Race Weekend Central

Robbed of Anonymity, the Draft Reveals Uncomfortable Reality at Daytona

When the dust had settled on Thursday’s Gatorade Duel (Feb. 17), David Caraviello tweeted that race fans “gotta get over this reluctance to embrace this tandem racing.”

It was hard to disagree with him in the heat of the moment. Jeff Burton had just edged Clint Bowyer for the win by mere thousandths of a second. Coming to the checkers, Trevor Bayne and Jeff Gordon tangled after a stellar afternoon display of the rookie playing perfect teammate to one of the sport’s all-time greats. And Brian Keselowski became the Daytona 500’s biggest Cinderella story since Kirk Shelmerdine qualified for the event back in 2006, with brother Brad pushing his ancient No. 92 Dodge into his first career Cup start on the sport’s premier stage.

Yet, for those feel-good stories, for the final-lap drama, Thursday’s Duel was more ominous than anything in whetting appetites for the upcoming 500 and 2011 season. A day of underwhelming racing, cavernous empty chasms of grandstands and dark truths that, while concealed by the late-afternoon fireworks that saw a rare underdog triumph in a sport that’s done everything it can to kill them off, will still be there when the sun rises on Daytona for the rest of Speedweeks.

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For proof, one needs to turn no further than the patchy turn 4 grandstands, filled with more colorful seats than people for most of Thursday. To say that NASCAR’s crowd estimate of 80,000 was exaggerated is being kind. Those jokers are flat lying, insulting the intelligence of any race fan out there that cares enough to look a picture of the grandstands. Though to be fair, there’s probably not too many out there that even bothered to look at the stands. After all, they didn’t show to fill them. Guess they thought they could get away with it.

And for all the agony and ecstasy that made the second Duel race memorable, the first 150 miles were the bipolar opposite, a snoozer of an event that for all its lead changes was as compelling as watching a practice session, if that. The pairings up front scarcely ever changed. Nobody in the field seemed even remotely racy. And as for the event’s most dramatic moment, a last-lap pass that saw JJ Yeley take a late Lucky Dog and turn it into a Daytona 500 berth after getting past the NEMCO Motorsports duo of Joe Nemechek and Kevin Conway, it wasn’t even seen on TV until after the checkered flag fell.

To be fair, the second Duel race showed that even in the tandem pairs, the new Daytona can produce a compelling race. It was a glimpse of how good Sunday could be.

But there were two races this Thursday afternoon, and the other showed just how much of a stinker the current package can produce. Daytona for all its similarities to Talladega is not its sister track in Alabama, a narrower circuit where three-wide is the exception, not the norm. The circuit in Florida is far more treacherous, leaving less room for passing, less room for aggression and more room to ride the storm out. Just as what played out for almost the entirety of Duel race one.

With absolutely bipolar events comprising Thursday’s segment of Speedweeks, there’s a credible argument to be made by optimists and pessimists alike that their version of events is going to tell this Daytona saga on Sunday. The tale of the 2011 Daytona 500 and the tone of the upcoming Cup season will hinge solely on what Sunday brings.

The one certainty that can be gleaned from these 300 miles is that while the racing may still be the same plate racing that Daytona and Talladega have become known for, the anonymity of the draft, the driving force behind NASCAR’s wildcard events, is gone.

Where once there were packs of cars that both propelled unlikely victors such as Ward Burton to victory in the Daytona 500 or savagely destroyed the hopes of rookies and champions indiscriminately in the Big One, there are now pairs. Pairs with names, faces, numbers. These pairs are animated and with them comes a reality that while true even in the days of 30-car packs, always stayed below the surface:

The individual competitor, the driver, is insignificant.

Fans would never know that, of course, listening to Cup Series regulars describing the enjoyment and excitement they derived from doing the two-step with a partner largely of their choosing as the Daytona 500 field was set. “It is a helluva lot of fun restrictor-plate racing,” said Juan Pablo Montoya of his sixth-place finish in Duel one. Finishing two spots behind him was Mark Martin, who, having been a longtime plate racing critic, called the racing “fun.” Echoing those sentiments was Bill Elliott, who called it “a heck of a lot of fun,” “like a bunch of kids playing leapfrog.”

It’s as if the pack disappearing and the drafting pairs spacing out across the racing surface has created an illusion that the driver is now in greater control of his race (though Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin may have questioned that, as both were dumped by teammates in their respective races). Problem is, take a look at any of the four races that have been run thus far through Speedweeks and that illusion is exposed as just that – a figment of their imagination.

If anything, this dependence on pairs that Daytona racing has been reduced to has taken even more control out of the individual’s hand… because it’s made the individual driver’s ability to make his own move, to run his own race, non-existent until turn 4 of the final lap. Sure, when there were 30-car packs the individual was part of a moving mass, helplessly vulnerable to any driver’s mistake.

But when it was time to take the lead, be it two laps in or with two laps to go, the individual driver was able to change lanes. The individual driver was able to block, to run his race. Now, with speed completely a product of having, as Martin Truex Jr. coined it, “a dance partner,” the freedom to do that goes out the window.

The absolute imperative to run in tandem has made something as simple as dodging one lapped car on a 2.5-mile oval a trying exercise; midway through Duel two, Bowyer and Burton dropped from running for the top five to a vast distance from the lead, all because Bowyer jumped a second earlier than Burton to avoid Robert Richardson‘s slow machine.

And even in the case of those final lap in turn 4 situations where there is still some control being exerted by what one competitor does, time and time again this Speedweeks trying to make one’s own move has been an exercise in futility. The Budweiser Shootout was not determined solely on Hamlin running all over the yellow line, but because Jamie McMurray decided that out of all the drivers up front, he wanted to see Kurt Busch win.

Just today, Regan Smith proved powerless to do anything with Kurt Busch after the pair had run nose-to-tail for the better part of their Duel. And while Bowyer came within a hair of stealing the second Duel from his partner Jeff Burton, the amount of time he was forced to spend pushing Burton down the frontstretch to hold off the charging duo of Michael Waltrip and Kyle Busch was enough to render his charge futile.

The necessity that plate racing puts on having partners, having teammates, having to work together, may have always been there. Problem now is, it’s all the more visible, for the draft is being governed not by a nameless gaggle, but by duets. What was once an anonymous reality is now an elephant in the room; an individual competitor can’t win on his own, or for that matter even perform on his own driving on stock car racing’s most hallowed ground.

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For on this Thursday, Bayne didn’t have an impressive rookie debut… he was the new “Wonderboy” pushing the old. Jeff Gordon didn’t drive an admirable race; he was owing his solid performance to the skills of a talented rookie. Brian Keselowski didn’t overcome the odds and resurrect his racing career, his brother did him a favor. Brad Keselowski played the good sibling, but only after spinning out and getting mired in the back of the field.

For all the emotional heartstrings the Keselowski brothers scene tugged at, it was also the most poignant example of just how meaningless the Duels have become in the Top-35 era; once in the back of the field, Brad committed to pushing around his brother’s ride… a five-year-old patchjob of a car that was nearly 20 mph off the pace in the week’s practice sessions. A risk that paid off, but also one complacently aware that he was locked into the Great American Race.

Any sense of an individual driver controlling his own destiny, of putting his needs above every other car in the field, hell of earning his own win on the high banks is now gone, even it was just an illusion in the day of the pack. Just as the superteam era has made cooperation, data sharing and teammates not an option, but a requirement for success, now stock car’s greatest prize will visibly be determined not just by talent… but by the driver that can play nice.

This blatantly visibly need for teaming, for working together as much as competing, has now become the face of Speedweeks 2011. That’s as big an adjustment as the tandem racing itself.

So getting over, as Mr. Caraviello termed it, “the reluctance to accept” this new reality of Daytona is just the latest battle in what has been a nearly-decade long battle between the sanctioning body, a sport that has become an industry and a fanbase that has been marginalized, alienated and confounded time and time again.

Given the grandstands seen on Thursday, it’s still a losing one. No matter the feel-good stories on the surface.

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