Yes, yes – the red flags were unbearable. The time pressed on and on during the first one, roughly an hour-and-a-half longer than NASCAR predicted the repairs to the wounded pavement in turn 2 would take. Two approximately 20-lap green-flag runs blanketed a single caution before officials, likely seeing red themselves, had to throw another red flag to fix the recurring pavement problem. Two red flags, four chemical solutions, dozens of “Digger caused the hole, get it?” jokes on Twitter, one Danica segment on FOX and thousands of departed race fans later, one of the most competitive Daytona 500s in memory resumed for the race’s final 38 laps, including the six added by the three green-white-checkered finishes.
As has been done almost non-stop the past two or three seasons (and at most times rightfully so), the gut reaction of many will be to gang up and bemoan NASCAR for a seemingly ruined Daytona 500. Statements along the lines of, “Why didn’t NASCAR anticipate this problem?,” “Why didn’t officials decide to pave the track for the first time in over 30 years?,” “Why did the red flags last so long?” or “Why didn’t NASCAR call the race… couldn’t they see it was getting cold out?” will permeate the airwaves and the internet for a long time, especially in the wake of the rain-shortened Daytona 500 finish in 2009.
But the holdout and the fallout this time were well worth the wait. Just like the first 80% of this year’s Great American Race, the last almost 40 laps were incredible. The lead changed hands repeatedly, as drivers jostled for position on Daytona’s high banks. NASCAR’s new GWC “three tries” rule was put to a quick test, as wrecks cluttered the first two restarts. Bud Shootout winner Kevin Harvick, who led a race-high 41 laps and was a 500 favorite for all of Speedweeks, rammed his way into the lead around Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle on the second GWC restart, only to lose it on the final try at the finish. And when the smoke cleared, a feel-good story emerged, as Jamie McMurray, in his first race back with Chip Ganassi, guided the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy to victory.
Once the checkered flag flew, McMurray dismounted from his ride, pumping his fists, yelling, screaming and even crying while displaying the emotion fans want from their drivers. And while each victor in the 500 has been ecstatic, McMurray seemed more gracious and more excited than others in recent years (Well, considering that he has been on the brink of the NASCAR scrap heap after a horrendous letdown at Roush Fenway, he probably should be.)
But while McMurray is an underdog winner, his triumph in the Daytona 500 should not come as a total shock. The No. 1 Chevy likely could have won the Bud Shootout if not for it ending under caution, and McMurray had shown speed throughout not only the race, but the entirety of Speedweeks. Combine that with the fact he won at Talladega in the fall, now has three of his four career Cup wins on plate tracks, and is driving with the same engine package (Earnhardt-Childress Racing) as all of the fast entries at RCR, surprise may not be the word to describe his win.
Maybe hope is. For as McMurray’s win gives him hope of a rejuvenated career, NASCAR’s constituency has reason to hold hope as well – hope that the 2010 season will bring more than half-enjoyable races and stale storylines, and hope that falling in love with NASCAR racing again is still possible. Consider these developments from the Daytona 500, Speedweeks, and the NASCAR offseason:
- Almost stealing the glory from McMurray was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who launched from outside the top 20 before the first GWC run to McMurray’s rear bumper by race’s end. He exited from the No. 88 AMP Energy Chevy with more energy and pizzazz seen from him in many moons, with his return to the front from mid-pack obscurity reminiscent of his father’s charge to the victory at Talladega in 2000.
- The Daytona 500 featured a race-record 21 leaders, who swapped the lead 52 times… and very little of it was done on pit road or during caution laps.
- Both the Nationwide and Truck Series races were barn-burners as well, featuring both an assortment of lead changes and a gaggle of wrecks.
- NASCAR let drivers police themselves with bump-drafting. Earnhardt Jr. summed up why it was a good decision best after the race: “I didn’t feel like NASCAR was looking over my shoulder.”
- Speaking of the sport backing down, it’s finally listening to driver and fan feedback by instituting double-file restarts and uniform race start times, ditching the rear CoT wing, and expanding the chances at a green flag finish in the GWC system.
- Except for the flat out inaccurate time estimation for the length of the red-flag sessions, there was little cover-up or finger-pointing about the pavement fiasco. Daytona track president Robin Braig said that he took full responsibility for what happened, and will do whatever possible to make sure it never happens again. That’s a far cry from the unapologetic statements from NASCAR, following the shredded, rubbery mess that was the 2008 Brickyard 400.
For those so jaded to NASCAR after a series of poor seasons, they’re ready to jump down the throats of anyone in range, let’s ask this question; who can realistically be blamed for Hole Gate in turn 2? Go for it, sit there and stew about a problem that had as much to do with Mother Nature as anything else.
But the rest of us are savoring the great finish that transpired after the stunningly long red flags that knocked the wind out from the sails of a scintillating first half of the race. McMurray’s incredible, popular win and other positive happenings so far in 2010 sling the door of promise wide open for what the rest of the season potentially could hold. You, the cynical, should peel the scales from your eyes and enjoy it – for it is shaping up to be a heckuva ride.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.