Normally, as we dive into all the hype that NASCAR inevitably creates heading into the Daytona 500, I really don’t get all that excited. ‘Cause let’s face it: the “Great American Race” means that I, once again, have a couple of “great” writing deadlines looming over me each week that I must deal with. And – as many of the editors of this site will attest to – about the only thing I like about deadlines is the “whooshing” sound they make as they fly by!
This year, though, is proving to be surprisingly different. No, I still think that “whooshing” sound is pretty cool – but after many of the practice sessions we’ve had thus far at Daytona, I find that I am a bit more excited about the race than usual.
The source of this excitement is simple: the “old guys!” Guys like Bill Elliott, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin… and yes, I will even throw Jeff Gordon in there. To a lesser extent there is Terry Labonte, Jeff Burton and maybe even Tony Stewart. Each of these drivers, in their own way, has me cautiously surfing a small swell of enthusiasm as we head into the first race of the new year.
After a top-five qualifying run on Sunday, Elliott and the Wood Brothers seem to be quite enthusiastic themselves about the 500. Now, while I have never been particularly fond of Elliott, this past champion, Most Popular Driver many times over and all-around good guy is arguably one of the best that has ever mashed the pedal to the floor in this sport. To see him at or near the top of the many practice sessions for Daytona has me a bit giddy with anticipation and hope. Who could argue that it would be really, really cool to see the No. 21 take the checkered flag next Sunday?
Or better yet, how about Martin winning the race with Elliott finishing second? I can see it now: Mark and Bill nose to nose, bumping and grinding (in an old school, gentlemanly way), coming out of turn 4 trading the lead as the rest of the field crashes behind them – with Mark winning in a photo finish!
Of course, if that were to actually happen, NASCAR probably would have thrown the yellow at the first sign of tire smoke from the pack behind them just at the time Bill’s nose was in front, relegating Mark – NASCAR’s version of the perennial bridesmaid – to yet another “first loser” paycheck. And if Mark comes so close only to fall short once more, he and the rest of the world would have to wonder… did Mark somehow “dis” ol’ Bill France Jr.? Did he leave it in his will that “Martin, under no circumstances, shall win at Daytona or a championship?”
Well, whatever happens, I don’t think I am the only one pulling for Mark this year. Even if you don’t like the guy, most true fans are eager to see him do very, very well. And if you aren’t… you’re just plain MEAN!
Then, there is Bobby Labonte. Most of the NASCAR world had good feelings and high hopes for Bobby when he teamed up with the Pettys to drive the famed No. 43 car a few years ago. As we all know, not much came about from all that; but still, it was nice to see him out on the track giving his best effort, even if the overall results were a bit disappointing.
But after Petty fell apart (merged) this year, Bobby is driving the No. 96 car for Hall of Fame Racing… or Yates (hard to keep all that BS straight). So far, he has posted some very fast times in the practice sessions for this year’s Daytona 500. Hopefully, this is a sign that Bobby and the team have hit upon something special and can be downright competitive – not only for the 500, but for the rest of the season as well. It’s hard to find a true racing fan that doesn’t like Bobby Labonte – and he’s long overdue to bounce back.
Another name I mentioned in the first group of drivers is Gordon. While he is not exactly what I would consider an “old guy” at 37, Gordon is an enigma all his own. Fans love to hate him… or they love to love him. Me, I have always been in the middle. I don’t hate the guy, and he is not my favorite walking the garage, either; but let’s face it, Dale Earnhardt Sr. respected the hell out of this kid as a racer. So, in my book, that makes him OK.
The thing about Jeff is recently, he simply hasn’t been the “Jeff Gordon” that we have come to love or hate! Not only is his teammate the one rewriting the history books, but Jeff himself hasn’t been winning! It is almost as if he’s been relegated to “also ran” status these last few years, and that is almost unimaginable.
Now, after some comments from Gordon and Rick Hendrick this week, there is talk – just talk, mind you – of a Gordon/Ray Evernham reunion. With Evernham now out of the owner’s business, who among race fans does not contemplate what could possibly happen should those two team up once more? I mean, truth be told, those were the golden years for Jeff when Ray was atop of the pit box! Why not go back to what worked in the past? Of course, the word from Hendrick, Gordon and Evernham is that no such move has been planned – but none of them has ruled it out yet, either. In my opinion, they’d be stupid not to do it. Who knows!? Jeff could start winning again, the rest of the universe could go back to loving or hating him again… and some sense of normality would once again come into our NASCAR lives.
Further back in the pack this week, you have Terry Labonte, Burton and Stewart.
Terry Labonte, for must of us old school fans, brings out memories of the Kellogg’s No. 5 and the infamous finish at Bristol in ’99 where Dale Sr. “rattled his cage” on the last lap for the win – relegating Terry to an eighth-place finish instead of a victory. Since his retirement, whenever I see Terry entered in a race, I wish him well and hope for the best. Even-keeled, ultra-focused guys like him are conspicuously absent in racing these days.
Burton, meanwhile, is unique in his own right this year. Why? Because he is driving the famed Caterpillar car! Who among you – well, the honest ones anyway – doesn’t still associate the black and yellow CAT car with the name “Burton?” Yeah, I know, we associate it with brother “Wahd” who has taken it to victory lane at the Daytona 500 before; but still, isn’t it nice to have another Burton back behind the wheel of it? It’s just going to take a bit of getting used to for it to be Jeff instead of Ward. The company couldn’t be coming on board at a better time, either; for as the last few years have shown, it is never wise to count Burton out in any race. You can even add Jeff to the list of people that it would be nice to see win a championship before his career is done.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Stewart. Tony is another one of those guys that I don’t consider “old,” but at 37, he has certainly paid his dues… and has a couple of championships to prove it.
Like Gordon, Tony is a man that has few race fans lingering in the middle: most seem to either like or hate him. As for me, sometimes I like him, sometimes I hate him – usually depending on his latest interview. But now that Stewart is an owner and a driver, it will be very interesting to see how he will fare. While part of me hopes Smoke does reasonably well in his new venture – and I certainly don’t deny his talent – part of me wonders (as I do with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus) how much of his past success has been the driver and how much of it has been the crew chief. Without Zippy on top of the box, one has to wonder just what the outcome may be for the No. 14 this year.
So, there you have it: plenty of “old guys” with plenty of reasons to make me watch this year. But despite my renewed, but limited, optimism for this year’s Daytona 500, unfortunately it may all be for nothing. NASCAR has been so screwed up by the sanctioning body itself these last few years that this year’s race may still be nothing more than a cluster fart of crashes. While lots of people are still railing about the CoT as the culprit, the biggest problem this year is simply the track itself; it hasn’t been repaved since 1978. And of course – no big surprise here – you can add Goodyear to the list as well.
So when you combine the CoT, a tire that lasts about 10 laps, and a track which was likely the inspiration for the seven-post shaker rig, there’s no telling who might win the 500. Here’s to hoping that the best racer actually wins this Sunday… but don’t hold your breath!
Stay off the wall (Lord knows they won’t at Daytona),