NASCAR is in Daytona this week, at a track where the racing is intense and close. One of the attractions of Daytona International Speedway is that we believe anyone can win. The track is the great equalizer because of the restrictor plates that reduce the airflow to the engines of the racecars, reducing horsepower to a point where almost everyone can race with the top teams, if only for a day.
Oh, Daytona, you tease.
As much as fans love an underdog — and some of them have run well at Daytona — the odds of seeing a driver for anyone but a top team win at NASCAR’s home track are much slimmer than we’d like to think. In the last 20 years, a span of 41 races, just four times has the winner come from a team that didn’t rank among the sport’s elite: Trevor Bayne for Wood Brothers Racing in the 2011 Daytona 500, Ward Burton for Bill Davis Racing in the 2002 Daytona 500, John Andretti driving for Cale Yarborough in the 1997 Pepsi 400 and Jimmy Spencer driving for the then-fading Junior Johnson team in July of 1994.
A case could be made for Jamie McMurray‘s 2010 Daytona 500 win as Chip Ganassi Racing could be considered at a similar level to Davis’ operation. Some might also say Sterling Marlin’s three wins during that time span could be considered upsets, but Morgan McClure Motorsports was among the elite when it came to plate racing in those days, always counted among the favorites at Daytona or Talladega. David Ragan, who won the summer race in 2010, was driving for Roush Fenway Racing, so while he may have been an unexpected winner, he was hardly driving second-tier equipment.
If we add McMurray to the list, that brings the total of underdog winners to five, just 12.2 percent of the teams to reach the Daytona winner’s circle since the beginning. That’s not very encouraging for this week’s underdogs and their fans, and it does beg the question: why does Daytona have the reputation for being equalizers when, in reality, it is not any more equalized than any other track?
For one, while it’s unusual for a smaller or mid-pack team to win, it’s not all that unusual for them to run well. In this year’s Daytona 500, Casey Mears scored a top 10 for single-car Germain Racing, and Landon Cassill finished 12th for the even more underfunded Hillman Racing stable. Bobby Labonte also cracked the top 15 in a Phoenix Racing entry. In addition, AJ Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier, and Bayne led laps for the smaller teams.
Those good runs make viewers optimistic that there could be an upset winner this weekend. And could there be? Sure. Will there be? It’s unlikely. But you know what? That optimism is exactly what the sport needs right now. Fans are apathetic at best; bored, suspicious, and jaded at worst. People want to believe that the field can be competitive, and for a few hours on Saturday, it will be. Guys like Mears and Allmendinger, strong plate racers running for smaller teams, will mix it up with the sport’s elite. The Davids (including Ragan and Gilliland) will give the Goliaths a run for their money. It’s a good show, and that’s good for everyone.
There was a day when it was easy to believe there might be an unusual winner almost every week. Like the microcosm that is Daytona, it wasn’t likely, but watching, you thought it was. If perception is reality, then the reality is that racing held more possibility. And, in the end, maybe that possibility is what fans long for most of all. When you could believe — really believe — that your favorite driver could win, no matter who he drove for, races were worth watching.
Today, it seems that anything-can-happen feeling is gone, replaced by resignation that the race winner will come from among a handful of ultra-wealthy teams. There’s suspicion that NASCAR wants it that way, which seems counterproductive, because why wouldn’t the sanctioning body want winners that would keep the fans watching, but it’s there. And at the end of the day, sports fans don’t want to watch any sport thinking that they already know the outcome. That’s why so many fans have turned away from the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, where it seems as though a couple of drivers win every time they strap in.
And that’s why we all fall for Daytona’s charm. For a couple of hours, we can believe that something different might happen, that anyone might buck the trend and find the way to victory lane. We might see a different winner who would bring a breath of fresh air to the sport. We want to believe because the optimism is why we watch. It’s what fans fell in love with and the story media would love to tell. It’s the innocence we lost.
For a little while this weekend, race viewers can believe that anything can happen. Any driver could win. We want to believe. And for a day, we can.