by Brody Jones
Let’s face reality for a minute, race fans. We all like a good Cinderella story when we see one. Some of the best ones in sports history have been turned into excellent movies. _Rudy_ and _The Blind Side_ are just two examples of this phenomenon. At Daytona each year, we, the loyal racing fans always seem to get that one unbelievable story at Speedweeks thanks to the Gatorade Duels. Whether it was Jeremy Mayfield charging into the field with a team he created just weeks before in 2009, Kirk Shelmerdine being fast enough to make the show in 2006 with his team on the brink of shutting down had they not made the race, or even Delma Cowart making the 1992 Daytona 500 thanks to a big crash in his qualifying race, giving birth to his Ricky Bobby-esque quote “I ain’t never won a race, though I ain’t lost a party!”.
Fast forward to the 2011 Daytona 500. Only 49 drivers have entered “The Great American Race.” Norm Benning failing to get onto the track before qualifying has lowered that number to 48. With 39 drivers already having punched their ticket to NASCAR’s biggest race, whether by the horrible top-35 rule, qualifying speed, or the irritating Past Champions’ Provisional, that leaves ten drivers scurrying for four slots into the most prestigious race in all of stock car racing. All of the ten drivers on the outside looking in are hoping that the proverbial glass slipper fits them, not to mention they’re also hoping their proverbial carriage doesn’t turn into a pumpkin. And this edition of the “Shakedown Session” will be focusing on the ten drivers who hope to make the 500 via the Gatorade Duels (that aren’t automatically locked in on speed) and whether or not anyone cares about their plight this year.
In the first race, we start with journeyman NASCAR driver Dave Blaney. The former USAC Silver Crown and World of Outlaws Sprint Car champion has an outside shot of making the show on speed, but after a tumultuous past few years of mostly accepting start & park rides, Blaney has accepted a ride with an old acquaintance, Tommy Baldwin, where he is slated to run the full distance in 22 of the 36 races this year, including the Daytona 500 and after being largely in anonymity the past few years, would it not be awesome to see a proverbial underdog like Blaney making his way onto stock car racing’s grandest stage? Running in the first race, Blaney has a good shot at making the 500, whether by qualifying speed or by racing his way into the field, so Blaney could be a likely Cinderella in 2011.
Another name in the first Gatorade Duel that has, at the very least, an outside shot of making the show is 2010 Raybestos Rookie Of The Year Kevin Conway. So far, the protégé of 1990’s NASCAR star Ernie Irvan has had a largely ignominious NASCAR career. His rookie of the year crown, more or less, came via default after Terry Cook was fired less than a third of the way into the season and he’s become more famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for having his sponsor sued by not one, but two NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, resulting in the most headaches this side of Big Daddy’s Barbecue or 360 OTC. But with the fact that the competition level is greatly decreased compared to years past at Daytona, Conway very well could squeak his way into the Daytona 500, which could very well be one of his only NASCAR Sprint Cup starts in 2011 as Joe Nemechek has given him a one-off opportunity just for this race. The question is can Conway be competitive enough to be a factor in the Gatorade Duels?
Driving for the biggest laughing stock in NASCAR (HP Racing, and no, it’s not Hewlett-Packard Racing) is Michael McDowell. The road-racer turned stock-car driver has been far more competitive in the NASCAR Nationwide Series than he has been in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and with this race being one of just six that HP Racing is scheduled to run the full distance in, it’s imperative that McDowell makes this race because if he doesn’t, not only will he miss out on a huge racing pay-day, but one-sixth of his competitive Sprint Cup schedule in 2011 will be squandered. McDowell has an outside shot at making the race, but is currently on the outside looking in with no speed to fall back on.
As for the other driver in the first race, J.J. Yeley, he was so far off the pace in practice and qualifying that if he’s a religious man, he may want to start praying to whatever god he believes in for a Delma Cowart type of entry into the “Great American Race”. Yeley’s qualifying and practice times were far off the pace.
Now onto Duel No. 2’s potential darkhorses. We start with Michael Waltrip, the 2001 and 2003 Daytona 500 winner (and recent autobiographical novelist). Of all the potential Cinderella stories, this one has all the ingredients in place to be the most-hyped Cinderella story. Although Waltrip has an outside shot at getting in on speed if Joe Nemechek can’t race his way in, he has received inordinate amounts of media attention with the tenth anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death that ESPN won’t stop going on-and-on about and with his tribute paint scheme, it definitely would be a feel-good story for some fans for Waltrip to make the show. But on the downside, we’d have to put up with more of his incessant shilling than usual, and that’s something few NASCAR fans can deal with.
Then, we have the Germain Racing teammates Casey Mears and Todd Bodine. Bodine has an outside chance at getting in on speed while Mears, in the primary Germain Racing car, is on the outside looking in. Odds are that these two drivers will probably try to embark on their own two-car draft that seems to be the latest restrictor-plate fad and could very well race their way into the field by taking advantage of the draft. But, with plate racing, anything can and will happen.
Derrike Cope is another driver who is going to have to hope for attrition, along with Brian Keselowski. Cope, whose fifteen minutes expired over 20 years ago after his fluke Daytona 500 victory, is trying yet again to recapture his glory days, but if his Budweiser Shootout performance is any indicator at all, he’s going to be in danger of getting lapped at least once. And as for Brad’s big brother, his practice and qualifying speeds were nowhere near good enough to get in the race, so he’s going to have to hope for the usual restrictor plate “Big One” just to have any prayer of sniffing the field.
But the thing is, with all these drivers trying to make the race, does the NASCAR viewing public truly care? The Gatorade Duels used to be one of the most exciting parts of Speedweeks, but thanks to the rule changes by Brian Almighty, the Gatorade Duels are a hollow, muddled shell of what they once were and are almost meaningless now. Of course, one of the most boring off-seasons in recent NASCAR history hasn’t helped. When one of the biggest news stories of the off-season is new pavement, that’s not a good sign, no matter who Brian France and Mike Helton try to spin it.
Of course, an admittedly under-whelming line-up of journeyman drivers with no real stand out, made for TV “Cinderella stories” (save Michael Waltrip, although that story is more media hype than anything) does not help the case of the Gatorade Duels. It’s very difficult to get the least bit excited about a race that’s supposed to give fans an appetizer of the Daytona 500 if there’s nothing to get overly excited about. With NASCAR’s new rule changes that shrunk thew size of the restrictor plate, taking about 12-13 horsepower out of the cars, we’re likely not going to see quite as much of the “Daytona Do-si-do” and we’ll probably be back to the gigantic clusters of racing that NASCAR seems to enjoy seeing, the racing may be closer, but is it really going to be any better? But, at the end of the day, we’re sure to see at least one heart-warming story to come out of Speedweeks. But, the $64,000 question is: Will anyone give a hoot?
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