Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Where Have All the Cars Gone? & Denny Hamlin Slowing?

ONE: This Isn’t 2010’s Denny Hamlin

Just as he finished second to Jimmie Johnson in last year’s Chase, the second most prevalent question this offseason behind ‘Can Johnson win six titles in a row?’ was ‘Can Hamlin recreate the magic of 2010?’ that saw him lead the Cup Series in race wins even after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery midseason. If the start to the very young 2011 season is any indication, the answer to the second question is no.

Exhibit one was seen coming to the checkered flag on Saturday night (Feb. 12). Denny Hamlin, no stranger to taking care of business in this event (he won the Shootout as a rookie back in 2006), was in perfect position to steal a win from Ryan Newman… until he chose to make his final pass to the low side instead of going high. With the double yellow line leaving Hamlin’s Toyota no room for error, all Newman had to do was pinch down, sending the No. 11 down onto the apron and out of contention for the win.

Hamlin was quick in post-race remarks to note that it was go low or send Newman into the grandstands. It wasn’t that simple. Sure, at the extremely high speeds that were seen on this Saturday, a decision as to where to go had to be made in the blink of an eye. But that ignores the fact that Hamlin, the second-place car for the final few laps, opted until the final turn of the final lap to make a one-and-done attempt at winning.

It also ignores the fact that for all the precedent that Regan Smith set at Talladega in 2008 trying to avoid a wreck in a plate race, that a former Shootout winner that’s proven capable of getting the job done made the one move that guaranteed he would not get it done this night.

Fast forward to the next afternoon in Daytona 500 qualifying. Coming up to speed just after exiting pit road, Hamlin’s machine suddenly veered off the track in a hard left and plowed through the grass… because the steering wheel fell off. A minor error? Yes. An equipment problem? Maybe.

But to not have the steering wheel of a racecar secured properly is about as glaring a mistake as a driver or team can make. And call it making a mountain out of a molehill, but two mistakes have already cost the No. 11 a shot at a win and nearly destroyed a Daytona 500 racecar. It’s going to take a whole lot more than that to give Johnson another serious run for the crown.

TWO: An Unhealthy Car Count for the Daytona 500

For the first time since 2005, fewer than 50 cars showed up to attempt the Daytona 500, not only the most prestigious of stock car races, but also its richest payday. 48 cars is the lowest count since 2004, when only 46 entered (and only 45 actually made it onto the track). And with at least six of those entries being part-time cars, the 2011 season is opening with less than a full field of full-time entries.

It doesn’t take a magic 8-ball to figure out what this means once the Cup ranks take their traveling circus out west; the danger of a short field is very real. But in the shorter term, it also is of great detriment to a vital component of Speedweeks… Thursday’s Gatorade Duels. Races that have already had their significance and their impact castrated by the advent of the Top-35 rule, the prime source of drama for the events, those who have no choice but to race into the Great American Race, is rather underwhelming this year.

Take a look at the heavy hitters…they’ve already secured their spots in the field thanks to qualifying speed. Awesome Bill, Texas Terry, Joe Nemechek and Travis Kvapil can all rest easy because whatever happens in the qualifying races, they’ve already qualified.

That leaves Duel One to be a likely three-way battle between Dave Blaney, Kevin Conway and Michael McDowell (JJ Yeley‘s car was well off the pace at under 181 mph), with Duel Two pitting Michael Waltrip‘s one-off entry against the two Germain cars (Todd Bodine and Casey Mears (can you say, team orders?) and the two slowest cars that took speed this past Sunday in Derrike Cope and Brian Keselowski. Cope couldn’t catch a whiff of the lead draft in Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout.. .and Keselowski was slower than him. Neither one will be racing, they’ll be riding and praying for attrition.

It’s always a thrill to see stories like Kirk Shelmerdine or Kevin Lepage race their way onto the sport’s biggest stage. But a race within in a race for something so important can and should come down to more than a handful of cars. Waiting to see a wreck isn’t the same as watching drivers battling each other to make their way in. But the former is not likely what Thursday will bring.

THREE: Will the Earnhardt Factor Determine the Daytona 500?

Rewind back to July 2001, the return for Cup racing to Daytona after the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 500. The 400-miler came down to a battle between Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Waltrip had the look he needed to make the pass and take the win… until what he attributed to all-but-divine intervention in his recent publication prevented him from making the pass, allowing Jr. to score an emotional win that ignited over 100,000 fans in the grandstands.

Think back to last summer, when Dale Jr. announced that he would for the first and only time drive his father’s No. 3 in NASCAR competition, taking to the Nationwide Series circuit for a 250-miler on the hallowed high banks in the Wrangler colors his father made famous. Jr. had a car that was among the class of the field. But the race ended with very little drama. Despite being trailed for numerous laps coming to the checkers by a stout line of cars that included the vaunted JGR Toyota of Joey Logano, no driver dared step out of line and Jr. took the checkers unmolested.

See also
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Drives the No. 3, Wins 2010 Subway Jalapeno 250 at Daytona

Now, on the 10th anniversary of Sr.’s death, Earnhardt Jr. is suddenly the favorite for Sunday. He’s on the pole. Hendrick horsepower is proving to be as good as anything that’s under the hood in Daytona Beach. Chances are, barring a wreck, he will be near the front of the field when this upcoming 500 is settled. Question is, if the No. 88 is at the point with the race on the line, will anyone have the balls to pass him?

I don’t claim to have proof of larger restrictor plates being shuffled around the garage stalls, or instructions being given that an Earnhardt is to win a race, or any of the other conspiracy theories that have floated around restrictor-plate races the last decade. But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize how big a story it would be to have Jr. start 2011 by winning the 500 on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death. It would light a fanbase dying for a spark. It would be a public relations coup for NASCAR.

Is there a driver out there with the gumption to take all that for himself (or at least try anyway) should this scenario play out this weekend? The answer to that question, should it show itself, will say more about the state of this sport than any feel-good victory ever could.

FOUR: Probation for Michael Annett Sends the Wrong Message

Yes, young people make mistakes. Yes, putting a driver on probation after a DUI is consistent with NASCAR’s policy precedent (Scott Wimmer received the same penalty as a Cup rookie in 2004). But what does it really say to a racecar driver when, mere weeks after doing something both as asinine and dangerous as driving a motor vehicle at four times the legal alcohol limit, they still get to show up at Daytona and race as if nothing happened?

Obviously, there’s not going to be any sponsor backlash in this case; Pilot Travel Centers and Michael Annett are a family deal. And obviously it’s not necessarily the job of NASCAR or Rusty Wallace Incorporated to ensure that their drivers are fine, upstanding citizens.

But this is a sport that involves doing highly dangerous activities… with cars. Like it or not, there is a massive perception problem to have drivers with serious moving violations racing stock cars professionally in front of national audiences without some form of repercussion for their actions. Further, probation obviously isn’t an effective deterrent to curb these kind of incidents, seeing as how the Wimmer story didn’t really seem to register on Annett’s brainwaves.

NASCAR should have parked Annett. On second thought, they never should have had to, because RWI should have parked him, sponsor considerations be damned. What really happened or not, the way this is playing out is a driver with his own sponsor got a slap on the wrist despite an egregious wrong and will continue with a dream job as if it never happened.

FIVE: The Real State of the Sport

There is reason for stock car fans to be excited. Namely, the Daytona 500 is less than a week away. NASCAR’s crown jewel is all but here. And listening to the word coming out of Daytona Beach, rumor has it that ticket sales are up 30% from where they were last year, when the 500 sold out maybe 24 hours before the green flag dropped.

That claim is impossible to substantiate and very hard to believe after seeing the crowd for the Budweiser Shootout. With the backstretch closed and large swaths of the grandstands in turns 1 and 4 closed as well, there were a noticeable number of empty seats in the pricier upper deck (regardless of the checkered flag pattern the seats were painted in). NASCAR said there were 80,000 people there, just like they did last year. Problem is, between the patchy crowd in the upper deck and the vast sections of closed bleachers, there’s no way the grandstands at Daytona were 50% full.

The margin for error in terms of a sellout of the 500 was very slim last season. If the Shootout was any indication, it’s going to be that much closer this year, no matter what the forecasts say. And what does that say about any sport, that its Super Bowl has empty seats? The attendance ticker will tell quite the tale on this Sunday before a single car takes the green.

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