Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Pit Problems, Waltrip Must Go & Ethics Run Amok?

ONE: Take a Breath, It’s the Morning After

It was impossible not to be excited after Trevor Bayne scored one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history, charging towards the first Daytona 500 victory for the Wood Brothers since 1976 in only his second Cup start. A rip-roaring opening act to the 2011 season, the questions were soon flying: would Bayne move to Cup full-time after declaring for the Nationwide title? Would a $1.5 million payday move the Wood Brothers back to full-time racing?

Let’s all take a collective breath. Yes, Bayne effectively served notice that NASCAR has a new superstar in the making on Sunday (Feb. 20). But talk of Cup championships, full-time campaigns and the like are all premature, as is any real discussion that Sunday marked a new era in NASCAR.

Sure, the weekend saw the mighty Hendrick juggernaut stumble, Joe Gibbs Racing become a non-factor and underdogs like Bayne and Brian Keselowski work Daytona Beach miracles behind the wheel of their part-time rides. But the 500 is its own animal in more ways than the pageantry. It’s a plate race, making the playing field the most equal it will be at any point over the course of the season.

It’s the only race on the circuit that provides the opportunity for teams to race their way into the show; without that, both Bayne and Keselowski would have hardly been as successful as they were. Bayne would have never earned the respect of Jeff Gordon prior to the 500, while Keselowski was the slowest car in Daytona on a single-car run and would have been a near-automatic DNQ.

The fact of the matter is, no matter how good that finish was the real regular season starts this weekend at Phoenix. When the Cup Series arrives out West, the car count will go down considerably from the already shaky 48 who attempted the 500. At press time, that entry list was reduced to 45 and that number includes Brian Keselowski, who may not even be able to show up.

This Sunday, rest assured Bayne will not win, nor will any single-car team for that matter. In their place, the Hendricks, Roushes and Gibbs of the world – none of whom led more than nine laps during the 500 – will be back at the front, leading early and often en route to sweeping the majority of top-10 positions in the race.

Now don’t get me wrong; a return to “normalcy” this weekend should in no way diminish the significance of what happened during a special Daytona Speedweeks 2011.

But one miracle does not a season make; this sport didn’t change overnight.

TWO: The Weekend of Waltrip of Detriment to All

Michael Waltrip pulled into Speedweeks with three rides and a new NAPA commercial starring himself more than Martin Truex Jr., the man that actually wheels the car they sponsor. Need I say more? Fresh off the heels of an autobiographical publication posing as a tribute to Dale Earnhardt, self-anointing himself the face of the racing world’s 10th anniversary remembrance of the late, great Intimidator, Waltrip started Speedweeks in a storybook manner with a last-lap pass to win Friday night’s Truck race.

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The move was a memorable one, stirring up emotions on the actual 10th anniversary date of Earnhardt’s death.

What a perfect ending. Only several things didn’t add up. For one, Waltrip’s spoiler collapsed during the final run to the checkered flag, a mechanical development that numerous Sprint Cup drivers confirmed would have been an aerodynamic advantage to Waltrip as he slingshot around Elliott Sadler.

NASCAR has remained mum of yet on if an inspection of the spoiler found anything illegal, but as Frontstretch reported that Friday night there were irregularities between the removal of Waltrip’s spoiler from his truck in post-race inspection when compared to the rest of the top-five finishers. He all but refused comment on the matter, simply saying “It’s been a long day” when asked about other drivers questioning the legality of his equipment on Twitter.

What Waltrip did go out of his way to do, though, was stress how much his win was about his fallen friend on this, the 10th anniversary of that death combined with the first of his two Daytona 500 wins. He even tried to make the case to be thrilled to be racing with Sadler, of all people, as the Virginian was born the same day as Earnhardt.

Only problem is, Sadler doesn’t have the same birthday as Dale. That didn’t stop at least one local paper in Florida from printing Waltrip’s fortuitous comments as fact, but the impact was clear: keeping Dale relevant to his efforts on-track was going to be the overriding theme on Friday night no matter what. With those intentions, to say that listening to this post-race sob story cheapened the significance of the evening was an understatement… and in a questionable ride, to boot.

Sunday was no better, as Waltrip took the wheel of his No. 15 entry and drove like he was trying to add to the Daytona oval’s body count. Triggering two wrecks in the first 29 laps of competition, he was responsible for damaging or destroying 18 of the 43 cars that took the green flag this Sunday before knocking his own out in the second wreck. To make matters worse, Waltrip spun his own car, driven by David Reutimann, out in front of the field and then blamed his driver for darting around too quickly in the draft.

“I was barely against him and then he said at the very last minute, ‘I’m going to the middle.’,” Waltrip explained. “He makes that quick move and it just spins him out. I’ve been doing this all week and I haven’t spun anyone out. I don’t know what I could have done different.”

The only positive was that development brought the weekend Mikey so desperately wanted as his own to an early ending. It was a Speedweeks filled with the usual self-promotion combined with an obsession to keep himself the center of attention… and at what cost?

THREE: The Daytona International Speedway Needs a New Pit Walk

ISC deserves a lot of credit for a number of the elements they developed in creating the FanZone within Daytona’s massive infield. The window bays for fans to see drivers and crews at work, the elevated platform atop the Cup garage and the well-kept picnic area just outside pit road are all developments other larger racetracks with space in their infields should take a good, hard look at.

That said, this track is 2.5 miles long. There is an untold amount of space in the infield. Yet Daytona’s pit walk behind the team stalls is just as narrow as any other racetrack… and that’s unacceptable for the host of the sport’s largest race.

Holding the Daytona 500 means that the teams, more than ever are inundated with not just media but sponsor representatives, considering the race marks the start of new marketing campaigns. Gordon’s stall was a perfect example, as the AARP Drive for Hunger campaign had so many people near the pit box that there was no room to walk, much less for crewmen to move equipment up and down the pit road.

With all the space that is there at Daytona, the renovation the facility needs more than any other is to widen the pit walk. Considering the healthy crowds from this weekend, at least on paper the money’s rolling in once again: there is absolutely nothing stopping the track from making the area behind pit wall a few yards wider.

In fact, they could even take it a step further and put bleachers behind the stalls for all the guests and sponsor reps to utilize while watching from the pits. But something, anything would be better than what was endured on Sunday. It was impossible as a media member to even try to do coverage from the pits, so imagine what the crews themselves must have felt like.

Easy fix here, ISC. Easier than a pothole.

FOUR: This Plate Package Needs Some Work

I already touched on this in a previous column during Speedweeks, but regardless of excitement level, speeds, etc., this two-car tandem racing has got to go. Making it literally impossible to act like an individual racecar driver until the final turn of the final lap is inherently not racing, but that’s the reality of having to drive in pairs.

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Driver Robert Richardson Jr., who for his lack of Cup experience has become a fixture on the circuit when it comes to plate races, was pointed in his comments regarding the tandem experience, noting “It is definitely not Daytona racing.”

“There are definitely some things they need to change,” he continued. “To get it back to pack racing like it used to be.”

I’ll say. It’s not like the tandems proved to be any safer or easier to control for the drivers; teammates dumped each other at least four times over the course of Speedweeks, while Sunday’s 500 set an all-time record for cautions at 16. The pack racing is no less dangerous, no less destructive, but at least allows for a single driver to make his own moves, drive his own race and do so from green to checkers. Kudos to Richardson for speaking out on this issue.

FIVE: I Clapped at the End of the Daytona 500. And…?

For all the issues regarding crashes and restrictor plate packages at Daytona over the past week, the most heated debate on Twitter in the media center following Sunday’s race was about a spontaneous display that broke out as Bayne took the checkers.

Overcome by the excitement and sheer history of watching a 20-year-old rookie win the sport’s biggest race by inches, the majority of assembled media broke out in applause as the No. 21 crossed the stripe, acknowledging a tremendous effort by a rising young talent and a historic moment seldom seen in sport. Bayne earned himself another round of applause following his post-race presser, a lively interview that was the ultimate in contrast; Bayne glowed while the Wood Brothers and crew chief Donnie Wingo, a trio of wily veterans sat in quiet awe of what they had just accomplished.

Quick to the tweet were well-known scribes David Caraviello, Nate Ryan, and Jay Busbee among others who all denounced the celebratory display from the media corps as amateurish and too fan-like. In doing so, they all but encouraged writers like myself who engaged in the applause to buy a grandstand ticket and leave the sportswriting to the real journalists.

Well let me make one thing very, very clear to Caraviello, Ryan, Busbee and anyone else with a holier-than-thou attitude about the conduct of NASCAR’s media corps this Sunday; I’m calling all of you out in return. Did none of you real journalists shed tears the day Dale Earnhardt died? Would you real journalists chide Ned Jarrett for the way he called his son to victory back in 1993?

I was among the many who applauded upon witnessing live one of the greatest upsets the sport has ever seen, as well as the accompanying appreciation of the accomplishment. It was not because of a biased allegiance to Bayne or a relief that Carl Edwards was denied a plate victory.

It was because I, like so many around me, knew exactly what the historical impact was of what I had just witnessed. Bayne’s victory was a positive outcome the sport has been in dire need of for a long, long time now. It was a rookie with strong upward potential who won the sport’s biggest race, was genuine in his appreciation for it, and in doing so brought the stalwart Wood Brothers back to the top of a sport they have given so much to. And hell, it was a thrilling finish to the Daytona 500. Isn’t that justification enough?

For once, the end outcome was something truly positive. It was a feel-good story, a historic triumph while blending new and old in a way I may not see in the next 20, 30, 40 Daytona 500s I cover. It was a joyous reminder of just how sweet the ecstasy of this sport at its best can be, for the competitors, for the fans and for those of us fortunate enough to cover it.

To have writers, some of whom will openly admit that this job is a profession more than a passion for them, call out those of us that happen to be both race fans and working professionals offering both ethical and relevant coverage of stock car racing is nothing short of infuriating. I, for one, am not going to sit here and apologize for being a race fan that took great pride and joy in watching this Daytona 500 play out the way it did.

Because for all the professionalism and standards of conduct that can be thrown out there, quality journalism can be fueled by passion. It takes that passion for what you’re doing to tell the inside story of the people you cover. It takes passion to appreciate and understand something in NASCAR that, for many goes beyond sport. And it’s going to take passion, be it positive or negative, to build stock car racing back up to where those of us that view it as more than a paycheck want it to be.

So, if given the choice between being an approved professional journalist and an unabashed race fan, call me a race fan. And I’m proud of it.

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