Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday February 24, 2011
“Did that really just happen?”
Those were my words (though I’m pretty sure I’m not alone on that) after Sunday’s Daytona 500 which, after a weekend rife with reminders of the past, showed a hint of the future. Trevor Bayne’s win was a feel-good story for a sport that desperately needed one; the rookie besting the title favorite to start the season. It was an exciting race with a storybook ending, at a time the sport badly needed to turn over a new leaf.
But has it?
Well, not so fast. The Daytona 500 is over. There are 35 races to go this year. So now what?
For Trevor Bayne, there will be a full season in the Nationwide Series, where he’s a title contender. That was the right move. Too many young guys find early success and move up too quickly, only to fade as fast as they came. Without strong sponsorship, Bayne would likely not finish the season as well as he started, and this way he gets experience running half the Cup season but can focus on the Nationwide title, for which he has to be an early favorite running for Roush Fenway Racing.
It could not have been easy; doing the right thing often isn’t, but Bayne is putting himself in position to be a superstar in the sport, and that’s the right thing. Derrike Cope won the Daytona 500, and while it kept him in a ride for the rest of his career, it didn’t make him an overnight sensation or a Cup contender. It’s not going to do that for Trevor Bayne, but a learning curve that puts Bayne in the right car at the right time down the road can.
For the Wood Brothers it was a glimpse of what once was. For many 21st century fans, it was the first time the No. 21 was a contender, let alone a winner. For old-school fans it made Bayne’s victory that much sweeter, seeing the legendary team in Victory Lane sporting colors remarkably similar to the last time it was there in Daytona-with David Pearson in 1976. If you’re keeping track, that’s fifteen years before Bayne was even born. Pearson will take his spot in the Hall of Fame this year. The Woods won’t be far behind.
But in a day where technology seems to have passed by the few teams that remain from NASCAR’s glory days, this is a team that has struggled mightily. Reduced to a partial schedule when sponsorship didn’t materialize, the once-great team hadn’t won since Elliott Sadler brought it home at Bristol ten years ago this spring. And as much as every longtime fan would like to believe they’re back, that’s not the case, at least not yet. Single car teams have struggled on the intermediate tracks that make up the meat of the schedule these days. Needing both handling and horsepower takes a toll on teams with fewer resources, fewer cars, fewer people. It’s a long hard road back to the top, and the team has taken a big step-but there are many miles left to go.
Some drivers found themselves in a massive points hole on Sunday, including defending champion Jimmie Johnson and several championship hopefuls for this year; Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, and Kevin Harvick. With points at a premium this year, it will be hard to claw back from a bad day. A second bad day could spell outright disaster, and don’t think they don’t know it. That could make for an interesting paradox-they want to play it safe, but the points system may force them to do otherwise.
While that would be a good thing for the sport, it’s easy to get lost in the Daytona riptide and forget that in most years, the race means little in relation to the final points standings. Since 1995, only two Daytona 500 winners have also won that season’s title, and in both cases it was one of many wins, not the be-all-end-all. If those teams continue to falter (and there is no reason to believe they will-all are among the favorites for Phoenix) it will have huge repercussions. But there is no reason based on history to believe they won’t contend when it really counts 25 weeks from now.
For NASCAR, Daytona was a kind of redemption, at least for one day. Ratings were up over last year despite a repeat champion coming in. The two-car draft was something new to deal with, but it provided some old school racing and lead change after lead change. Hanging in the back until the final laps was no longer a viable option. This was good for the sport. In the ten years we’ve been on our own since the day the whole world crashed around the sport, the ups and downs have been monumental. The sport needed a moment, and Sunday provided it in dramatic fashion.
NASCAR has made some changes this year, made baby steps in the right direction, but unless the racing stays spectacular, it’s a long season and a long row for NASCAR to hoe in keeping fans enamored. And everything hinges on the fans staying enamored, becoming enamored, and for many, becoming re-enamored with a sport they once loved. As ratings decline, so do sponsorships, and so do teams. So now it’s time to make some tough decisions-ones that will seal the direction of the sport for better or for worse. The problem is, there weren’t enough changes in the right areas, and too many in others. NASCAR cannot afford to bury its collective head in the sand after a great start.
For race fans, it was a reminder of why the sport is great on its best days. What happened Sunday reminded fans of something that once made NASCAR-the idea that any given Sunday, anyone can win. The American dream was wrapped up in cars and played out on racetracks in every corner of the country. In an America where it sometimes seems as if there are no dreams left for many, fans have turned away from the sport that symbolizes a different, more prosperous America.
Sunday brought some of them back, but it won’t keep them unless there is a reason to believe again. And that is everyone’s responsibility-NASCAR’s, the drivers’, even the fans’ themselves (Not every race is going to be like the Daytona 500. Some races are going to be more exciting than others, and that has been true since the first race and will be true until the last.) to nurture that feeling the Daytona 500 sparked. There is optimism in the air over the new season. There is also reality. What happens next is pivotal. What happens next is everything.
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