Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Throwback or Throw Up? NASCAR Plate Racing Realities Going Forward

For 2011’s Daytona Speedweeks, it was feared that the 500 was going to be a crushing bore of a race. Either two-car tandems were going to streak away from the field, said most experts, or the required constant push-drafting would trigger multi-car incidents that would decimate half the field of 43 cars.

As it turned out, they were partially right, wrecks and drafting partnerships defining how the Great American Race was run. But, looking back were those circumstances enough to sour NASCAR’s Super Bowl?

I don’t think so. Despite its drawbacks, perhaps the most important prediction no one nailed is to many fans’ delight, this Daytona 500 ended up being a throwback race of sorts. Naturally, the most notable reason was the return of the Wood Brothers to victory lane at Daytona, with the Motorcraft No. 21 Ford Fusion clad in the same colors that David Pearson limped across the finish line some 35 years earlier.

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That wasn’t the only surprise, though. A relative unknown, Trevor Bayne won his first race on NASCAR’s biggest stage, following in the footsteps of drivers like Pete Hamilton, Derrike Cope and Sterling Marlin – not to mention names such as Mario Andretti, Tiny Lund and Michael Waltrip. Bayne’s Ford was fast all day – almost too fast to draft with – not unlike the days of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, putting a hurting on the field with his No. 9 Coors Thunderbird.

Going back 25 years, two-car drafts weren’t uncommon, nor were 20-second intervals. There were several of them scattered across the track, in fact, eliminating the two-by-two rows of cars driving around unable to break away from one another. Sure, they would all stick together following a few laps of racing after a restart, but that was about it.

So while handling was not the ultimate arbiter at Daytona following a complete repaving that removed all of the lumps, bumps and unfortunately some of the character of the track, it still meant a little something, enough to break up the packs and lead to strategy mattering just as much as speed. Considering the speedway really hasn’t been that much of a handling track the last four years, plus being saddled with the green-white-checkered do-overs that devolve into a 500-mile race being decided in two laps anyway these separations during long, green-flag runs were nice to see.

In short, the fears of Daytona becoming “Talladega Two” were not completely realized, although the real challenge has become who can change positions in the twin car drafts quicker without getting wrecked.

Taking a step backward, dealing with multiple changes on the mechanical side also led to an added bonus: the unpredictability of parts and pieces to last 500 miles under this new rule system. With as refined and virtually bulletproof as these cars have become lately, engine failures have become as rare as an interview not featuring a driver slugging down a sugary, syrup-filled carbonated beverage (after losing 12 pounds in water).

Yet, despite a handful of rules changes to keep them durable they became a storyline for the 500 once again. Engines were pushed to the brink of reliability, a quest for eking out not only a few more horsepower but also a few more laps hooked up to the bumper of the lead car of the draft duo du jour. Fans could know that even in the most boring of moments, there was a chance the leader could blow their motor which was enough of a reason in itself to keep watching.

There were, however, some hang-ups and hangovers of plate racing’s past that reared their ugly heads.

Most notably, the Big One on lap 30 wiped out some of the biggest names and contenders to win: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Waltrip and Greg Biffle all sustained damage that effectively ended their chances. Mark Martin would ultimately fall three laps down with front valence damage in the incident, but would recover to be in position to contend for the victory on the final restart.

Also, for the fifth time in seven years one of the two most coveted prizes in motorsports was decided by a green-white-checkered restart. While I understand the whole concept of “putting on a show,” the whole nature of restarting a race over and over at the end, going past the scheduled distance has just never set well with me. The end of the event becomes a drag race and 500-plus miles of racing, drafting and strategy comes down to accelerating for two laps?

That’d be great if this were the Winter Nationals, but it’s not. I guess, if there is a saving grace with all of the pushing that is required now these cars get up to full song faster and won’t blow up and overheat from doing so.

Storylines always help set the tone for the new season, particularly for the Daytona 500 being the premier event run as the first race of the year. There were several big stories this time around, namely speeds exceeding 200 mph. I remember the hoopla and excitement generated back in 1983 when Cale Yarborough had just ripped off a lap over 200 mph in his new snarky-looking Hardee’s Monte Carlo SS – which was then promptly deposited on its roof after catching a 40-mph wind gust in what had become Calamity Corner.

Well, with speeds clipping past that barrier at Daytona for the first time in well over 20 years, all of the turns were calamity corners with the push drafting and impromptu back end breakaways that were experienced by some of the most time-tested superspeedway drivers in the sport.

A side note – Yarborough won that 1983 event in a goofy-looking Pontiac LeMans back up car, while Bayne this year won with a car that was repaired in the garage area after an accident on the final lap of Thursday’s Gatorade Duels sent him careening off the wall, Gordon and down through the infield grass.

Which brings me to another point: with as large and in charge as the new Car of Tomorrow is, has it become almost too safe?

By that I mean not that of the driver, but of the vehicle itself? The cars have become so hearty and reinforced that no longer is a dinged up fender – or a completely smashed in nose – a barrier to entry of victory lane. It used to be that if a driver scrubbed the wall in practice, out came the backup car.

Now, there is little consequence for a bonehead move or over-aggressiveness. Maybe that’s good (if you yard sale it down the frontstretch), but I kind of miss seeing Bobby Hillin Jr. spinning down through the grass with his hood flopped over his windshield while Kyle Petty cusses him out and flips his visor shut in frustration.

And why aren’t guys getting out of their cars during the red flag to yank the fenders off their tires?! Some of the fragility of the car is what makes for good racing – but again, to the detriment of “the show.”

There were drivers who had to race their way into the field this year as always; however, with the advent of the Top-35 rule, that has become less of an issue. The practice of selling team numbers and points to secure a spot in the 500 makes next to no sense to me, and at some point the Past Champion’s Provisional needs to have a serious re-examination as well. That said, Brian Keselowski’s unfounded effort being pushed into the race by his brother Brad’s Penske Dodge Charger was one of the most encouraging, you-can-make-it-in-America moments we’ve seen in quite some time.

Perhaps the biggest story throughout Speedweeks, though was an obvious one: the 10th anniversary of the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr. It would have been a watershed mark of sorts, especially had it been an RCR car or Dale Earnhardt Jr. that won the race, but the cold reality of crashes and car parts going south made that all but impossible by the second of two green-white-checkered finishes.

I also believe it would have had the appearance of being all too convenient, another storybook NASCAR finish that would have raised a few eyebrows and possibly raised a question of legitimacy – one that ESPN Pardon the Interruption host Tony Kornheiser raised with regards to Earnhardt Jr. winning the pole. While Kornheiser “don’t know much about racing,” as Junior so succinctly put it, it unfortunately would have likely been an issue that clouded what was otherwise a perfectly fine sunny Sunday in Daytona Beach, Fla.

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So with a fresh-faced new driver winning in only his second start instead and doing so with a legendary team made up of some of the finest, most genuinely kind people you will encounter in this sport or in life, period perhaps we can turn the page on the passing of Earnhardt Sr. and move forward on a positive note for a change.

As it turned out, NASCAR and the fans were treated to a great Daytona 500. It was one that had just enough old with a touch of new, a race that will hopefully set the tone for the 2011 season and beyond. With as much negativity that has surrounded the sport the last few years with dwindling dollars, fan frustration and anemic attendance, the Daytona 500 provided a timely reminder as to why it’s called “The Great American Race.”

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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