To the Point: Jimmie Johnson put a week’s worth of controversy behind and led when it counted most—- the last 25 miles—- to take the checkered flag in the 48th Annual Daytona 500.
Who Should Have Won: Mark Martin. No, I’m not just saying Martin because I picked him over at SI.com. The 6 car was leading near Daytona’s three-quarter mark after a two-tire pit stop propelled him to the front, and appeared to be holding his own as the strongest Roush car. However, a problem getting gas into the 6 car on a late-race pit stop under yellow forced Mark from his spot near the front of the pack to the rear of the field"¦Martin never appeared in the Top 10 the rest of the day. But he should have.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Have we heard the last of Tony Stewart as an outspoken leader of the drivers after criticizing aggressive driving at Daytona, then getting penalized for it the following weekend?
Stewart presented himself as an interesting case in the 500. Looking like he had a car capable of contending for the win, the 20 car spent the early part of the race near the front of the pack until contact with Jeff Gordon coming off of Turn 2 sent both cars hard into the backstretch wall near the one-quarter mark. Stewart appeared to lose his cool after that and never recovered, intentionally bumping into Matt Kenseth on the backstretch near the race’s midway point and causing himself a penalty for rough driving. After the race, it was 2002 Tony in his TV interview, as Stewart claimed Kenseth got what was coming to him while not taking any blame for the incident involving Gordon. To me, Stewart is trying to assume a no-nonsense leadership role once played by men named Earnhardt and Wallace in the garage; the problem is, Earnhardt would NEVER get penalized for rough driving, and in the rare instances he did, would win the race to throw it back in NASCAR’s face. Stewart did neither, finishing 5th and coming off more like a disgruntled rebel than a no-nonsense leader in doing so. As a result, I don’t think he’s going to go to great lengths to be so outspoken on these issues anytime soon.
2) Will Jimmie Johnson’s win forever have an asterisk next to it at Daytona because of the violations found during qualifying?
There really shouldn’t be an asterisk on this one, but there might as well be, because questions about whether Sunday’s 48 car was legal will never go away no matter how thorough NASCAR’s inspection is. While it’s unlikely the team would try and cheat again with their crew chief sitting on the sidelines for what looks to be several races, there will likely be a fine and points deduction from the Daytona violations, and that’ll keep the team in the spotlight for the wrong reasons for weeks to come.
3) Did Casey Mears do wrong on the last lap by helping his friend over his fellow Dodge driver?
While much will be made of this issue in the coming week, I don’t think Mears following Johnson’s Chevrolet on the white flag lap was a problem. Newman wouldn’t have been able to pass the 48 anyways, and the 42 was definitely under pressure to lose more spots from Elliott Sadler, Stewart, and others behind him. Still, it’s hard not to think Johnson’s strong friendship with Mears away from the race track helped him get a little extra push when it came to crunch time. I mean, if it were your friend, would YOU let him hang out to dry?
4) Did we see a clean race on Sunday (by Daytona standards)?
For the most part, yes we did. There were a couple of minor hiccups when it came to wrecks, but no "Big One" ever occurred—- the closest the drivers came were when Kenseth was spun out by Stewart near the race’s midway point, but part luck, part expert driver maneuvering kept that problem to a one-car incident. There were a few 5-6 car wrecks on the day"¦but that’s no different from what happens at nearly every other race track.
5) Was the officiating Sunday fair and impartial?
To be honest, it didn’t seem like officiating was a problem Sunday. The aggressive driving penalties were warranted—- Tony Stewart clearly spun out Matt Kenseth, Kenseth clearly passed Stewart exiting pit road to try and give him a little "love tap," and Kyle Busch continued to lose control late in a plate race, bumping off pretty much everything in sight. The only controversy it seemed NASCAR had to deal with after the race was whether the winning car was legal.
Casey Mears – Not only was Mears partially responsible for helping his friend Jimmie Johnson snag his first Daytona 500 win, he was rewarded for his drafting help on the last lap with a second-place finish, the best of his four-year career in Nextel Cup.
Ryan Newman – Newman’s world resembled the twilight zone on Sunday. Not only was he up front consistently in a plate race, but his teammate Kurt Busch in the 2 car was actually his best friend in the draft all day instead of the worst enemy Rusty Wallace used to be. A 3rd-place finish was nearly a good as a win to them"¦that’s how bad Daytona has been to Newman and his team.
Clint Bowyer – While most of the other Nextel Cup rookies experienced the outside wall or getting hung out to dry, Bowyer quietly worked on making friends throughout the race that would help draft him to the front. Picking some right lines at the end allowed the young man to make headway, and Bowyer was able to come home with the car in one piece and a 6th-place finish, raising a few eyebrows as the highest finishing rookie.
Kirk Shelmerdine – A cinderella story the entire weekend, Shelmerdine followed up his surprising Daytona qualifying attempt with a miraculous run for his team in the race. Not only did the car finish on the lead lap, the 27 team finished in front of a number of cars on that lap at the finish, ending the day in 20th place after sticking around in the back most of the day. Not bad for a team that had yet to finish a Nextel Cup race with Shelmerdine behind the wheel the previous four years it had run.
Petty Enterprises – While the team itself had its best Speedweeks in a decade, there’s one thing they’re going to still need to work on getting rid of—- bad luck. Kyle Petty was involved in a wreck not of his making before the halfway point and finished 39th, while a solid run by Bobby Labonte was wiped out late when a car bounced into him on the backstretch after a wreck.
Carl Edwards – If Edwards doesn’t believe the term "sophomore slump," he might be doing some studying after Sunday to make sure he avoids it. An ill-handling car put Edwards in the back of the pack most of the day, and then he failed to slow down during a wreck on the backstretch and destroyed his car after plowing into Kyle Petty. Edwards finished 43rd"¦and that’s one day after destroying his Busch Series car in a wreck. Clearly, not a good start for him.
Jeff Gordon – As much of a pre-race favorite as you can have in this year’s wide open field, Gordon’s hope for back-to-back 500s took a major blow at the one-quarter mark after contact with Tony Stewart sent him into the Frontstretch wall. Gordon’s car then lost 3rd gear, but somehow the 24 team went to work on the car and got it back to where it could run solidly in the Top 10. That’s where Gordon sat"¦until Kurt Busch bounced off the wall socked the 24 car on the right-hand side. A disappointed Gordon had too much damage after that, and limped home 28th.
Matt Kenseth – Leading 28 of the first 100 laps, Kenseth appeared to be right up there with Mark Martin and Jamie McMurray as Roush cars capable of contending for the win. But apparently, Tony Stewart didn’t like the way Kenseth raced him early on in the event, and knocked his car into the 17 on the backstretch, spinning Kenseth out and putting him a lap down. An on-track confrontation between the two cars shortly after caused Kenseth to be black flagged again, go two laps down, and shut down any hope he had for the win. He eventually got those laps back, but finished a disappointing 15th.
"It’s going to take a little while (for the win) to sink in"¦Right now I just have so much pride in my race team, what we have accomplished today with the circumstances we’ve been through"¦We stepped up and got the job done today and I’m very proud of my guys." Jimmie Johnson
"I’d just like to say, this win is dedicated to all the 48 haters!" Jimmie Johnson
"You know, what a good day for us. I don’t even know what to say. This is my career best finish. Just couldn’t be happier with the way we started this year off." Casey Mears
"You know, it’s just disappointing. I mean, I think a lot of Jimmie Johnson and his talent and stuff, but I’m pretty sure at least three out of his last four, if not three out of his last three wins have had conflictions (sic) with the cars being illegal. You know, it’s not necessarily good for the sport." Ryan Newman
"Tony took me out intentionally. There’s no two ways about that. He was mad because earlier in the race when I passed him he got loose, which I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I thought I left him plenty of room"¦Tony went out and said all that stuff earlier in the week (about bumpdrafting). If he’s worried about people’s lives and everything, and then he’s going to wreck you on purpose at 190, I wasn’t too happy with that." Matt Kenseth
"It’s not how we wanted to start our season, but we’ll just have to work harder." Carl Edwards
The "regular" Nextel Cup season begins in earnest, as the drivers and teams head out west to the 2-mile race track in Fontana, California for the running of the Auto Club 500 next Sunday afternoon.
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