretty closely resemble the finishing order of the race.

There is one slight difference; because he led some laps, Earnhardt Jr. is listed in eighth in the standings, one position ahead of Robby Gordon – even though their finishes were the direct opposite of that on Sunday.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’ll give this one four cars of Miller Lite. There was a last-lap pass for the lead, a Toyota didn’t win, and nobody got hurt. That counts for a lot.

Next Up: It’s off to the left coast to see if any fans show up for next week’s “race” at Fontana.

About the author


Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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