The Frontstretch: What's Left To Be Said About The Daytona 380 by Kurt Smith -- Thursday February 19, 2009

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What's Left To Be Said About The Daytona 380

Kurt Smith · Thursday February 19, 2009

 

As is all in a week’s work for the Official Columnist of NASCAR, I watched, I listened, and I read what people had to say about the Daytona 380. Here, then, is what is left and needs to be said…or probably more correctly, what was said that needs to be repeated. There’s a lot here, gang, but please bear with me…I think it’s all worthwhile. Get yourself some coffee, print this, and take it to the can while the boss isn’t watching…it’s Friday.

Congratulations To The Killer Bees

Is it not fitting that a driver that is considered one of the more vanilla and less glamorous stars of the sport won the Daytona 500 in the least dramatic fashion?

It’s only right that Matt Kenseth’s win be acknowledged first here. One of the ongoing injustices of the motorsports world is the attention and coverage Kenseth receives compared to that of his 2000 rookie rival, especially since he prevailed in the Rookie of the Year battle, and has won a Winston Cup as well as having an equal amount of Daytona 500 wins now.

There was discussion in Mirror Driving this week about whether Kenseth is a Hall of Famer. While the general consensus was that he needs more wins, Kenseth has my vote, Daytona 500 win or not. He may have 25-30 wins by the time he retires, he’s a champion, and he’s finished in the top 10 in all but three of his nine seasons in Cup. Most of all, Kenseth was the inspiration for a ludicrous playoff. That alone makes him worthy of induction.

And not a bad debut for new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. But with a name like Blickensderfer (German for “guy who guides long suffering warrior to epic rain-shortened triumph”), you know he’s a good crew chief. Blix already has more wins than Chip Bolin, and a current winning percentage of infinity. You literally can’t beat that.

The Hole In Our Sunday Afternoons

NASCAR currently runs five races per year in the Western Time zone, two in the Mountain, and six in the Central. The remaining 23 races are in the Eastern Time zone. So 29 races—four-fifths of the schedule—are held in the Eastern or Central zones. Presumably, that would suggest that the percentage of NASCAR fans residing in Eastern and Central zones would be at least somewhere in the arena of 80%, or 60 million fans, if you believe the questionable claim of 75 million that NASCAR routinely bandies about. Call me practical, but 60 million fans seems justification for making the East Coast the priority.

A 3:40 green flag drop is about the worst start time possible. Late on a Sunday afternoon, most people’s moods are deflating as they anticipate the start of another workweek. It’s a drag having to get ready for bed shortly after watching a race’s conclusion—although NASCAR helped us out with that last Sunday by removing any possibility of adrenaline.

Does NASCAR want the Daytona 500 to be a day or night race? Right now, it is neither. If the desire is for the race to end at night, then hold the race on Saturday night, for Pete’s sake.

That is three paragraphs on start times without a single mention of the reduced chances of working in a full event during foul weather when starting at 3:40 PM. It’s not that that would have happened at Daytona, from what people tell me it might still have been called. But they certainly could have improved the likelihood of an actual finish. Most fans like Matt Kenseth, but they would also prefer to see a 500 winner earn it by outdueling another hungry driver, or two, or five. Several drivers, who had the juice to make this a classic battle for the ages, had their metaphorical legs cut off. Mark Martin was denied. Jeff Gordon was denied. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., deservedly or not, was denied.

This was a terrible time for NASCAR’s biggest race to lack a payoff, and most of the blame can be placed on the start time. That’s hindsight of course, but now NASCAR has no excuse. The Great American Rainout of 2009 is as good as any reason to learn for 2010 and start the race at 1:00 or 1:30 as it should. God willing, I’ll be here to remind them.

Restrictor Plates 10, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 1

When an accident happens on the highway or on the street, the driver behind usually is blamed, partly because they control how far behind they are, but also because they have a better view of everything. It’s no different in a race. Brian Vickers blocking Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was a reaction to what he saw in his mirror; he had only a spotter to alert him where Junior was and a split second to throw a block. Little E, on the other hand, could see everything in front of him. What Junior did could have been more easily prevented. As Kyle Busch pointed out, Junior could have lifted just a hair and got back on the track.

However, I say respectfully to anyone trashing Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this week: yes, he got back on the track recklessly; yes, he triggered a Big One with a split second of poor judgment; and yes, he could have been more standup about taking responsibility. While I’m at it, he should have taken the number 28 like I suggested. But he does not deserve to be held responsible for an 11-car wreck any more than Carl Edwards did at Talladega.

At best, Junior was responsible for one car’s skid. Mandated horsepower-sapping put a careening No. 83 car into the path of nearly an entire field of racecars. It isn’t any one driver’s fault that we run four completely insane so-called races a year where each car runs at the same maximum possible speed. What is amazing is that there aren’t more big wrecks.

Remarkably, no driver that was interviewed during the race, to my knowledge, pointed out that such is life in the restrictor plate jungle.

A plate race is only as good as its most error-prone driver that day—at Daytona it happened to be Dale Earnhardt, Jr. After Talladega it will be someone else, and that driver will have vicious abuse heaped on him for at least a week for not racing 500 miles without a single trifling miscue. Don’t take it out on Junior or Edwards, people.

Saturday: “You in The 38, You Sit for Five Laps.”
Sunday: “Hey Junior? Uh, Nothing.”

It’s not easy to make split-second judgment calls in the moment on gray area aggressive driving penalties. We get that. But when a relative nobody gets penalized five laps and the sport’s biggest star gets penalized nothing for moves that were virtually identical, and these two incidents take place just 24 hours apart—well, let’s say at the very least it smells just a little bit, like low-magnitude flatulence after a bowl of peanuts. I am not accusing NASCAR of favoritism but I will say this: if NASCAR officials pondered Junior Nation’s reaction to an aggressive driving penalty for longer than it takes to say “WWE”, then they need reprogramming.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. served a one-lap penalty for pitting outside the box in Sunday’s Daytona 500, but was not accessed a penalty for agressive driving after clipping Brian Vickers.

This is, of course, nowhere near the first time that NASCAR has been accused of leniency towards a popular driver, or even an unpopular one, but this incident will probably linger for a while in the minds of fans, like the aforementioned peanuts. It’s hard to think of other examples of selective rule enforcement that were almost obvious as this one was. Getting away with passing the pace car in Michigan wasn’t this bad.

The operative word in the Leffler-Earnhardt Controversy is “aggressive”. Aggressive does not mean intentional. Without getting into a driver’s head you can’t know for certain what’s intended, so that isn’t for NASCAR to decide. One could make the case that neither Leffler nor Earnhardt intended to wreck the driver that they clipped at Daytona this past week.

There has to be some officiating in NASCAR events…they can’t just let guys wreck other guys for the entertainment value of seeing steam come out of their ears or to sell a sponsor’s auto parts…but sometimes, as in both of these cases, perhaps NASCAR should just let the drivers police themselves. Or find an alternative to the plate…see above.

Junior’s Loss of Grace – and Subsequent Loss of Support in the Press

One thing emerging in the fallout from Daytona is this: rarely have so many legitimate NASCAR pundits (for whatever that is worth—trust me, this job isn’t very difficult) been asserting that Junior’s achievements on the track are far eclipsed by his popularity, especially in recent campaigns. For years Junior has gotten a bit of a pass on this, because he truly has been a great ambassador for the sport and because he handled a sudden and glaring spotlight as well as it could have been handled.

So such inflamed pontification had been mostly relegated to website comment sections in the past, but now it has infiltrated the works of media members themselves. Headlines like “Another Race, Another Excuse For Junior”, “For Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Results Fall Farther Behind Reputation”, and “Spoiled Brat Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Ruins A Great Race” all appeared Monday on websites nearly as prestigious as the Frontstretch.

It’s doubtful many of the No. 88 critics out there could do a better job in a racecar. All drivers make mistakes on the track. The Big One has been triggered by the very best in this sport. But Junior’s interview afterward was mind-boggling…and, I might add, very out of character for him. It’s as if he’s had racer’s assertiveness training. He has rarely sounded more defensive and contemptuous of another driver before, and judging from comments in racing articles this week, it’s cost him supporters.

Junior has a tough road ahead. Another incident like this and the sentiment may grow to a point where he becomes branded as a phony or golden boy or worse. He’s already racing for a team whose drivers are unfairly labeled as such. And NASCAR certainly doesn’t need that. It’s been hard enough on the ratings that he hasn’t been contending for titles, in spite of NASCAR’s efforts to make that happen with an expanded Chase.

Of course, this is all just my opinion. As we all know, everybody’s got one.

And that’s all for Daytona. For better or worse, it is history now.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Lots of people have nothing nice to say about Auto Club Speedway, but I don’t really have a problem with the racing there, just how it landed the Labor Day race which it no longer has now anyway. Someday I’ll touch on all that in a column. At least they take off the plates.
  • “Sliced Bread” Joey Logano is going to have to improve his finishes, but fortunately he set the bar pretty low for himself with a 43rd at Daytona. But I am still firmly in the camp that says he’s going to be fine. Mark Martin is as astute a judge of talent as anyone.
  • People are giving Jimmie Johnson more ink (or disk space these days) about his semi-beard than they did about his three titles. OK, I’m exaggerating a little. I don’t think he should keep the facial growth unless he’s willing to grow it to ZZ Top proportions. Then he could call Chad Knaus his Manic Mechanic. In fact, that should be Chad’s nickname anyway. That’s right!

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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Jeremy
02/19/2009 11:44 PM
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Great analysis! Just one little tidbit. Chip Bolin DID win a race with Matt…as a substitute crew chief in the 2007 Auto Club 500.

FS_Kurt
02/20/2009 06:15 AM
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Jeremy, there’s always a better expert than me out there. Thanks for the info, and my apologies to Chip, who in fact did a more than credible job as crew chief for the No. 17 last season.

Douglas
02/20/2009 07:23 AM
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A fitting tribute to the current state of NA$CRAP:

TV RATINGS FOR DAYTONA 500 DOWN 10%!

And to carry the following forward a bit, your: “It’s not easy to make split-second judgment calls in the moment on gray area aggressive driving penalties.”

Unfortunately their also appears to be a lack of “gray matter” on International Speedway Blvd.!

MJR
02/20/2009 07:35 AM
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Kurt, no matter how you spin it (and not that you were) or how anyone else spins it, Earnhardt got a free pass last weekend. And his fans will all say he did nothing wrong and didn’t deserve any punishment. And, had they slapped his wrist, his fans would have said the same thing… he did nothing wrong and didn’t deserve any punishment. That’s the way fans are, all of them, regardless of the driver they pull for.

One would think that the majority should or would prevail. But, because NA$CAR is more concerned with the all mighty dollar…well, that then becomes the majority. Don’t look for NA$CAR or the TV networks to move any start times to accommodate the fans, whether they are the majority or not. They will move a start time (or in the case of the Daytona 380) the end time when it becomes more profitable for them, and only them!

Remember this: NA$CAR and what it stands for now a days:

Now
All we
Seriously
Care
About is
Revenue

Ltaylor
02/20/2009 07:37 AM
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Nascar’s management is obviously on par with the leadership of many of the other major industries. Wonder if they bonus themselves too?

Their manipulation of the start times to cater to the west coast is very inconsiderate to the rest of the fans that live furhter east. Result, lower ratings.

Dick Lee
02/20/2009 08:42 AM
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Kenseth did not exactly win the Daytona 500, he lucked into it. Dale Jr was guilty as hell in starting the big one and NA$CAR was equally guilty in not punishing him. All in all, it was a race and a day that needs to be forgotten asap.

KenKars
02/20/2009 09:53 AM
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I keep waiting for NA$CAR to come out with a penalty for Junior’s front tire changer that shoved the NA$CAR official out of the way, when he was standing there trying to help them by pointing out that Junior’s tire was over the white line. How many times would a pit crew member get away with shoving a NA$CAR official without some kind of a penalty? Hardly anybody has even mentioned this, and it was quite obvious on the TV coverage of the incident!

ginger
02/20/2009 10:16 AM
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Where have you been for the last five years? Jr has been the media’s whipping boy since the end of 2004. And where have the fans gone? We’re still here and will be until he retires. Don’t hold your breath waiting for fans to flee. We know a good thing when we see it.

Joe W.
02/20/2009 11:19 AM
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I have one thought here on the difference between Dale Jr. and Leffler when it comes to punishment. It is called the history of the athlete. How many times have we seen this in other sports. Another words one person gets away with something because he has a better reputation and record than the other one. Dale Jr. is not a dirty driver. He has rarely been accused of such. Look at Leffler’s record in stock cars. He causes wrecks all the time. It is a fact. Carl Edwards was not punished last year at Talledega and he should not have been. He, like Jr. has a record of being a good driver. Leffler has the record of being a “tool”. It is just that simple.

Kevin in SoCal
02/20/2009 01:14 PM
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Regarding Kurt’s Shorts, its too big to quote, but thank you for your honesty about CA Speedway. I feel the same way. The racing is no better or worse than the racing at most other speedways, yet it is the scapegoat for NASCAR’s decision to take the Labor Day date away from Darlington.
Now that the weather forecast doesnt call for rain, perhaps we can get some good racing this weekend. Yeah I know, that has the same chance as Brian France coming up with a good idea. LOL
If you need any help writing that article, I’m here.

RJ
02/20/2009 01:22 PM
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Kurt seems to always miss the obvious, Jr had a clear view in front of him, so did Vickers when he took is own team mate along with JR, again Vickers was awarded his only win and no penalty for reckless driving. Lets look at Kyle at Richmond, when he took JR out, no the Waltrip mafia said it was just racing, when Kyle was trying like heck to punt Tony into the wall the night before, was that dirty racing, naw that was Kyle. This is what happens when the race turns into who can lay the best blocks, probably everyone that has raced restrictor races before in any number greater than 6 has made a boneheaded move “according the the great insightful arm chair racers, who have the power to delve into their psyche”! It was a stupid “but legal” move on Vickers part and JR trying to get back up into the groove he misjudged his position and Vickers went spinning out. If you watch any plate race you see this all the time, most time it just collects one or two sometime half the field. Unless Kurt put has a magic cap that allows him to see other people thoughts saying it was even close to on purpose is pure unsupported conjecture. It isn’t like JR when accross the track and hunted Vickers down, like Mikey did pushing Casey Mears down the track full throttle with the rear wheels of Mears car off the ground. Any of the top 20 drivers have done stuff that makes you wonder “what were they thinking”, Think back to Matt running into the stack of tires on the entrance to pit road and getting stuck. So you have all the armchair “greats” stating what should have been done after they have pondered on it for hours where drivers (JR included) have milli-seconds to react!! So for the Cali race I am picking all the great “arm-chair” racers to take it all!!!

Douglas
02/20/2009 01:36 PM
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Hey Ginger! Your “We know a good thing when we see it.”

Me thinks NOT if it is Jr. your seeing!

An overrated, a never has been, and a never will be!

He is proving his talents, or lack thereof, every weekend!

So much for dissing Theresa and going to Hendrick!

That boy can sure ruin a good thing!

Ever heard that one about being the “turd in the punch bowl”?

Jr.!

FS_Kurt
02/20/2009 01:50 PM
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RJ, regarding the Vickers 2006 incident, funny you should mention that, since just last week I mentioned that he had too much lead in his foot. I didn’t absolve him but nor did I say such errors are never to be expected. Judging from your comment, you seem to agree.

RJ
02/20/2009 02:10 PM
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Kurt, no when these guys are running 6” away from each other and a milli-sec to decide on a move that might mean a pass or a win or not so I put JR and Vickers in the same boat but in opposite roles depending on which race you pick. In the case of Kyle trying to jack Tony up the night before at the Nationwide race, that was dirty racing, not rubbing or trying to get someone loose but intentional trying to spin them out, Ron Hornaday is another that I have no respect for since he tends to jack the leader of the race up and spin them out on restarts, even though the rules state the leader of the race sets the pace for the restart. Clearly intentional is when Carl came up out of pit road to slam into Jr on the caution lap, I am sure you can pick any of the top drivers and find a repay where it was so obvious that there was no denying it was payback, in the case at Daytona with JR that was not the case, it was a racing deal nothing more nothing less.

midasmicah
02/20/2009 03:41 PM
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You are right about one thing. I have never seen Dale Jr. that defensive about an accident that was clearly his fault. Granted, restrictor plate racing breeds blocking and causes wrecks. But most drivers own up to their mistakes. Blocking is is one of those things that’s part of the landscape and most drivers have grudgingly accepted it. I think the two pit lane errors played a huge role in his state of mind. Pure frustration set in. Jr. has pretty much been given a free pass for awhile. I think that’s about over. One other thing. These late starting times only contribute to the whole mess. If they had that race start at 1:00 pm, we would have gotten the whole entire race in. I have tried to come into this season with a clean slate, but my patience is already being tried. I hope things improve and quickly because I have steadily lost interest in a sport that the powers that be have done everything they can to screw up. Start these races at a decent time and get rid of that rodent. First thing is let’s put all this business behind us and move on.

Devo
02/20/2009 04:30 PM
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Is it RJ or JR? I don’t know they both seem to have their craniums burried in their nether regions. Great commentary. You left out the time JR jacked up his teammate (Waltrip) on the straightaway at Charlotte because Waltrip had JR’s crew chief at the time and was making JR look like a fool. By the way, I don’t care too much for Kyle Bush, (I put him in the same category as someone like JR) but I don’t recall him wrecking Stewart on Saturday like a certain 7 time champ was known to do.

midasmicah
02/20/2009 11:02 PM
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I know it’s dangerous, but the incident involving Jr. at Daytona got me to thinking. For years Jr has, for better or for worse, worn the white hat. Tell me, did Dale Sr. ever where the white hat? Think about it. IF they had actually penalized Jr. it would have added some excitement to an otherwise boring race. It might actually light a spark under Jr’s rear end. God knows, he needs something to take his mind off the pressure of being Jr. nas$car seems to be afraid of it’s own past. When Dale S. died, so did nas$car’s soul. This kind of “bad press” could actually work in their favor. I know I“M rambling, but it’s a thought.

Mike
02/21/2009 07:08 PM
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I don’t have anything personal against Jr.

But personally I’ll be glad when he’s not racing anymore.

Doesn’t matter to me if he gets a championship or another free-pass from nascar. I’m just plain tired of the whole thing.

Move on. And please remove that awful green from my eyesight! LOL.

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