NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Wallace, Vickers & Andretti are the Best Story of Speedweeks So Far

It’s easy to get blinded by the big picture. Especially when the big picture points out what is wrong with NASCAR today–the Top 35 rule, the Chase, and all the other contrived little gimmicks. There’s just so much that is so easily fixable.

Some days it’s hard to see what’s right.

What’s right is Kenny Wallace racing on heart and a Hendrick engine to make the Daytona 500. Last week, I talked with Kenny on the phone and he said this: “Our backs are against wall, but I am prepared to make it – I will make the Daytona 500. It’s time for the underdog. The underdog won the Super Bowl and it’s time for the underdog to make it in the Daytona 500 and that’s me! I’ve been inspired by the New York Giants!”

Mind you, I was hardly inspired by the New York Giants (Patriots fan here, and Kenny knows it, too) – but what he said was true. These days, everybody loves an underdog, and Wallace, running on what is for the moment a one-race ride, is a favorite. He’s personable and outgoing, with a laugh so infectious you can’t help but laugh along with him. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know Kenny over the years and he and his family have been kinder to me than I can say. I can’t imagine meeting him and not liking him – he’s just one of those people. And that laugh cracks me up every time.

Kenny is the youngest of three brothers, and all three have forged successful racing careers. This year, Kenny is the lone family representative to grace the Daytona 500 field. He was the top finisher of the go-or-go-home contingent in his qualifier today, running a one-shot deal for a small, underfunded team that let him go for a time last year, only to discover that it had never been the driver in the first place. So they gave him this race (maybe others if they find sponsorship, but for now, this race) and Wallace showed everybody watching what he could do when the car was right. I wanted to shout with glee when he made the field (I thought better of it, though, since I was at school at the time) because well, I understand the journey to here.

Kenny Wallace wasn’t the only underdog to make the Daytona 500, though. Brian Vickers and John Andretti both overcame the overwhelming odds imposed by NASCAR’s qualifying. Both are also good choices for the underdog spot, while Dale Jarrett‘s transfer, though less of a surprise, gave his fans one more time to cheer for “DJ.” Vickers is one of the few remaining North Carolinians on the circuit, and what racing has given to him, it surely has taken away as well. Vickers lost a close childhood friend when Adam Petty was killed in a practice crash in 2000, and raced through his grief. Then in 2004, on his 21st birthday, Vickers lost his best friend Ricky Hendrick along with nine others in a plane crash on the way to Martinsville Speedway. Vickers and Hendrick had planned to celebrate Vickers’s birthday that night. Instead, Vickers’s birthday will always be the day he lost his best friend.

If that isn’t enough for you, this is the same young driver who jumped out of an airplane and about lost – well, let’s just leave it at something very personal – on a wild kite-tubing escapade with Casey Mears a couple years back. That one ended up with Vickers on Mears’s sofa with a frozen dinner, well, you can imagine,

Andretti isn’t a bad choice for underdog, either. Here’s a guy who has a heck of a name to live up to, but it’s somehow fitting that Andretti made this race, because with the 50th anniversary festivities comes a lineup of several past Daytona 500 winners. One of those is synonymous with speed itself, John Andretti’s Uncle Mario. Both Andrettis have won at Daytona before, but just making this race with a small, underfunded team in a day and age where small, underfunded teams don’t always get a slice of the pie was a victory for John.

Andretti is a quiet person with a winning smile and a humble attitude, despite having arguably the biggest name in American auto racing. He’s soft spoken and unassuming, personality-wise the polar opposite of Kenny Wallace, but somehow they both fit in just fine.

With today’s qualifying rules, not many underdogs get a shot at the big race anymore. This year, we got three gems to pull for on Sunday in Wallace, Vickers and Andretti. Rooting for the guy with odds stacked against him has long been a part of racing. And NASCAR hasn’t quite managed to take it away. It’s a small picture in the giant spectacle that is the Daytona 500 – but from where I sit it’s the brightest spot by far.

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