After ten long days, extensive preseason testing, and preparations for the Daytona 500 that began back before last season, Speedweeks is finally over. Like every year, pundits are rushing to draw conclusions after the big race. I think he was joking, but a FOX commentator went so far as to say Trevor Bayne is now the favorite to displace Jimmie Johnson as Cup champion this year. Highly unlikely. First Bayne has signed on to run for the Nationwide title this year, and even if he makes the switch points he earned at Daytona would not be awarded retroactively. Secondly, at Daytona with the new surface everyone was a “rookie” making their first start on the new surface. Now we move on to other tracks where the other drivers have run numerous events, some of which Bayne is going to need a GPS just to find.
So what did we learn at Daytona?
The answer is basically the same as it is every year, but perhaps even more so this year. We basically learned nothing. The Daytona 500 is a unique race, the sport’s biggest, most high profile event and the best paying race. Teams had prepared for months for Daytona. Now they have a week to get to Phoenix. The Daytona 500 is one of four plate races to be run this season. With the grippier surface the Daytona races might more closely parallel what to expect at Talladega, but minus the grip of brand new asphalt I doubt we’ll see the two by two tandem racing at Talladega. I doubt we’ll even see it again back at Daytona in July where a night race and hotter temperatures tend to make the track greasier.
The true start of the Cup season is this week at Phoenix, a much lower profile race, but one that ultimately pays the same points as the big show and the other 34 points races this year. The real proof of the pudding will be once the series reaches the 1.5-mile to two mile moderately banked cookie-cutter tracks where a majority of this season’s races will be contested. Daytona and Talladega are so unique that DEI, RCR and Andy Petree Racing used to have a separate research and development program just for those two tracks. And that program yielded them a lot of success.
This year’s Daytona 500 was a near comedy based on the law of unintended consequences. The new track surface led to speeds higher than expected and the two car drafts. That led to a nearly daily change of restrictor plate sizes and aerodynamic rules as well as novel new rule changes, like the rule mandating lower cooling system pressures. As with any surprise and not entirely positive experience, people find a need to draw some lesson from it. Like my granddaddy told me, if you throw rocks at a hornet’s nest you’re bound to get stung. Of course shortly before that lesson I’d thrown rocks at a hornet’s nest and gotten stung, a mistake I have not since repeated. One gets the feeling sometimes that Brian France spends his mornings gathering up rocks and afternoons out searching for new hornet’s nests to throw them at.
So what small lessons can we glean from Daytona? Well, everyone who watched Sunday now knows who Trevor Bayne is. Those who followed the extensive coverage of companion events in the week leading up to the big race already knew the then 20-year-old had a lot of talent. No less a driver than Jeff Gordon selected Bayne as his running mate on several occasions, thus conferring an official blessing from the “old guard” on the kid. Of course Gordon might have been recalling the 1993 Speedweeks when Dale Earnhardt saw something special in Gordon and took him under his wing. So Trevor Bayne is the next Jeff Gordon, right? Maybe. Or maybe he’s the next Jamie McMurray, another likable young man who won in only his second Cup start as well, driving for a team that was contending for an owner’s title. Success was not quick in coming, and half a decade later McMurray found himself struggling just to find a seat to stay in the big leagues, though he did indeed have a great season last year.
If fans and the media seem in general pleased that Bayne won the race I have yet to hear from anybody who isn’t simply delighted the Wood Brothers, the second oldest team in the sport, got back to victory lane at Daytona. Their return was made that much more poignant by the fact the No. 21 car bore familiar livery that nearly mirrored that of David Pearson’s 1976 Daytona winning car for the same team. That same car and Pearson would go on to win 10 of the 30 races they ran that season, dominating the superspeedways like nobody would again until Bill Elliott in 1985.
What we can certainly surmise after Daytona is NASCAR got an unexpected home run hit out of the park. While final ratings aren’t in yet as this is written, the overnight ratings look very positive especially when highlighted against the declining ratings of the last few years. An unpredictable race, a surprise winner, and the return of a legendary racing team to success were all feel good stories. Sunday night I saw Bayne’s victory as one of the lead stories on several non-racing media outfits that in general have ignored the sport for years. Come on, a 20-year-old kid who prayed with his team prior to the big race and couldn’t even find his way to victory lane after the race…well you need something to offset all the gloomy stories about the economy and unrest in the Middle East which is already threatening to propel gas prices back up to four bucks. (By July, my friends. You read it here first.) And of course for non-fans who really do live out the stereotype of watching for the wrecks, with sixteen caution flags they didn’t have to wait long for their fix of mayhem.
It’ll be interesting to see if the ratings spike is a blip on the screen or sustainable. Next week the series moves onto Phoenix and from there to Las Vegas, two tracks not known for scintillating action. Then the series takes a week off. That ought to be enough to kill the buzz and good vibrations left after Daytona. Certainly any newly minted fans added to the sport on Sunday are going to be watching Phoenix wondering why there aren’t two car tandems and why nobody seems to be passing. There were a Daytona 500 record number of passes for the lead Sunday. Bloody hell, of course their were, stupid! When’s the last time leaders not only allowed themselves to be passed, but actually radioed the guy behind them that they were going to slow down to make it easier out of concern for the following driver’s water temperature! For the record there were 67 passes for the lead at Talladega in 1978 in the era before plates and cooling restrictions, and Lennie Pond was the improbable winner that day.
One possible lesson we can take from Daytona involves the Fords and the new FR9 engine that debuted mid-season last year. Ford is said to have spent considerable development time on the new engine to ensure cooling system efficiency. As the weather gets hotter and the series returns to high speed moderately banked tracks where downforce is all important, the Ford teams ability to run more tape on the nose of the car could shift the balance of power. That would offer some solace to long suffering Ford fans who saw their favorite brand pretty much reduced to an asterisk much of last season….and to fans in general who don’t care who wins this year’s title as long as it’s not Jimmie Johnson again.
One troubling footnote impossible to overlook last week is the number of Nationwide and Truck Series vehicles racing sans any sort of sponsorship decals. Daytona pays well, but one has to wonder how long some of those teams can continue competing without financial backing and if we’re going to see short fields at some of the support races this season.
Almost as universal of fans’ praise for Bayne’s victory was how much they once again despised FOX’s gimmicky and pre-scripted coverage. While Hammond and DW (and that intensely annoying BBB call to the flag) continue to draw the majority of the ire, some new high tech toys the producers have to play with, like the thermal image camera, failed to impress as well. The amount of commercial breaks still makes it hard for fans to follow the flow of the race and, to add insult to injury when they come back from break, we’re still forced to watch the Little Digger graphics and a corporate logo superimposed over a still photo, not racing. The favoritism some members of the broadcast team show to some drivers, and the cameramen show to cars running logos of race advertisers is another source of contention. I mean damn, I think every FOX broadcast member short of the rental car wrangler felt it necessary to completely exonerate Michael Waltrip for once again wrecking a bunch of cars. FOX has been demanding a lot of changes from NASCAR after much hand-wringing over declining ratings. It’s time for somebody from FOX to figure out, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”
Yes, this season’s Cup appetizer offered up decidedly tastier fare than some years. But now it’s on to the meat and potatoes of the season.
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