The 49th Running of the Great American Race is all the buzz around the water coolers this week, as the finish was one of the closest in the history of the event. As most everyone knows at this point, Kevin Harvick prevailed over Mark Martin by .002 seconds, taking the checkered flag under controversy as the caution flag failed to wave for a wreck enveloping half the field behind them. As a result, Martin missed out on his chance to win the big race that has always eluded him, while Harvick cashed in on his first 500 win exactly six years after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., the man he replaced. Earnhardt’s curse may now have fallen to Tony Stewart, who missed out again on the 500 trophy, involving himself in an accident with Kurt Busch while leading to take himself out of contention. However, all of that took place in the last 50 laps; prior to that, the race was busy focusing on just one concept… putting its audience to sleep.
Now, restrictor-plate racing is a huge fan favorite; it has always been known for tight packs and lots of lead changes. Unfortunately, that’s faded away at Daytona the last few years, with older pavement turning the speedway into more of a handling-sensitive racetrack. The cars have become tougher and tougher to control, especially through turns 2 and 4, causing the single-file racing for hours on end. That puts the Super Bowl of NASCAR in a tough position, reducing it to a long parade punctuated with a few minutes of frenetic activity.
The Busch Series, on the other hand, offers quite a bit more action during their race at Daytona. With a different handling package on their cars, the drivers can still suck up and actually pass each other with impressive frequency no matter how much the Daytona pavement has worn down. A wicker bill across the top of the spoiler and a blade across the top of the car result in a bigger hole in the air, giving greater potential for cars to move up rapidly and maintain their momentum when passing a car.
This package was originally in place at the Cup level, but was removed after the death of Earnhardt due to safety concerns. Well, that tragedy had nothing to do with the aero package, and everything to do with substandard safety equipment has since been upgraded substantially. If they run it in the Busch Series, how in the world could NASCAR think this same aerodynamic setup is unsafe for Nextel Cup? Putting the package back in at the Cup level would bring excitement back to the entire race instead of just the final few laps.
NASCAR should be very concerned about the fact that their crown jewel race has become a snoozefest for 80% of the event. The fans will still be talking about the finish this year, but the race itself was terrible for the vast majority of the time. The sanctioning body needs to focus long and hard at the fact that cars cannot pass by themselves; the art of the slingshot pass is gone, replaced by the bumpdraft pass in which every touch threatens disaster. With the Busch package, the Cup cars could close on their own and make passes without having to have someone else physically pushing them past the leading car; there’s so much freedom of movement, it’s like they’re not even running restrictor plates.
Fans don’t make the annual pilgrimage to Daytona to see six or eight cars lead the race; they want to see 40 or 50 lead changes among 25 different drivers. If NASCAR would put the Busch aero package in place for both Cup races at Daytona, they would see that. It truly is a shame that the sport’s signature event has to rely on histrionics in the final laps to make everyone forget about what was generally a very boring event.
Listen up NASCAR; had it not been for the green/white/checkered finish, this year’s Daytona 500 would have been one of the most boring races in the history of the sport. You need to step up and realize that the package that you are running in the Busch Series would give the fans their money’s worth. Of course, with the Car of Tomorrow on the horizon, changing the construction of a Cup car to produce better racing may soon be a moot point. For the sake of the fans… let’s hope so.