ONE: Jamie McMurray’s emotional display surprising… and refreshing
Understandably, Jamie McMurray was thrilled after scoring the biggest win of his career. But in his post-race press conference, the usually calm and composed McMurray literally broke down into tears when speaking to the media, commenting on how his father was his best friend and the man he grew up racing with. For at least a minute, McMurray sat with his face in his hands, only able to mutter to the writers before him, “You can see how I feel.”
Everyone in the media center was hushed, as we were struggling just as Jamie was to let the incredible race we had just witnessed sink in. And after having a night and the 12-hour drive home to reflect on it, McMurray’s emotional reaction was absolutely appropriate. Coming into Speedweeks, NASCAR made a point that by making the restrictor plates bigger, by taking the leash off the drivers, by allowing bump-drafting again, that they were trying to get away from the over-policed racing of the last few seasons in favor of a no-holds barred show for the fans to enjoy.
Where does McMurray fit in? With McMurray, you have perhaps the textbook example of a modern-era driver; good looking, well spoken, cool and polished. In his case, so much so that sponsor BASS Pro Shops was hesitant to sign with him beyond one year (and still seems to be, given that they’ve now started associate sponsorships with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman). The tension as to whether or not McMurray would be behind the wheel of the No. 1 BASS ride was so much that Lee Spencer went as far to write a sales pitch posing as an article that EGR and BASS had no choice but to sign McMurray.
On Sunday night, all of that went out the window. McMurray was beside himself, in tears and even embracing the Harley J. Earl trophy. And in that moment, one of NASCAR’s most clean-cut, modern drivers was side-by-side with Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and other racers that were at a loss after winning the 500, consumed completely by the sport’s biggest stage. He had just won the most prestigious stock car race in the world, and knew better than anyone how huge an accomplishment that was.
I’m not ready to write off what has been a career of underachievement, or to say that the No. 1 team is primed for a Chase run. But seeing McMurray’s genuine appreciation for accomplishing what every racer to take the wheel of stock car dreams of earned him at least one new fan this Sunday night.
TWO: Scott Speed is wise beyond his years in NASCAR
For a while late in the running Sunday, Scott Speed led the Great American Race despite being on old tires and running out front simply thanks to pit strategy. He sure didn’t look that way at the head of the field. Able to hold the yellow line and continually position himself for timely drafting help, Speed managed to lead 12 laps and to run up front with top-five finishers, including Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle, before ultimately getting shuffled out of the lead pack. Speed finished a solid 19th.
Speaking to him after the race though, perhaps the most eccentric driver in the Sprint Cup garage was remarkably subdued. When asked how he felt about a solid upset bid, he shrugged it off, saying he had only been hanging on with an OK car and that they were lucky for late cautions that allowed them to take fuel to finish. When questioned on his ability to hang around and draft with the leaders after a 2009 campaign that saw him often mired in traffic with backmarkers, Speed shrugged it off, noting that more than anything he was simply happy not to be in a points hole to start the season (he started 2009 in the Top 35 only to fall out, missing several races).
Frankly, those were answers I was not expecting to hear from a driver that made ARCA and Truck racing look easy… and had an attitude that seemed to say the same thing. But if his Daytona post-race comments are any indication, for all the quirks and humor on Twitter, Speed was humbled and educated a lot last year, and seems ready to tackle 2010 as a driver as well as a Red Bull icon. That’s good news for Speed, his teammate Brian Vickers, and everyone with the Red Bull Racing Team.
THREE: Setting the field by qualifying draw can NOT happen again
56 cars showed up in the Nationwide Series garage for the season-opening race. And 13 of them were sent home, not because of being too slow on the track, but because of a pill draw conducted by NASCAR before they even showed up.
I was able to actually read a copy of the Nationwide Series rulebook (it does exist), and it states that the field, progressing through various clauses, is set by owner points based on the “current calendar year.” Since no team has raced in 2010, NASCAR moved down the rules page to qualifying draw, which is in the rulebook. However, what that fails to take into account is that NASCAR set the qualifying order with the top-30 teams from 2009 locked into the top-30 spots in the qualifying order; in short, points from the 2009 calendar year were enough to lock teams 1-30 into the field, while that wasn’t good enough for teams ranked 31-43.
Furthermore, it reveals a bigger issue brought up by Brian Keselowski, who had two cars sent home as a result of NASCAR’s lotto to make the field. It really isn’t fair at all to have go-or-go-home teams show up for a race and never be given a chance to, well, go or go home. The 13 teams that got sent home all spent money to get to Daytona and all spent money to practice. That money’s gone, and they never even got a chance to compete even amongst themselves for a spot in the most prestigious race on the Nationwide Series circuit.
Because of the pill draw, Jeff Fuller and his team with no race attempts were given a starting position to sell off to Paul Menard, while Jeremy Clements, Donnie Neuenberger, their respective teams and others were all told to pack up and leave despite having fully-sponsored racecars.
There were hours of free time on the racetrack between qualifying being rained out and the scheduled race start time for NASCAR to put the cars on the track and qualify them. They should have, and as long as there are teams paying to enter races they’re being forced to qualify for, they damned well ought to get a shot at doing so.
FOUR: Do… NOT… repave… Daytona
Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hates the asphalt, and has hated it for years. Yes, having a chunk of the track become dislodged and three hours of delays during the Great American Race was an absolute disaster for NASCAR and the hundreds of thousands of fans in the grandstands. Yes, the track is gritty and very bumpy.
But that’s what gives Daytona character that Talladega has lost much of. That Charlotte has lost much of since its disastrous “levigation.” The bumps, the grittiness that eats up tires-those traits are what make Daytona such a handling track, what make the field of drafting cars bounce left and right and make the racing far more than the horsepower contest that is Talladega. The old asphalt gives Daytona its character, and absolutely should not be tampered with.
Daytona’s president made clear he was opposed to a full repave if investigation into the track revealed a patch job was all that was needed. He’s right. There is no reason to destroy a fantastic racing surface because of an unfortunate incident… no matter what race it happens in. The Daytona 500 produced an awesome show, and the aged asphalt was a large part of the reason why. Dale Jr. being the exception, the racing surface is largely popular among drivers.
Daytona, listen to them. Unless it can be proven that age was the sole cause of Sunday’s pothole and that age will soon cause more, leave the track alone.
FIVE: 2010 started on the right foot
Two photo finishes in the Gatorade Duel. A thrilling Saturday doubleheader. And one of the most anticipated Daytona 500s in recent memory delivered a thrilling race. Minus the pothole, Speedweeks was a fantastic kickoff to a season that NASCAR needs to go well.
And they deserve credit where its due. The bigger plate, bump-drafting approved again, and the drivers being able to race without Big Brother Brian and his cronies looking over their shoulders produced better racing. It’s indisputable: The Daytona 500 was excellent stock car competition.
NASCAR needs this season to go well, but the fans obviously want it to go well. It’s too early to pop champagne and celebrate, but the fans’ voices are starting to get to NASCAR, and the racing product looks to be improving as a result.
Fans, keep speaking up, because it is working. And if the racing keeps getting better, keep showing up. Because after Speedweeks, I feel I can speak for just about everyone at Frontstretch that we’re anxious to keep writing… because the sport might be on track to rebounding, just like we all need it to.