Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? NASCAR’s Super Bowl Busts & S&P, Take II

Did You Notice? That with the NFL’s Super Bowl now just one week before the 500, NASCAR’s own Super Bowl runs the risk of being left in the dust?

A conversation with a fellow media member a few weeks back produced this one. He pointed out that on Saturday, three major things are going to happen in NASCAR-land: Daytona 500 qualifying, Danica Patrick’s stock car debut in an ARCA race and the Cup cars hitting the track for the first time in the Bud Shootout. What a great day for the sport to build some momentum, huh?

Here’s the problem with it all: the following day America wakes up to an eight-hour Jersey Shore marathon. (And if that’s not enough, I guess the Super Bowl’s on Sunday, too.) Seriously, not even The Situation himself can get NASCAR in position to score on this one; like Snooki at a law school dance, they’ll be shoved to the corner in the face of a sport that’s a master of persuading the Court of Sports Popularity. When it comes to NASCAR vs. the NFL, it’s football that comes out on top every time – even a win by Danica combined with a side-by-side duel in the Shootout can’t stop it.

At the time, I didn’t fully get how bad it was going to be. But with Tuesday’s Media Day for the Super Bowl ready to take control of the news cycle for the rest of the week (even with NASCAR’s set for Thursday), now I completely understand. Who knew we’d get back to a day where what restaurant Drew Brees likes the best takes precedence over whether Roush Fenway Racing can win a second straight 500?

And what’s so frustrating is the sport desperately needs a week of buildup to help spread this Obama-esque message of “Change” in 2010. Yeah, the Media Tour was four solid days of pushing the fact that everything’s different in NASCAR-land, but how many fans were actually paying attention during that time? Daytona 500 week is when people really start to give the sport a serious look, but by the time the Super Bowl clears the news cycle we’ll already be on the Gatorade Duels this Thursday.

All of that puts even more pressure on this year’s Daytona 500 to be one of the best races in recent history, and for Danica to “magically” decide to run the Nationwide race the day before. As we saw with the rainout debacle of 2009, a season’s worth of momentum may depend on it.

Did You Notice? Winning the pole at Daytona isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Continuing the “help from other writers” theme, Jared Turner inspired me last night with his Bud Shootout column, so I decided to take a look at 500 Qualifying Day over the past decade. What I got was a similar list of 500 polesitters who saved the chill of winter for the nine months after the Great American Race:

Daytona 500 Polesitters: 2000-09
Year Driver Finish Points Finish Wins
2000 Dale Jarrett 1st 2nd 2
2001 Bill Elliott 5th 15th 1
2002 Jimmie Johnson 15th 5th 3
2003 Jeff Green 39th 34th 0
2004 Greg Biffle 12th 20th 1
2005 Dale Jarrett 15th 15th 1
2006 Jeff Burton 32nd 7th 1
2007 David Gilliland 8th 28th 0
2008 Jimmie Johnson 27th 1st 7
2009 Martin Truex Jr. 11th 23rd 0

As you can see, since 2001 winning the pole isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (unless your name is Jimmie Johnson). Why the discrepancy? It all boils down to the parity provided by plate racing. With restrictor plates on engines, it doesn’t really matter how fast you can go individually, because you’ll never be able to break away from the pack. While handling factors more into a race at Daytona compared to Talladega, you can still easily work your way up from 40th and be leading by, say, about the 50-mile mark.

That leaves a race that used to be about a showcase of speed more of a chess match, where it’s all about being at the right place at the right time. Luck is an important part of racing, don’t get me wrong; it helped Matt Kenseth steal this very same event one year ago. But you wonder if the Super Bowl devolving to little more than a local Craps game takes away from the magic of a 500 win.

Did You Notice? The one thing lost in the hoopla over switching from a wing to a spoiler is the whispers it won’t improve handling? While official testing won’t be ‘till the end of March, privately insiders have claimed the spoiler’s not as much of a drastic change as it appears.

That tells me more adjustments to the CoT are forthcoming, as fans will ultimately respond to better racing – not just appearances. Everyone insists the front end geometry needs to be redesigned, and don’t be surprised to see the splitter’s demise combined with new, custom front ends per manufacturer by the start of 2011 at the latest. Aesthetic fixes are nice to see – but it all won’t matter if the cars are still running around in circles single-file.

Did You Notice? The new trend for start-and-park Cup teams to make money? Instead of running one team and parking it, they’ll try and run two, claiming in a perfect world if both cars qualify one of them will be allowed to run the whole race.

Prism Motorsports and Tommy Baldwin Racing are two of the teams jumping on board this idea, with TRG Motorsports among those small-time teams not far behind.

In theory, the move makes sense. You’d think most car owners would want to run the distance, and in a world where multi-car teams rule, a second team can provide valuable information to help the primary car succeed over the course of the weekend. I’m just not sure I buy it. With only eight locked-in spots in the field of 43 – and all these teams likely to be qualifying on speed with both cars – what happens if the start-and-park team knocks out the primary car? Or, what happens if just the primary car makes it? Will the team still park with the excuse they needed the second car to make the field?

In the process, these extra entries, with no intention of competing, will strip starting spots from cars owned by the Wood Brothers and Braun Racing, who bring part-time teams to the track with the full intent of going all the way. So while I applaud these teams for getting creative to stay in the game, I still think bringing any car to the track with the intention of starting-and-parking hurts the sport in the long run.

And with Prism Motorsports… let’s just say its Nationwide equivalent, MSRP, has no problem parking two cars over the course of the weekend.

They now say one team’s going to run the distance? I’ll believe it when I see it, people.

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