Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2014 Daytona 500

Key Moment – On the final restart of the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. chose to start in front of teammate Jeff Gordon. When the green flag flew, Gordon stayed tight to Earnhardt’s bumper while Kyle Busch was several feet off of the bumper of Brad Keselowski. The resultant push put Earnhardt solidly in the lead and, from there, he simply blocked both lanes until he took the checkered flag for his second Daytona 500 win.

In a Nutshell – The first 38 laps of the event were a typical modern restrictor plate race. People stayed in line, didn’t push the issue and waited to get closer to the end. Then came the rain. After six hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds of red flag conditions, the drivers took to the speedway in anger and didn’t let up until the checkered flag flew. The race saw three-wide racing in multiple rows, throughout the pack, for laps on end. Sunday was simply one of the raciest Daytona 500s in history.

Dramatic Moment – On a night when there were many potentially truly dramatic moments, the most dramatic very well may have been the decision to restart the race at 8:30 p.m. The rain that hit 38 laps into the event was strong at times and quite persistent. However, the officials doggedly stayed after the track and even though there were rumors to the contrary, they stuck by their guns to restart the race as long as it happened by 9 p.m. Had NASCAR moved the event to Monday, it could have been a very different race and no one knows what the outcome would have looked like.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

The Daytona 500 is the big one, the top banana, the grand poobah. Choose your superlative and at best you’ll be just doing it justice. On the landscape of motorsports, there are only four races that rank as the pinnacle of their prospective types of racing. The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest of them all. Monaco is the ultimate for Formula 1 and the U.S. Nationals are the apex for drag racing. In stock car racing it is Daytona, hands down. Having the most popular driver in the sport win the biggest race of the year, when the sport could use a boost cannot be underestimated. Whether this translates into a run by Earnhardt at the title will play out over the next eight months, but this shot in the arm is 100 percent adrenaline that should sustain it for several weeks at least.

While the storyline that played out was a tremendous one, it wasn’t the true Cinderella story for the weekend that many thought NASCAR was scripting. While Austin Dillon started on the pole, he didn’t stay at the front of the pack for long. He was 18th at lap 10 and bounced all over the map before charging back to a ninth-place finish at the end of the night. While crazed No. 3 fans love or hate the thought of the number on the track, the simple truth is that it was a great first run for one of the Rookie of the Year contenders in the Cup Series. On a night when a third of the field ended up with destroyed race cars, Dillon walked away with a damaged wheel and minor damage to the rear end of the car. Cinderella may not have ended up with Prince Charming, but she isn’t stuck with the evil stepsisters, either.

Twitter is the greatest information tool in the history of mankind or it is the home for complete idiocy. With the race in a rain delay, the fine folks at FOX Sports chose to re-air the 2013 Daytona 500. The broadcast did not include a scroll to inform those watching the program that it was the previous season’s race, but there were some obvious indications — like Kevin Harvick driving the No. 29 and Jeff Burton still running the race at all, plus Mike Joy referring to Jimmie Johnson as a five-time champion. Somehow, that slipped by the fact checkers on a few different media Twitter feeds. As a result, some people sent out tweets that congratulated Johnson on winning the 500 for the second year in a row. Danica Patrick was showered with praise for her efforts finishing in eighth place. While a small amount of blame rests on the shoulders of FOX Sports, the majority of it lies with those people who didn’t take the time to use their heads and analyze what they were sharing with the world before they hit send. While it wasn’t earth-shattering information, in the long run the humor involved was unquestionable.

Kyle Busch has had quite a bit of success in many forms of racing on many tracks around the country. He’s won in all three of the national touring series at 10 different race tracks now that he completed the quadfecta at Daytona International Speedway. Not only has Busch won in all three national NASCAR series, but he also won an ARCA race at DIS. Love him or hate him, showing that kind of prowess on that many different tracks is remarkable.

In the Nationwide Series race, Regan Smith finished what he started a year ago, when he nearly won the Nationwide race to start the season but ended up as part of the conflagration that tore down a section of the frontstretch catchfence. Smith admitted in his post-race comments that it had taken him quite some time to get over the emotions from that wreck and continue on with life. Winning at Daytona is certainly a boost to morale and ego for anyone on a team.

The bureaucrats in Washington finally managed to clear up some of the sequestration mess in order to have the Thunderbirds back at Daytona for the pre-race flyover. Last year, the demonstration team was grounded due to a lack of federal funding and was unable to perform any flyovers. Hopefully they can continue to clear up their own mess in order to have flyovers at all of the races this year.

Speaking of national disgraces, Madison Rising jumped quite a ways up the list with their “interpretation” of the National Anthem before Saturday’s Nationwide race. A heavy metal version of the anthem that ended with a headbanging homage to the bombs bursting in air left most everyone in attendance and watching scratching their heads in amazement. Thankfully, Aloe Blacc made up for it with a very respectful version of the song on Sunday.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Martin Truex Jr. was on top of the world last Sunday after qualifying for the 500. He was one of the two cars who was locked in for the race. All he had to do was survive the Duel and he’d see wide open race track in front of him when the green flag flew. Unfortunately for Truex, that didn’t play out quite as expected. On the last lap of his Duel race, Johnson ran out of gas and the resulting melee of people trying to avoid the slowing car caused a Big One. In the end, Truex ended the race in the infield with flames pouring from under his hood. Truex had to start at the back of the field for the 500 and turned 30 laps before his engine grenaded. Truex thought he had his best chance to win the 500; instead, he ended up watching the end of the race from his house in Mooresville, assuming he didn’t get home and go fishing instead.

Truex wasn’t the only driver bitten by the sour powerplant bug at Daytona. At 127 laps into the event, Clint Bowyer’s Toyota engine bought the farm, ending his hope for winning the 500. Bowyer’s biggest complaint of the depressing finish to his race was that it could have blown up before the rain delay so he could have watched the finish of the race from home.

The main trophy that is missing from Tony Stewart’s NASCAR trophy case is a Daytona 500 one. Stewart’s chances at adding that this year turned south pretty early on Sunday night. The engine in Stewart’s ride didn’t fail — it just stopped running at peak performance, which relegated him to running around behind the main pack and never competing seriously for the win. Stewart is creeping closer to the famous 20 years of trying.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Dillon found himself back in the hornet’s nest early on Sunday. That resulted in his inclusion in the first Big One of the night. Amazingly, he was drilled in the right-rear tire but received nothing more than a bent rim and a slightly moved rear axle housing. While it prevented him from sucking up quite as quickly, it did not appreciably limit his car’s ability. That little big of fortune helped Dillon to a ninth-place finish.

Marcos Ambrose was involved in back-to-back incidents between laps 146 and 163. Despite sustaining some serious damage to his car, Ambrose continued the fight, with the help of his crew, and came home with a lead-lap finish. It wasn’t his much desired first oval win but it did show the drive and determination of his team.

More on restrictor plate tracks than any other venue in the sport, the rear-view mirror is an integral part of piloting the race car. When Johnson got into a pack of cars Sunday, for the first time, his mirror began to vibrate and move to a point that it was a distraction and not a help. Fortunately for Johnson, the first caution flew on lap 24, which allowed the team to repair the mirror and keep him on the lead lap. The end result was a fifth-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Earnhardt’s win is the 20th in his Sprint Cup career, tying him for 38th all-time with Speedy Thompson.
  • This is Earnhardt’s second Daytona 500 victory, putting him in the select company of Bill Elliott, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Sterling Marlin and Michael Waltrip. There are 11 drivers who have won the race more than once.
  • This marks Earnhardt’s third points-paying win at Daytona International Speedway.
  • This is Earnhardt’s first Cup Series win since June 17, 2012, at Michigan International Speedway.
  • No driver has ever swept the entire Speedweeks. Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited and his qualifying Duel but came up short in the 500.
  • Hamlin’s second-place finish is his third top-five result at the track in 17 career starts.
  • Keselowski’s third-place result was his second top-five in 10 career starts.
  • Dillon’s ninth-place result made him the highest-finishing rookie among seven in the field.
  • The race featured 42 lead changes, with 37 of them coming after the rain delay on lap 38.

What’s the Points?

Considering Sunday was the first points race of the season, the points resemble the ones earned for the Daytona 500. Earnhardt leads the pack with Hamlin five points back in his rear-view mirror. Keselowski is third, Gordon fourth and Johnson fifth. The second half of the top 10 is Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Greg Biffle, Dillon and Casey Mears.

More importantly for Earnhardt, and the new and improved Chase system, he is the first driver to score a win towards making it into the Chase for 2014.

Overall rating (On a scale of 1-6, where 1 is a stinker and six is the finest of brews and a instant classic) — The only thing that is preventing this race from immediately being rebroadcast on ESPN Classic is that it was broadcast by FOX Sports Sunday. The racing after they dropped the rag was nothing short of spectacular and, with the sport’s Most Popular Driver winning, is sure to give attendance over the next few races a boost. We raise a hearty toast of six frosted mugs, poured from your finest mead to celebrate Dale Jr.‘s win at the Great American Race.

What’s Next? — The series trucks west to Phoenix International Raceway for a 3 p.m. race next Sunday. Coverage starts on Fox and MRN at 2:30 p.m. ET.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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