NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Holy Chasms, Batman! How Will the 2010 Daytona 500 Be Remembered?

It made for some good jokes passed around on Twitter, while giving a couple of drivers the chance at a needed pit stop (and not for the car). But really, the hole that appeared in turn 2 at Daytona was symbolic of so much more: the gulf NASCAR has dug itself into over the past several years.

It’s really too bad, despite the efforts the sanctioning body has made to improve the racing – bigger restrictor plates, no-holds-barred bump-drafting, etc. – that the 2010 Daytona 500 will be largely remembered for the track breaking up. The fact the race had a record number of different leaders (21), and that it showed everything still right about NASCAR, will, in the end, become secondary to something beyond anyone’s control.

But that’s exactly what will happen. Hundreds of fans who bought tickets to the race left during the first red flag, more during the second. Television ratings won’t reflect how many fans turned off their TVs at dinnertime or switched over to the Olympics. Viewership has fallen for NASCAR over the past few seasons. Fans turning away mid-race – especially following what was, for many, the first offseason in recent memory with real optimism for the new year – does nothing to restore the sport’s image to those who were struggling to care.

Turning fans off before next week’s race at Fontana, which is traditionally one of the least exciting races of the 36-race season, is NASCAR’s worst nightmare. This year more than any other, they needed people to be so excited about the Great American Race, they could endure the marathon parade that is the norm at Auto Club Speedway. And early on Sunday – in fact, all weekend long – it looked like mission accomplished.

The weekend started off with a Nationwide Series race that was exciting enough, though predictable. Once a mid-race crash ended Danica Patrick’s day and the broadcast refocused on the other drivers in the event, it became a decent race decided by lots of bumper shuffling on the final lap. The Truck Series race that night was a bit dicier, though. Bump-drafting caused several multi-truck crashes, resulting in a largely reduced field for a wild finish that ended the night. However, both races gave fans something to cheer about. Surely, the Cup cars would produce a great show!

And they did.

Before the second red flag to fix the track, there were 44 lead changes among a record 19 drivers. We had a few small spins early, but no Big One to ruin a large number of teams’ days before the race really even got good. Cars could pass. AJ Allmendinger was bad fast, driving to the front early. Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked like the Junior of old, mixing it up and having fun doing it. There were several storylines – underdogs with great cars, battling with veterans trying to regain past glory. No one driver dominated, and several had a real shot to get to victory lane. In the end, we even were treated to three (two, if you want to be technical) attempts at a green-white-checkered – with each of them meeting the expectations of “wreckers or checkers” clearly on the minds of many drivers and fans. It was, in short, everything NASCAR and the fans could have hoped for in a race.

But what ended up happening on NASCAR’s greatest stage, even amid a dramatic performance, was a comedy of errors amidst a two-hour, 25-minute total delay that should never have happened.

In order to fix “the hole,” track workers tried Plan A, a cold-mixed filler. That didn’t work, so they went to Plan B, and when that didn’t work, Plan C. While the world watched, drivers were told it would be a short break and to stay in their cars. But reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson didn’t enjoy that, or the vague timeframe from NASCAR. When asked if he wanted something to eat when crews were allowed to work on the cars, Johnson replied, “I’d prefer something solid and not liquid. I’d love to get out and use the bathroom….”

Watching the continued efforts, it certainly appeared that it was going to be more than a few minutes to fix the hole. But until the moment NASCAR finally allowed drivers to get out of their cars, they continued to tell teams it would just be a few minutes. Really? Why not just come out and say, “This is going to take awhile?”

Anyone would respect that.

Instead, NASCAR tried fix after fix. The jokes flew. Pictures of giant craters abounded on the ‘Net. Several people wondered if they had found Jimmy Hoffa under the track. Snubbed by the broadcast for most of the race, Digger got his revenge. Hey, did they see Atlantis down there? One spotter watched the many unsuccessful attempts to fix it and quipped, “No wonder it’s taking so long to get I-485 (a section of highway in Charlotte that has been unfinished for years) done!”

The jokes were funny at the time, and were clearly attempts to make the best of a bad situation. But they also served as the exclamation point on what many will perceive, first and foremost, about this race – that it was nothing but a series of jokes.

Then, when the hole made its second appearance, things went from lighthearted to hilarious.

During the second red flag, Earl Barban, spotter for the No. 48, relayed to his team that NASCAR officials were asking a representative from each car to go to their team hauler to speak with a NASCAR representative. The crewman wondered aloud what the sanctioning body wanted. Were they planning to call the race?

“No,” said Barban. “Word up here is, they’re looking for Bondo.”

NASCAR, desperate for a way to fix the problem, was asking teams for extra epoxy, when the track apparently didn’t have enough. At first glance, that was pretty funny. And at the same time, it was a little sad. NASCAR had to borrow epoxy from the race teams to fix the track they raced on. The greatest track of them all was crumbling before our eyes.

Not to mention it was a sticky situation, filled with risk for all involved. A hole in the racetrack is dangerous, and a hole that is not fixed safely is just as bad. As much as everybody, from drivers, to media, to fans wanted to see the race finished, there were seeds of doubt. Mark Martin said after the race that competing with the hole or the subsequent patches was a gamble.

“I don’t think any of us ran much over it. All the stuff was out of it again. There was just a deep hole; everybody made sure they didn’t run over it,” he said. “It was a pretty risky move to race with that pothole out there, but the fans got their money’s worth. At this point in time, that’s pretty important, and nobody got hurt.”

He was right. Three cars (those of John Andretti, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch) cut tires about the same time that the hole opened up. Andretti hit the wall hard. Safety features or not, that’s never a good thing.

At least the second time, the fix held, leading to one final rule change that came into play – a last-minute tweak that would allow for multiple attempts at a GWC finish. As long as the race leader hadn’t taken the white flag, NASCAR would make three tries at a green-flag finish. On the second of those attempts, Jamie McMurray drove to the front and held off all comers, including a charging Earnhardt Jr. who seemingly came out of nowhere to finish second, and Kevin Harvick, who was looking for his first win since he won this race in 2007.

It was a thrilling end to a competitive race; but NASCAR’s crown jewel will likely be remembered, at least in part, for the chips that blemished it. There were a “hole” lot of jokes made, but the underlying theme was one of dismay. This was the last thing NASCAR needed in what many see as a make-or-break year – something else to turn fans off. If NASCAR’s premier track was falling apart, how could that not be symbolic of the sport’s own fall from grace? Hundreds of fans, bitterly disappointed, went home early. Daytona was literally coming apart at the seams.

But NASCAR fixed it – and that should mean something.

“Obviously, the red flags are unfortunate,” said NASCAR PR’s Ramsey Poston. “No one wants to see that. But hopefully what fans will really remember about this race tomorrow and years to come is that dramatic finish, that No. 88 cutting through the entire field, and a great win for Earnhardt Ganassi with Jamie McMurray.”

One can only hope Poston’s right, that the race itself will be the remembered as the Phoenix rising from those ashes. It should make people want to watch again next week. Only time will tell if it comes to pass, and change cannot happen overnight. But despite the holes, NASCAR gave people something to cheer about.

The challenge now will be keeping it up and making people remember the race as a great historical drama instead of a comedy of errors.

And another thing…

  • I think it’s worth mentioning that the No. 28 Blue Ox Hitches & Trailers car driven by Kenny Wallace was the fastest on the track a couple of times during the Nationwide race. You know, since the actual race broadcast couldn’t be bothered to report on an actual Nationwide driver.
  • Speaking of the Nationwide race, I’m not sure who’s sleazier. Roush Fenway Racing for paying five teams to withdraw when it became obvious that qualifying would be rained out and RFR driver Paul Menard would go home, or the team owners who took the money and left. Either way, if I was the sponsor of one of those five teams, they would be looking for a new one on Monday (and rumor has it at least one of them is).
  • I love commercials with drivers in them. But does anyone else notice that in the Sprint ad where the family calls every Johnson in America (getting football coach Jimmy Johnson, among others), that they could have avoided a lot of phone calls if they knew how to spell “Jimmie Johnson?”
  • Speaking of commercials: I’d pay good money to see Kyle Busch race the pink car with the kitties, ponies and baby seals for a weekend. Especially wearing that uniform… and who could forget “I love you” written on the spoiler?

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