With the Daytona 500 in the rearview mirror, it’s time for the actual NASCAR stock car racing season to begin. Yes, folks will argue the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the year and the argument is not without merit, though personally I’d bestow that honor on the Southern 500 now that it’s been moved back to Darlington and the Labor Day weekend. (Now if we can just get them to run it in the afternoon again rather than under the lights….).
Other writers on this site have already discussed the 500 in detail so I’ll add just a few random thoughts. Yes, it was terribly exciting that Denny Hamlin beat Martin Truex, Jr. to the line by just one one-hundredth of a second. It’s just unfortunate that fans had to sit through 124,500 hundredths of a second to see the race’s dramatic conclusion, because most of the race was a real snoozer with drivers seemingly unable or unwilling to make passes. Joe Gibbs’ four teams plus their erstwhile satellite teammate, the No. 78, lined up in formation as precisely as the Blue Angels who did the flyover prior to the green flag. On restarts they were able to coordinate getting everyone back in line quickly while frustrated drivers for other teams occasionally tried the outside line to limited effect. There’s no rule against that…it just doesn’t make for a very compelling race. From Joe Gibbs’ standpoint, it surely beat the possibility he’d be hauling home a bunch of scrap metal that had been very expensive race cars prior to the event as in years past. It reminded me a lot of the 2000 Daytona 500 when it was Ford drivers from various teams choosing the formation flying routine inches from the double-yellow line at the inside of the track to break away from the field. Dale Jarrett dominated the 2000 500 leading Jeff Burton (Roush), Bill Elliott (Elliott had his own team that year), Rusty Wallace (Penske) and Mark Martin (Roush) to the line. (A bit of trivia; there were four drivers who drove in that 2000 Daytona race and Sunday’s event: Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip.)
Even NASCAR had to admit that wasn’t a very good race, and they decided to change the rules the next year to make passing easier. We all know how that worked out. I’ll talk a boring race over a fatal one any day of the week. In writing anything negative about this year’s 500, I know some people will lash out that I was only disappointed because there was no huge, smoking pig-pile of a wreck like most plate races. Verily, that’s not the case. Call it the “Goldilocks Principal.” Friday’s truck series was too hot, a high-speed demolition derby that saw Christopher Bell roll thirteen times coming to the flag. Sunday’s 500 was too cold, a virtual parade for most of the event. Saturday’s NXS race was just right, with a fair amount of passing, and a duel to the checkers that saw Chase Elliott and Joey Logano trading some paint and bending up some sheet metal as they fought for the win. Elliott ran out of gas yards past the finish line to add the cherry on the top of that event.
But perhaps having entrances to the track called “injectors” and better WIFI access enhanced the race day experience for the fans, though a large percentage of them seemed to pack up and leave when Earnhardt, Jr. wrecked. I’d been thinking all along maybe “Amelia” (named in honor of female aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart) wasn’t such a great nickname for a race car. Amelia never returned from her last flight either.
Part of the disappointing racing can be blamed on the weather, with Sunday offering more sunshine and higher temperatures than any other day of Speedweeks. You’d have thought that the big teams would have figured out that the track was likelier to be a lot more greasy on Sunday than it had been during the Cup support races, all of which were run under the lights. While Daytona has been repaved several times in its history, the track surface has always been fickle when it comes to temperature. Back in the 70’s, the GM teams used to run their aerodynamically slicker Chevelles and Cutlasses in the Daytona 500 but then bring back their higher-downforce Monte Carlos and Le Mans’ in July.
Toyota is on a roll. In the first race since Kyle Busch became the first Camry Kamikaze to win a title Toyota managed their first Daytona 500 win. (One would presume without having to add rocket fuel to the tanks). We’ll see how that plays with the fans. As far as gaining traction in the mainstream media, I did manage to catch the coverage of the race, the one NASCAR dubs it’s Super Bowl on the ABC World News Sunday. The coverage lasted twenty seconds and showed a few still photos of the finish. A confused weekend anchor said that Denny Hamlin finished fourth by a hundredth of a second. Martin Truex, Jr.’s name wasn’t even mentioned. Sigh. But Sunday’s race doubtlessly played well for the “Sports Center” crowd, who only saw the last-lap highlights and might have assumed the entire race was that intense.
With the Daytona 500 is in the rearview mirror, while it won’t garner the attention the Great American Race did, next weekend’s event at Atlanta will surely give us all a better clue as to what lays ahead this Cup season.
Atlanta will be the first test this season of the new low-downforce rules package that debuted at Kentucky and Darlington to near unanimous acclaim last season. Atlanta is also an intermediate track of the sort that greatly outnumbers the two plate tracks, two road courses and three short tracks on the schedule. Thus it will be interesting to see which teams have best figured out the new aero paradigm. It’s likely some teams will have done a better job than others in sorting the new package out. Thus every race with the new aero package likely won’t be a classic and some of the early ones might turn into runaways, but my guess is most of the other teams (at least the well-funded ones) will figure out the missing ingredients quickly, making for more competitive racing possibly as early as after the Easter break. And on a brighter note, with the front splitters further off the ground, maybe the cars won’t look like postal Jeeps with overweight eight-foot Meyers snowplows hanging out front when they spin onto the grass. Well this is NASCAR, so perhaps a few “Keep Off the Grass” signs on the tri-oval lawn at Daytona will suffice.
The Chase format means that the teams and drivers who figure the new package out the fastest may just lock themselves into the Chase early in the season. Hamlin’s win gives JGR an advantage out of the box. With the No. 11 locked into the Chase (barring disastrous happenstance), they can experiment outside the box to find an advantage with the new rules. The results of that experimentation can be shared with their teammates and presumably their satellite team Furniture Row Racing, though perhaps the notes will be mailed postage-due to Colorado via ground service.
But don’t expect panic in the Roush or Hendrick camps. Kasey Kahne (13th) was the top finishing HMS driver, while Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (22nd) enjoyed the best result of the three RFR drivers at Daytona. Again, there are only three more plate races this entire season with only one of them in the Chase. The meat and potatoes of the season starts Sunday and goes on for another nine months. It amazes me that while the first buds on the trees (the green stuff….not the beer) have yet to show the leaves they blossom into will have changed color and fallen before the Cup season has finished.
As for this year’s highly touted rookie class, Daytona wasn’t kind to any of them on Sunday. Chase Elliott enjoyed a stellar week, claiming the pole for the 500 and Saturday’s NXS race, but a spin early in the event ended his chances on Sunday. (It’s a bit ironic Elliott was listed as finishing 37th, just one position behind his teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., a prohibitive favorite going into the race.) Ryan Blaney finished 19th to claim rookie of the race honors and easily earned a starting spot for the race despite his team not being given a charter. I look for better things ahead for both drivers in the coming weeks and throughout the season. A rookie contender hasn’t won a Cup race in his first season since Joey Logano did so in 2009.
NASCAR might have to go back to the drawing board on at least one rules change, a prime example of the law of unintended consequences. I thought the “20-Minute Clock” rule in the truck series was a mis-thought gimmick from the get-go, but savvy crew chiefs saw an opportunity NASCAR overlooked. By pitting just before the twenty-minute period expired, teams could have their driver back out on the track full of fuel and on fresh tires before the caution flag flew and the rest of the pack ducked into the pits for service and emerged behind those with the forethought to pit earlier. That led to a big wreck as other teams tried to join in, though fortunately without any injuries to crew members on pit road. Of course there’s no rush. After this week’s truck race at Atlanta, the series takes over a month off before the next race at Martinsville, then spends another month on the sidelines before the race at Kansas. Seriously, who comes up with these schedules, Moe, Larry or Curly?
The greatest difficulty the sport faces as a result of kicking things off with the “Super Bowl” of the sport is finding any traction in grabbing the viewing public’s attention. The ratings for Sunday’s 500 were down 16% over last year at 6.1 in the overnight ratings. (One has to wonder if FOX not having the Super Bowl this year and thus not being able to promote the 500 on that huge stage had anything to do with that.) A good deal of airtime was spent both Saturday and Sunday reminding people there are still plenty of good seats left for the Atlanta race next weekend despite lower prices for those tickets and an innovative “good weather” guarantee the track is trying out this year. Being the second race of the season and being run in late February puts Atlanta in an awkward position. The weather in Georgia this time of year can be gorgeous, a welcome respite for those of us from up here in the more frigid northern latitudes, but it can also be nasty. Longtime fans will recall the year Atlanta had to be postponed a week because there was a foot of snow on the track. It’s a sad state of affairs for a track that once hosted two popular dates on the schedule annually and where what I still consider the greatest stock car race ever (the 1992 season finale) was held. Infuriatingly snarled traffic pre- and postrace had a lot to do with Atlanta’s attendance woes and there’s a lesson there for other tracks as well. The hell with Wifi access, the availability of Thai BBQ in the concourses, or gleaming chromium steel escalators, I just want to be in free moving interstate traffic a half hour after the race ends.
It’s an awkward time of year for the entire sport as well. No sooner has NASCAR kick-started the magical mystery tour off when the attention of the a huge portion of the sports audience is glued to the March Madness college basketball tournament. The level of interest in college hoops seems to be growing exponentially each year and it’s a sad state of affairs for NASCAR racing, which once billed itself as second only to the NFL as far as fan interest. (Nowadays our sport seems to be running neck and neck with soccer.) I can’t say it’s representative of the American sports audience as a whole but I had an interesting conversation in line at the local Sunoco AM/PM this morning while I replenished my Red Bull supply. Perhaps because I was wearing my vintage Dick Trickle ball cap, the guy ahead of me in line asked me who won the Daytona 500. I told him Denny Hamlin had beaten Martin Truex Jr. by a hundredth of a second. “That was yesterday?” the cashier asked. “How did Dale do?” I explained he’d led some laps but wrecked out and that was all she wanted to know. Yep it’s a long way from Monday race analysis/smoke break crowd outside the Wawa in Eagle a decade ago.
But for better of worse, I’ll be tuned in next Sunday. Frankly I can’t stand basketball, college or otherwise, though apparently my alma mater is positioned well going into the tournament. My exposure to basketball usually results from a game going overtime delaying a program I want to see. Yep, there’s just two minutes left on the clock….which means the game ought to be over in about a half hour. Huh? Tonight on Action News, a bridge collapse on I95 cripples traffic and commerce in the Northeast, a wildfire spreading down the Paoli Local tracks threatens to torch the entire Main Line, and little green aliens from space kidnap the Mayor of Philadelphia, but the big story is the Villanova Wildcats arrive in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky for a duel with the Malicious Musketeers of East Bumblefug U. April can’t come too soon.
I’m genuinely curious to see how the new aero rules work out this year, and I’m guardedly optimistic the new package will make for much better racing. In the end that’s what NASCAR really needs. The sport can turn race tracks into “stadiums”, add digital dashes galore, redefine the meaning of a restart and promote itself incessantly on social media, but if the racing itself improves, not over the course of the final hundredth of a second but all afternoon long, the TV ratings and ticket sales will take care of themselves. Let the games start……
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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