Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday February 21, 2014
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Trying to pick a winner in a restrictor plate race is about as easy (or as accurate) as trying to deep fry a turkey — sure, it might work, but it’s more likely to burn you and make an unholy mess. Still, pressed into making a pick for this week’s edition of Mirror Driving, I went with one of my five drivers to watch, whom I wrote about last week.
I went out on a limb, but not as far as some people might think, in choosing Casey Mears to win the Daytona 500. I like what I’ve seen from the No. 13 team during Speedweeks since its offseason switch to Earnhardt-Childress-powered Chevrolets, and the team was among the strongest in January’s test sessions to boot. Mears is an outstanding restrictor plate racer who pushed Jimmie Johnson to his first Daytona 500 win a few years ago; he’s also come close to finding Victory Lane himself on the plate tracks over the years. Usually, getting caught up in somebody else’s mess was what kept him out of the winner’s circle, not his own skill set. So, while it might seem like an odd pick, it’s not crazy — Mears is among a handful of underdogs who could eke out a win on Sunday.
And guess what? That might be the best thing that could happen in the Great American Race.
Everybody knows that restrictor plate races are the great equalizer as far as race cars go. Maybe not every car in the field is capable of winning, but a lot more are in the hunt than you see at other tracks. David Ragan was proof last year that a good plate racer can get a decent car to the front, and his win at Talladega was one of the most popular of the year amongst fans. It’s a feel-good story when a driver for a small team — someone not expected to be outstanding — is able to come out on top of the heap, if only for one week. It’s good for the sport because fans pay attention to winners, and when the winner is someone new, they might get curious enough to watch more races.
A win for a small team means much more in terms of potential financial gain than it does to a big one in some ways. Sure, the win can help the big team cash in on the season-end point fund, but it’s getting there because it already has tens of millions of dollars in sponsor backing. After all, its race shops have the latest versions of the latest technology.
The small teams don’t have that, but a win can bring in some more dollars. Ragan picked up a few races’ worth of sponsorship after Talladega, which helped his team for more than just that one week. From the team’s perspective, that victory is the best thing that could happen — save for winning the lottery. And with this year’s changes to the championship system, a win would all but lock that team into the Chase.
That’s right; Ragan would have made the Chase had the new rules been in place last year. And since it’s unlikely that there will be more than 16 winners in the first 26 races, a win on Sunday would all but guarantee a postseason spot for the winner. Even the smallest team would be in the spotlight for at least three weeks — perhaps more if they could avoid elimination, and again, that’s money in the bank in terms of sponsorship, because someone is going to step up and put their name on a Chase car — even one that’s not a favorite. That perhaps rings especially true for one who’s a “longshot bid,” because racing in as an underdog is going to get media attention.
For fans who don’t like the New Chase, there might be another reason to root for an underdog victory: it would be a thorn in NASCAR’s side. While Ragan making the Chase in 2013 would have been a great feel-good moment, it would raise questions — serious ones — about the format. Ragan finished the 2013 season 28th in driver points, not even the best amongst the small teams that populate the back half of the field. That’s simply not championship caliber, no matter how good the story is. And while it’s likely that such a team wouldn’t survive the first elimination, it’s not impossible. The deeper into the Chase a small team gets, the harder the truth is for NASCAR to swallow.
If you love the new format, then that small-team win is still a boon, because it sets up the possibility, however small, of a true Cinderella story. The further that team gets, the more attention it gets, and again, that leads to dollars, which could lead to it being a better team. Better teams could sneak in again, over time molding them into a true championship contenders. It’s a longshot, the stuff of movies — but the seed is there.
On many levels, a different and unexpected face in Victory Lane Sunday would be good for the sport. It benefits the team and driver, their fans, and fans of the sport as a whole. It’s great for smaller sponsors who rarely get mention, and it’s great for attracting future ones. It introduces the casual fan to a driver he or she might not have noticed before, and creates more of a following for them in return.
It’s not likely that my Mirror Driving pick will be correct (though I did nail it, picking Jamie McMurray a few years ago) but a win by Mears, or one of the other drivers in a similar situation of trying to prove themselves against impossible odds, would be a great way to kick off a season that, to many fans, seems like a lost cause because of the Chase changes. Fans get treated to a great storyline, a team gets a boost, and NASCAR’s first new Chase entry is a complete surprise.
That’s a winning situation, no matter how you slice it.
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