Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: The Big Stories Entering Daytona

With the preliminary events for the 2017 Daytona 500 having been completed this past week, there have been a number of storylines this week that have arisen since Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway and qualifying for the 59th annual running of the Great American Race.

Some have caused much grief and consternation, loss of sleep and appetite, and, presumably, any interest in the attention to one’s own hygiene and well-being, while others are fodder for illicit online prop bets or fantasy leagues.

Let’s run down a few of them.

Are Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports in Trouble for the Daytona 500?

When Jimmie Johnson lost it coming off of Turn 4 (twice) on Sunday in the Clash, many had vivid flashbacks to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lurid spin and slide in virtually the same place in last year’s Daytona 500 – and a few months later at Talladega Superspeedway exiting Turn 2. Does this mean that there is an inherent problem with the HMS cars, rendering them impotent for this year’s Super Bowl of stock car racing?

Let’s suspend disbelief and the hysterics, if only for the length of this column, because it’s simply not the case.

During the last 10 years or so, how many stories have been written about Johnson and the No. 48 team whenever there is the slightest stumble, a run of bad luck or the driver just plain messes up? It’s usually following a wreck or during the summer stretch that you see the stories start popping up – “What’s Wrong with the 48?” or “Have Johnson and Knaus Hit Their Own Personal Wall?”or better yet ”Has JGR Dethroned HMS?”

Every time – and I mean EVERY TIME – without fail, the speculation of disaster starts at the slightest hint of mortality. And then what happens? They win another championship or win five out of seven races.

The fact of the matter is, this was an exhibition race for money only – not for points, as is the case with the Can-Am Duels or the 500 itself. It was simply a forgettable restrictor plate exhibition race with throwaway racecars. Last Sunday didn’t count – this one does.  Besides, Alex Bowman was door to door with Kyle Busch for second and could have challenged for the win had he fell in behind Busch and tried to run down Joey Logano in the final furlong.  Oh, and his teammates own the front row for the Daytona 500, in qualifying that was run minutes after the Clash was complete.

So take heart, Johnson fan; we’ve seen this story before, and we all know how it ends up. Your guy might lose it running all by himself sometimes, but that style has also won him 80 races and going on eight championships.

The So-Called Outrage Over the Monster Energy Girls

The most recent example of faux foaming at the mouth of something completely innocuous is the story about the revulsion of the trophy girls (trophy persons?) that series sponsor Monster Energy has brought to the track. The same ones that have been a fixture in the Monster Energy AMA Supercross series – which are often run at NFL stadiums that are home to scantily clad cheerleaders – are apparently OK for dirt bikes but NOT racecars.

Never mind the fact that they’re actually wearing more than cheerleaders at any NFL or NCAA football or basketball game, or that the trophy queen has been a motorsports fixture since hot-rodding started with returning WWII servicemen, as the nose art on bombers of the era suddenly came to life in real form to help pedal parts and products. NASCAR fans have been complaining that we need to get back to what worked for so many years… well, here you go! Be it Miss Hurst Linda Vaughn in the 1960s, or the Unocal 76 Race Stoppers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s nothing new, and acting as if it’s something new that has suddenly come out of left field is both disingenuous and intellectually dishonest.

Besides, making them walk around in a black fire suit from pre-race to post-race in the middle of July on a 90-degree day at Pocono Raceway would be cruel and unusual punishment. Confetti and Victory Lane Gatorade aren’t combustible, so no more Nomex, ladies.

This Year’s Cinderella Story

The Daytona 500 has a habit of producing great storylines — Danica Patrick winning the pole in her first full-time season, Austin Dillon winning the pole as the RCR No. 3 returned to the track for the first time 14 years, Trevor Bayne winning in only his second start in the Cup Series, just to rattle off a few.

So who stands ready to write history this weekend?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the obvious choice. He’s returning from what could have been a career-ending concussion last season and is starting on the front row alongside his teammate. Earnhardt just got married less than two months ago, is in the last year of his current contract and hasn’t signed an extension just yet. He is always a threat to win the 500, and even in the lean years driving the No. 88, he was always a threat to win, finishing in the top three in five races since 2010, including his second Daytona 500 win in 2014.

Or how about his teammate? Chase Elliott has some history on his side as well. It’s the second year in a row he’s been on the pole for the 500, but this year he has numerology on his side. This is the 20th anniversary of Jeff Gordon in his No. 24 leading a one-two-three Hendrick Motorsports finish in the Daytona 500 and the 30th anniversary of his father, Bill Elliott, winning the Daytona 500. The younger Elliott has yet to win in the Cup Series, and with Jeff Gordon in the broadcast booth calling the event, it would make for a memorable moment for No. 24 to call No. 24 to the checkered flag for his first win in the biggest race of the season.


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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