NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Daytona 500

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

It’s a tough call, with both David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte finishing in the top four, but the edge goes to Gilliland for a couple of reasons, despite the obvious sentimental choice of Labonte. One, Gilliland finished third, one spot ahead of Labonte, but the real reason is sheer talent. Labonte is the better driver here, the one who, all things being equal, should have taken home a top five. Gilliland… not so much. He’s a solid driver if not brilliant, and he hung on to beat the former Cup champion at the last second. Good enough for my vote.

What… was THAT?

With all the rules tweaking going on, NASCAR failed this week to address what I see as an issue with the qualifying rules for the Daytona 500. It’s true that the rule for going to a backup car is the same at every track: If a team goes to a backup car after qualifying, they forfeit their position and go to the back of the field. The problem arises only in the special qualifying format for the Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt Jr. the polesitter for the race, got turned in practice on Wednesday, and as a result started last on Sunday. But, for anyone other than Earnhardt or his companion on the front row, Jeff Gordon, the rule is different. Because their starting spot for the 500 isn’t yet set, they simply would have to start from the rear in their Gatorade Duel, and would then start on Sunday where that race dictated. Sounds like NASCAR is penalizing success to me. So why not this; if a driver on the front row is wrecked in practice, instead of penalizing that success more harshly than the failure of the rest of the field to qualify that well, why not send that driver to the back of his Duel and then have him start the 500 accordingly? The rules should be the same for anyone in any case, but to penalize success is everything racing shouldn’t be.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Well, he almost made it to the end, but like one year ago, Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t quite finish the deal, or the race. Earnhardt was involved through no fault of his own in a chain-reaction crash during the first of two green-white-checkered attempts and ended up finishing 24th. But there is a silver lining: Junior ran a very good race, and for the first time in a long time, looked like he could have won. He was also second-best in the Hendrick Motorsports stable, besting both Gordon and Jimmie Johnson to kick off the season.

When… will I be loved?

When he caused the first wreck, a one-car deal with only Kyle Busch suffering the consequences, Michael Waltrip actually might have been loved for spinning out NASCAR’s bad boy. But for his encore, Waltrip ran over his own driver, David Reutimann, and the aftermath involved several teams who, unlike Waltrip’s, are actual championship contenders and will now be behind for weeks as a result. Perhaps staying retired would have been a wise chose for the former two-time Daytona 500 winner; the race could have been a feel-good story for Waltrip, who won this race 10 years ago, but he left half the field not feeling too good at all.

Why… is Carl Edwards the points leader leaving Daytona?

Even thought he finished second to Trevor Bayne, Edwards leaves Daytona Beach with the top spot in Sprint Cup points due to a rules change designed to keep Cup drivers like Edwards from dominating the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. Drivers must declare one series in which to accumulate points this year, and Edwards obviously went the Cup route (he’s a former series runner-up and has 18 Cup wins), while Bayne, whose Cup ride lacks sponsorship for a full season, is running for the Nationwide Series title, handing Edwards the points lead in the process. In fact, not a single Daytona winner leaves town with their series points lead; truck winner Waltrip and Nationwide winner Tony Stewart are also ineligible for points in those series.

How… often has a rookie won the Daytona 500?

Including this year? Once. Bayne’s win (for the storied Wood Brothers, no less!) places the 20-year-old firmly in the record books. Not only is Bayne the first rookie to win the Great American Race, but he’s also the youngest driver ever to do it, eclipsing the old record (Gordon was 25) by five years. Bayne, who turned 20 on Saturday, wasn’t even sure how to get to Victory Lane after the race (he needed to call his team for instructions). But find it he did, and no matter where Bayne’s career may take him, he will always have “Daytona 500 Champion” on his resume, something some of the best drivers in NASCAR can’t boast.

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