Race Weekend Central

Fan’s View: Daytona Sprinkles Some Magic on NASCAR Rookies

Did you know that three weeks ago, there were no rookies? Well, not really. Andy Lally and Brian Keselowski had not declared their intention to run for the Rookie of the Year honors and the third possibility in the form of current Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne seemed more intent on his Nationwide run in 2011 than putting his beans in the part-time Cup ride.

Bayne appeared to be the only one with any real ability to run a decent number of races in the Sprint Cup Series riding on the legendary wings of the Wood Bros., while Lally and Keselowski were stringing together their 2011 debut runs with baling wire and spit. And then came along Speedweeks. Daytona. Hope.

There is something magical in the air at this time of year. You could argue against the appearance of supernatural intervention, as it really has more to do with the avalanche of media that focus the world’s attention on NASCAR’s premiere event. Nonetheless, wonderful things start to happen around the garage area and on the track once the haulers start to arrive just before Speedweeks.

Riding high after a GT-class Rolex 24 win, Lally brought positive momentum to the TRG No. 71. Guaranteed a starting spot in the Daytona 500 with Top-35 owner points from the 2010 No. 98, it didn’t take long for the team to snare a solid crew chief in the form of Jay Guy, fresh from Penske Racing. Upon Lally’s declaration for the Rookie of the Year, Super Eco Fuel Saver stepped up in the form of Daytona 500 sponsorship for the team.

In two short weeks, the No. 71 went from wondering if they would run at all this year to taking the green flag with a road-course racing ace behind the wheel and hoping for a full season.

Brian Keselowski arrived in Daytona hoping to just make it into the big show. His white No. 92 looked barren. The older brother of Brad Keselowski lacked a sponsor and enough money to make a serious shot at the season. After racing into the 500 with little bro pushing him to a strong fifth-place finish in his duel, an emotional post-race interview and feel good vibes had offers of support pouring in.

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Ray Evernham coughed up $10,000 for the tires, Penske offered an engine that was too big anyway and lo and behold! A sponsor! Discount Tire adorned the hood for the start of the Daytona 500. This good guy now would have enough money to head out to Phoenix.

Now, perhaps neither Lally nor Keselowski were able to entirely capitalize on their good luck on Sunday afternoon (Feb. 20). Keselowski wrecked out on lap 29, cutting short that thought about heading out west, and Lally struggled for his 33rd-place finish, but how much luck can you expect to reap in one week? Just ask Bayne, the last of our rookie trio.

The familiar red and white No. 21 of the Wood Brothers was scheduled to run the first five races of the 2011 season, with other attempts sprinkled throughout the year, much like they’ve run for the past couple seasons. Bayne declared that he would go for Nationwide Series points in his full-time No. 16. Everybody pretty much agreed – part-time ride, part-time rookie – don’t expect too much. That was until Jeff Gordon asked Bayne to work with him on Thursday for their duel.

Eyes and ears perked up. Gordon tapped a rookie for a dancing partner? And it worked. They ran in the front, then in the back, the middle and climbed back to the top, again. Bayne took to this whole new push-me, push-me racing like a duck to water. The Gor-Bayne team wrecked out in the qualifier, it’s true. But the seeds of confidence were planted in the mind of that youngster, and those that cheer for underdogs.

We can’t say it was a predictable outcome to the Daytona 500. We had enough wrecks, blown engines, lead changes and general mayhem to satisfy any plate-track fan. But did any of us really believe that No. 21 would take the checkers? Yes, even though he hovered in the lead pack all day long, and managed to avoid the cars that took alternative routes around the track, we just never truly believed. Not until the end. Not until a little bit more of that Daytona magic was sprinkled over that start/finish line.

David Ragan made a mistake by cutting Bayne off before the start/finish line. After taking the first green-white-checkered, the field didn’t manage to get out of the first turn before wrecking, again. And Bayne sat in exactly the spot he needed for the impossible to happen. And it did.

Did you cheer? I know I did. That kid, far too young to win such a prestigious race you’d think, did just that. The Wood Brothers appeared in victory lane for the first time in 10 years. Bayne just couldn’t believe it.

Because it was magic. It’s Daytona. The first race of the year at a track that generates racing unlike any other venue on the circuit. It’s wild. Adventuresome. Always unpredictable. And capable of breathing life into the careers of the untried and unfortunate.

Will these three manage to continue to attract all the good karma needed to string together a successful rookie season? We shall see. The “real” season begins in Phoenix, Ariz. These have-not boys won’t have high-banked, restrictor-plated racing around to level the playing field with the wealthy and experienced stables. Sometimes, though, when you’ve already conquered the first towering peak, the second mountain isn’t nearly so hard to beat.

I hope not. I love having rookies around. Ones that can make us believe in hard work rewarded, good will returned and most important of all, a little magic rediscovered when we’d thought it had left us too long ago.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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