In some ways, it seems like yesterday when the engines first fired at Daytona to start 2011, but here we are, ten races later, and not only is the season flying by, by most standards the sport is doing well. Ratings are stable, if not up, people are talking about the sport, and the racing has been good, with some stellar finishes. It’s been a different season than the last couple of years. But why?
Simple: it’s been _fun_.
The reason for the fun lies in part with the great finishes, but there’s more to it than that, something that speaks to more than close racing, more even than victory margins measured in the thousandths of seconds. It’s been the year that an underdog won.
And that’s happened not once, but twice. First, Trevor Bayne did the extraordinary, winning at the age of barely 20 in the Great American Race, the Daytona 500. A rookie in just his second Cup start, Bayne not only stunned fans with his win; he took the storied Wood Brothers team with him to Victory Lane for the first time in years. The win was everything it should have been: close, thrilling, nostalgic, all rolled into the smile of one kid who could be anyone’s little brother. He was the ultimate underdog: young, untested, virtually unknown compared to his Sprint Cup brethren. He’s a part-time racer, not even eligible for Cup points. And he _won the Daytona 500._
Everybody loves an underdog in sports. The little guy, the one who, by all rights, shouldn’t be a world-beater. The underfunded team, the under-appreciated crew chief, the under-publicized driver. Fans secretly pull for those guys: guys who are the antithesis of the Jimmie Johnsons of the racing world in every possible way except for one. Heart.
In today’s NASCAR, an underdog win is a rarity. David Reutimann grabbed one last year, the only real surprise of 2010, and one a year is about average these days. So, after Bayne’s win, please forgive me if I wasn’t expecting much.
Enter Regan Smith. Smith has shown flashes of brilliance as a driver, but was never able to land a top notch ride. Somewhat of a veteran in his late 20’s, Smith has bounced from a team in the throes of a bad transition to a single-car operation with money but not a lot of experience; even veteran drivers couldn’t do much with the No. 78. Until Darlington, when Smith took matters into his own hands, flat outdriving championship favorite Carl Edwards in the final laps on worn tires to take the checkers. Just like that, we’ve got another feel-good story on our hands.
Here’s the thing with Sprint Cup racing: it’s really, really hard. Despite the talk of the cars being more equal than ever (and perhaps, in some ways, they are), the reality is that while a dozen cars go in every week with a shot at winning, it’s the same dozen cars every week. It’s not a simple question of talent-the truth of the matter is, no matter what the armchair crew chiefs tell you, you don’t get to that level without it. Period. Sometimes there are perhaps more talented drivers than some members of that select dozen who aren’t in it, because there’s a combination of things that makes a contender a winner. Sometimes talent is less a factor than luck, but the adage that it’s often better to be lucky than good has withstood the test of time for a reason. Winning at this level is extremely difficult.
Which makes the underdog win all the more impressive, really. It also makes it harder in today’s NASCAR to believe that someone other than that top dozen can win. Which, to my thinking, takes a way a lot of the fun of watching races.
It’s funny, because watching races in the late 1990s, there was the belief that the underdog drivers could win. Financially, if not mechanically, there was, if not parity, at least a narrower chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Second-tier cars could run with the top ones for much of a race, and sometimes right until the bitter end. Cars like Andy Petree’s outfit, which did win with Bobby Hamilton and a relatively small sponsor, Square D. Or ones like the No. 43 of Petty Enterprises which carried John Andretti to Victory Lane.
Guys like Ward Burton and Bill Davis could team up and win the Daytona 500 against much richer teams. Guys like Ken Schrader and Kenny Wallace had fast cars and a level of optimism to match. Or there were Nationwide Series champions like Steve Grissom or Johnny Benson and it was only a matter of time til they won one… Michael Waltrip owned the longest losing streak in NASCAR, but damn it, this could be his week…
And that was fun. You could go to a race knowing that one of those guys _might_ win and that if he did, every fan in the place would go away happy. It wasn’t just the Cup Series, it was any series. While Mark Martin was picking and choosing Nationwide Series races to win, series regulars were winning at an equal clip. (That, in a nutshell, is why that series has lost any allure for me.) Every series had owners who ran primarily that series, and won races, even championships. Cup owners didn’t win Nationwide titles, unless it was with a development driver.
In short, no matter who your driver was, you had a reason to believe.
How many fans can say that now? Sure it’s a relatively large percentage because of the popularity of certain drivers, but how many different drivers do those fans represent? 12? 15, max? How often does a fan of a guy like Dave Blaney buy a ticket and actually believe that he has any legitimate shot of winning? If the fan is realistic, probably not often, except for maybe the restrictor plate tracks. And that’s not fun.
So if there’s a resurgence of fun in the Sprint Cup Series this year, perhaps Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith have something to do with it. They won when they weren’t supposed to win, and that’s brought a new, if cautious, hope to fans. Maybe their guy can be next. Maybe it could happen… And even if it doesn’t, maybe we can hang on to that hope a bit longer this year.
Never fear, race fans. Underdog is here! And he’s making Cup racing fun again.
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