The Frontstretch: Daytona Is Over. So Now What? by Amy Henderson -- Thursday February 24, 2011

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Daytona Is Over. So Now What?

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.

While Trevor Bayne’s triumph in the Daytona 500 was a tremendous step forward for the Wood Brothers, the team is still likely to suffer from a lack of resources when the circuit heads to the intermediate ovals.

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.

Contact Amy Henderson

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Old Farmer
02/25/2011 01:10 AM

Q: “So Now What?”

A: Real racing begins.

02/25/2011 07:12 AM

I’m happy for Trevor and the Wood Brothers, they both deserve it. But all that race proved is that anyone can win a plate race. “Staying out of the big one” was a strategy that a five time champion couldn’t pull off.

02/25/2011 08:31 AM

Daytona was a spectacle not a race for a championship. How do you have a tandem team and come out with a leader?
Nascar took giant steps to get into the fix they are in, now they taking baby steps to correct it?
The top 35 rule must go with this new points system, the guys and gals have to start out EVEN!
I agree with OF, the real racing starts this weekend!

02/25/2011 01:29 PM

I think people are overstating the points hole some of the contenders are in, even with the new system. There were a lot of drivers that finished top-20 at Daytona that will not come close to making the Chase or are not running for Cup points (see Trevor Bayne). A good finish this week and next and they will be back in the top-10 in points.

02/25/2011 11:16 PM

It’s not so much real racing, but the real season starts at Phoenix. At least until Talladega, then Daytona and then Talladega.

02/26/2011 12:18 PM

I agree with Craig. There is a lot of talk about the guys that finished poorly being in a big hole now because of the new points system. It’s really not that big of a hole. 3 DNF’s in the first 6 you could consider a big hole. But nobody’s in trouble after one race. This doesn’t mean I like it, BTW. Coulda Shoulda been more points for the winner, as we all know so well.

I’m glad Trevor decided to continue in Nationwide and I think he will excel in that series. I also hope he brings the Wood Bros. back to Victory Lane this year in the 21.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.