Luck can be a fickle mistress, and at the premature end of the 51st running of the Great American Race, there were plenty of drivers – from the veterans to the rookies – who could attest all too easily to that particular sentiment.
Chief among those bemoaning their poor fortune was Elliott Sadler. The Emporia, Virginia native came into Speedweeks under something of a cloud, having invoked legal measures this winter to keep his seat in the No. 19 car. In this treacherous economic climate, it was tough to blame the amiable twelve-year veteran for pulling out all the stops to stay in his ride, but there was no doubt the pressure was on for him to perform from the get-go. On the one hand, a fifth place finish was just the points in the bank he needed; on the other hand, it was a Mark Martin-esque case of “so close, yet so far.” Sadler, who was fortunate to assume the lead after benefiting from a timely caution, paced the field for 24 laps while weather threatened to end the race at anytime. That gave him the confidence a win was possible… but just when he had it sitting in his grasp, Kenseth passed by to take the lead a whole one lap before the rains came for good.
As Sadler noted in his post-race press conference, “Yeah, if you’d have told me at the beginning of the day I would take a fifth place finish and lead some laps for the Daytona 500, I probably would have took it… But to be half a lap short from being the champion of the Daytona 500 is very emotional to me. Had a chance to win it. Just made one mistake off turn four.”
As Sadler kept talking, you can tell his past frustrations morphed into pessimism late in the day — even when he was sitting out in front. “It’s funny,” he said. “My crew chief told me for the last 45 minutes of the race that it’s raining on the radar. You know that this is his first race with me as crew chief. I said, Welcome to Sadler’s world. It’s probably raining all around the racetrack. When I need it, in the lap where I get passed, it starts raining in turn three. It’s the way it is. If I would have made a better and smarter move, I’d be in Victory Lane right now.”
Ultimately, though, the 160 Sprint Cup points helped Sadler in the right direction in 2009, which is more than can be said for the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano — who finished 26th, 41st, and 43rd respectively. For the newly minted JGR senior driver, Hamlin, it was a second straight tough luck Daytona 500. In 2008, he led 32 laps before a pit road miscue from Bobby Labonte damaged his FedEx Camry, after which the No. 11 faded from contention for good.
This go round, Hamlin ran up front all day long, pushing and prodding others to first place without ever leading a lap himself. The point was, though, that the Chesterfield, Virginia native was very much a factor and more than “in contention” for the Harley J. Earl Trophy. But the big wreck caused by the tangle between Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Brian Vickers ended his chances. And while I’m on that subject, how exactly is it that Jason Leffler gets held back for five laps in Saturday’s Nationwide race while Junior got away scot free with exactly the same crime the following day?
Kyle Busch was also caught up in that same wreck as Hamlin, and has even more cause to complain about it. The winner of 21 races in 2008 showed his 2009 intent early, leading 88 laps — 64 more than Sadler, who had the second highest total with 24 — and two more than his total in the 50th annual 500. Last year, Kyle’s bid for the win in that one was undone by some terrific teamwork from his brother Kurt and race winner Ryan Newman — but at least he had his chance. On Sunday, Busch didn’t even get that, as his day ended in a tangle of twisted sheet metal, an unwitting participant in the aforementioned Junior-Vickers collision. In interviews post-race, Busch was relatively sanguine, all things considered, noting: “It’s just a shame that the M&M’s Toyota was so, so strong today and led all those laps and was running up front. I was just playing with my teammate up there and having a great time. It was just unfortunate that two guys got together that were a lap down and were fighting over nothing.”
Something tells me, though, that sooner or later Kyle’s gonna win the 500.
For the third driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, rookie Logano, the exit signs from Daytona International Speedway would have been a ridiculously welcome sight. After looking like a newborn foal running with the big horses in early practice sessions, the kid restored some credibility with a solid fourth place run in the Gatorade Duels. But in keeping with a downward trend and a tough couple of weeks, Logano was caught up in a 79th lap wreck that saw him pound the inside wall with some ferocity. As a result, the 18-year-old — the youngest ever driver to start NASCAR’s biggest race — finished dead last. In his four Sprint Cup races to date, Logano has now finished 32nd, 39th, 40th, and now 43rd. Welcome to the big time, kiddo; but look on the bright side! The only way for you is up.
As I say, luck is a fickle mistress; and to some extent, that’s just the way it is on restrictor plate tracks, where the ethereal element of fortune is more prevalent than anywhere else on the Sprint Cup circuit. But it wasn’t just the drivers I’ve mentioned (and a few I didn’t) that suffered. How about the 160,000 fans who paid their hard-earned money to pack the stands? OK, rain is rain, and ultimately something that can’t be controlled; but I have to figure a large proportion of fans at the track on Sunday left feeling a little cheated. Yes, three quarters of the race was in the books, more than the last rainout in 2003 when only 106 laps were completed — but how exciting would that last 50 have been? With all the drivers taken out by the various wrecks, it was anyone’s race to win. Unfortunately, the sad truth is we’ll never know who it could have been.
Still, it’s hard to be too critical of the NASCAR officials who were left with a horrible choice between two essentially unpalatable alternatives. With my rational and sensible journalist hat on, I’ll say the powers that be made the right decision. But it doesn’t augur well to be headed to the dullest circuit on the track after such a false start to a season where NASCAR really needs everything to go just right. Let’s hope it’s a blip and not a sign of what’s to come.
P.S. — Two final thoughts on contractual obligations before I go: are the FOX announcers contractually obliged to chuckle like buffoons every time Digger appears? And is Jimmie Johnson’s new facial scruff grown to a specific agreed length? It looks too neat to be anything but.