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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: What’s Left To Be Said About The Daytona 380

As is all in a week’s work for the Official Columnist of NASCAR, I watched, I listened, and I read what people had to say about the Daytona 380. Here, then, is what is left and needs to be said… or probably more correctly, what was said that needs to be repeated. There’s a lot here, gang, but please bear with me… I think it’s all worthwhile. Get yourself some coffee, print this and take it to the can while the boss isn’t watching… it’s Friday.

Congratulations To The Killer Bees

Is it not fitting that a driver that is considered one of the more vanilla and less glamorous stars of the sport won the Daytona 500 in the least dramatic fashion?

It’s only right that Matt Kenseth’s win be acknowledged first here. One of the ongoing injustices of the motorsports world is the attention and coverage Kenseth receives compared to that of his 2000 rookie rival, especially since he prevailed in the Rookie of the Year battle, and has won a Winston Cup as well as having an equal amount of Daytona 500 wins now.

There was discussion in Mirror Driving this week about whether Kenseth is a Hall of Famer. While the general consensus was that he needs more wins, Kenseth has my vote, Daytona 500 win or not. He may have 25-30 wins by the time he retires, he’s a champion, and he’s finished in the top 10 in all but three of his nine seasons in Cup. Most of all, Kenseth was the inspiration for a ludicrous playoff. That alone makes him worthy of induction.

And not a bad debut for new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. But with a name like Blickensderfer (German for “guy who guides long suffering warrior to epic rain-shortened triumph”), you know he’s a good crew chief. Blix already has more wins than Chip Bolin, and a current winning percentage of infinity. You literally can’t beat that.

The Hole In Our Sunday Afternoons

NASCAR currently runs five races per year in the Pacific time zone, two in the Mountain and six in the Central. The remaining 23 races are in the Eastern time zone. So 29 races – four-fifths of the schedule – are held in the Eastern or Central zones. Presumably, that would suggest that the percentage of NASCAR fans residing in Eastern and Central zones would be at least somewhere in the arena of 80%, or 60 million fans, if you believe the questionable claim of 75 million that NASCAR routinely bandies about. Call me practical, but 60 million fans seems justification for making the east coast the priority.

A 3:40 green-flag drop is about the worst start time possible. Late on a Sunday afternoon, most people’s moods are deflating as they anticipate the start of another workweek. It’s a drag having to get ready for bed shortly after watching a race’s conclusion – although NASCAR helped us out with that last Sunday by removing any possibility of adrenaline.

Does NASCAR want the Daytona 500 to be a day or night race? Right now, it is neither. If the desire is for the race to end at night, then hold the race on Saturday night, for Pete’s sake.

That is three paragraphs on start times without a single mention of the reduced chances of working in a full event during foul weather when starting at 3:40 p.m. It’s not that that would have happened at Daytona, from what people tell me it might still have been called. But they certainly could have improved the likelihood of an actual finish. Most fans like Kenseth, but they would also prefer to see a 500 winner earn it by outdueling another hungry driver, or two, or five. Several drivers, who had the juice to make this a classic battle for the ages, had their metaphorical legs cut off. Mark Martin was denied. Jeff Gordon was denied. Dale Earnhardt Jr., deservedly or not, was denied.

This was a terrible time for NASCAR’s biggest race to lack a payoff, and most of the blame can be placed on the start time. That’s hindsight of course, but now NASCAR has no excuse. The Great American Rainout of 2009 is as good as any reason to learn for 2010 and start the race at 1:00 or 1:30 as it should. God willing, I’ll be here to remind them.

Restrictor Plates 10, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 1

When an accident happens on the highway or on the street, the driver behind usually is blamed, partly because they control how far behind they are, but also because they have a better view of everything. It’s no different in a race. Brian Vickers blocking Earnhardt was a reaction to what he saw in his mirror; he had only a spotter to alert him where Junior was and a split second to throw a block. Little E, on the other hand, could see everything in front of him. What Junior did could have been more easily prevented. As Kyle Busch pointed out, Junior could have lifted just a hair and got back on the track.

STAFF SIDE-BY-SIDE: WAS EARNHARDT JR. OR VICKERS AT FAULT?

However, I say respectfully to anyone trashing Earnhardt this week: yes, he got back on the track recklessly; yes, he triggered a Big One with a split second of poor judgment; and yes, he could have been more standup about taking responsibility. While I’m at it, he should have taken the number 28 like I suggested. But he does not deserve to be held responsible for an 11-car wreck any more than Carl Edwards did at Talladega.

At best, Junior was responsible for one car’s skid. Mandated horsepower-sapping put a careening No. 83 car into the path of nearly an entire field of racecars. It isn’t any one driver’s fault that we run four completely insane so-called races a year where each car runs at the same maximum possible speed. What is amazing is that there aren’t more big wrecks.

Remarkably, no driver that was interviewed during the race, to my knowledge, pointed out that such is life in the restrictor plate jungle.

A plate race is only as good as its most error-prone driver that day – at Daytona it happened to be Earnhardt. After Talladega it will be someone else, and that driver will have vicious abuse heaped on him for at least a week for not racing 500 miles without a single trifling miscue. Don’t take it out on Junior or Edwards, people.

Saturday: “You in The 38, You Sit for Five Laps.”
Sunday: “Hey Junior? Uh, Nothing.”

It’s not easy to make split-second judgment calls in the moment on gray area aggressive-driving penalties. We get that. But when a relative nobody gets penalized five laps and the sport’s biggest star gets penalized nothing for moves that were virtually identical, and these two incidents take place just 24 hours apart – well, let’s say at the very least it smells just a little bit, like low-magnitude flatulence after a bowl of peanuts. I am not accusing NASCAR of favoritism but I will say this: if NASCAR officials pondered Junior Nation’s reaction to an aggressive-driving penalty for longer than it takes to say “WWE” they need reprogramming.

This is, of course, nowhere near the first time that NASCAR has been accused of leniency towards a popular driver, or even an unpopular one, but this incident will probably linger for a while in the minds of fans, like the aforementioned peanuts. It’s hard to think of other examples of selective rule enforcement that were almost obvious as this one was. Getting away with passing the pace car in Michigan wasn’t this bad.

The operative word in the Jason Leffler-Earnhardt Controversy is “aggressive.” Aggressive does not mean intentional. Without getting into a driver’s head you can’t know for certain what’s intended, so that isn’t for NASCAR to decide. One could make the case that neither Leffler nor Earnhardt intended to wreck the driver that they clipped at Daytona this past week.

There has to be some officiating in NASCAR events… they can’t just let guys wreck other guys for the entertainment value of seeing steam come out of their ears or to sell a sponsor’s auto parts… but sometimes, as in both of these cases, perhaps NASCAR should just let the drivers police themselves. Or find an alternative to the plate…see above.

Junior’s Loss of Grace – and Subsequent Loss of Support in the Press

One thing emerging in the fallout from Daytona is this: rarely have so many legitimate NASCAR pundits (for whatever that is worth – trust me, this job isn’t very difficult) been asserting that Junior’s achievements on the track are far eclipsed by his popularity, especially in recent campaigns. For years Junior has gotten a bit of a pass on this because he truly has been a great ambassador for the sport and because he handled a sudden and glaring spotlight as well as it could have been handled.

So such inflamed pontification had been mostly relegated to website comment sections in the past, but now it has infiltrated the works of media members themselves. Headlines like “Another Race, Another Excuse For Junior,” “For Dale Earnhardt Jr., Results Fall Farther Behind Reputation” and “Spoiled Brat Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ruins A Great Race” all appeared Monday on websites nearly as prestigious as Frontstretch.

It’s doubtful many of the No. 88 critics out there could do a better job in a racecar. All drivers make mistakes on the track. The Big One has been triggered by the very best in this sport. But Junior’s interview afterward was mind-boggling… and, I might add, very out of character for him. It’s as if he’s had racer’s assertiveness training. He has rarely sounded more defensive and contemptuous of another driver before, and judging from comments in racing articles this week, it’s cost him supporters.

Junior has a tough road ahead. Another incident like this and the sentiment may grow to a point where he becomes branded as a phony or golden boy or worse. He’s already racing for a team whose drivers are unfairly labeled as such. And NASCAR certainly doesn’t need that. It’s been hard enough on the ratings that he hasn’t been contending for titles, in spite of NASCAR’s efforts to make that happen with an expanded Chase.

Of course, this is all just my opinion. As we all know, everybody’s got one.

And that’s all for Daytona. For better or worse, it is history now.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Lots of people have nothing nice to say about Auto Club Speedway, but I don’t really have a problem with the racing there, just how it landed the Labor Day race which it no longer has now anyway. Someday I’ll touch on all that in a column. At least they take off the plates.
  • “Sliced Bread” Joey Logano is going to have to improve his finishes, but fortunately he set the bar pretty low for himself with a 43rd at Daytona. But I am still firmly in the camp that says he’s going to be fine. Martin is as astute a judge of talent as anyone.
  • People are giving Jimmie Johnson more ink (or disk space these days) about his semi-beard than they did about his three titles. OK, I’m exaggerating a little. I don’t think he should keep the facial growth unless he’s willing to grow it to ZZ Top proportions. Then he could call Chad Knaus his Manic Mechanic. In fact, that should be Chad’s nickname anyway. That’s right!