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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Firecracker 400 at Daytona Race Recap

The Key MomentDavid Ragan, with an essential assist from teammate Matt Kenseth, got some sweet redemption after his miscue shifting lanes prior to a restart at the Daytona 500.

In a Nutshell

There they went marching in their packs of two,
Professional drivers reduced to playing
Jabbering monkeys and jackasses
To be part of Noah France’s plate track seaside zoo.

Dramatic Moment – Well the last five laps of the race were pretty unpredictable and equally violent. I guess some people like that.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Bread and circuses, right? Presumably a bunch of carnage, inducing late-lap wrecks after a relatively sedate and uninteresting race is what the fans paid to see. It’s a philosophy that will attract new people to the sport both on TV and in person… right? Um, good luck with that. Seen any roller derby on the TV lately?

Don’t you hate hearing that drivers had agreed to “go steady” in two-car packs days before the race? Or about how Hendrick management wanted Jeff Gordon to push Mark Martin to the win, just so they could try to get the No. 5 car in the Chase, too? Whatever happened to the elbows out, every man for himself style of NASCAR racing, the type where drivers would hook up in marriages of convenience on just the final lap… and only if it was in both their best interests to do so?

Well, if nothing else I think this race is going to force the Hendrick strategists to rethink how long they can afford to hang at the back of the pack before making a charge at the end. Simple answer… not as long as they did Saturday night.

All indications are that the HMS and RCR teams are experimenting with ways to get all four of their team cars to be able to hook up rather than running in tandem and they might just get it figured out by the Talladega race. I’m growing increasingly disgusted with these multi-car outfits dominating the sport.

Daytona doesn’t even try to sell the backstretch seats for the July race and they must not have tried too hard to sell out the frontstretch seats, either.

I still don’t get NASCAR’s reluctance to throw a caution on the white flag lap of a race; it’s a delay that’s happened several times this year, Saturday included. If they’d thrown a caution after the first final lap wreck (as was clearly warranted by the severity of the situation) maybe another dozen race cars already clearly out of contention wouldn’t have been torn to scrap, too.

I miss the kinder, simpler days when the Firecracker 400 was run on the Fourth of July, started at around 11 a.m. and was over by 2 p.m. so everyone could hit the beach or the motel pool to escape the brutal heat of a Florida July afternoon. Maybe the air conditioning in their million dollar motor coaches didn’t work as well back in the 1980s?

What does it say about the health of the sport when a driver (Kenseth) who has already won two races this year and is a lock for the Chase loses his primary sponsor in July? It’s perhaps ironic that the No. 17 team was running “Affliction” decals at this weekend’s race.

There’s been a long-standing argument over whether race car drivers are athletes. (Naturally, I think they are.) But when you add into the debate a second driver in a tandem is running at 180 mph plus without being able to see anything ahead of them other than the other driver‘s rear spoiler, it’s hard to argue that they’re too smart.

If Trevor Bayne’s win in February established his career, Ragan’s win Saturday at the same track may have saved his.

In a bit of irony, “Bubba the Love Sponge”, a radio DJ, drove the pace car during the warm-up laps at Daytona. Mr. Sponge may be best remembered by NASCAR fans as the guy who overdosed on an allergy medicine and produced the same failed drug test results NASCAR cited to suspend Jeremy Mayfield. Was Bubba given a drug test prior to operating the pace car?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Former points leader Carl Edwards lasted only 24 laps before his teammate Greg Biffle shoved him into the wall. A knocked out crush panel actually had Edwards getting physically sick in his car a few laps later. Fortunately, I haven’t personally experienced the dynamics of vomiting in a full face helmet but I’d guess it is isn’t pleasant. Sneezing is bad enough.

Bayne was the Cinderella story of the Daytona 500, but his chariot turned into a pumpkin on lap 5 of Saturday’s race. He failed to finish in 41st.

Danica Patrick had a credible run going at Daytona in Friday’s Nationwide Series race up until the final lap, where she fell to 10th. One could argue that her inexperience with an out of control race car (compare and contrast to Kevin Harvick earlier in the event) also caused a whole lot of drivers to have a bad finish to the evening, triggering a multi-car accident heading towards the checkered flag.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

With three laps left to go in regulation Gordon was sideways in a pack of cars looking like he was going to trigger a monster wreck. But Gordon made a great save and somehow rallied on to a sixth-place finish.

Kyle Busch recovered nicely from some hard impact with the outside wall to somehow finish fifth. Of course, that’s a lot easier when two-thirds of the field gets wiped out in the “overtime” portion of the race.

Joey Logano got tangled up with Martin as the duo attempted to partner up late in the race (causing quite the merry mess) but drove on to a third-place finish. Ironically, it was Martin whose recommendation helped get Logano into Cup to begin with.

Juan Pablo Montoya’s ninth-place finish wasn’t too bad – especially for a fellow who got a piece of the action in two wrecks in the final 11 laps.

Worth Noting

  • Not only was Ragan’s win the first of his career, it was his first top-10 result in five races.
  • Kenseth finished second for the second time in the last three races.
  • Logano’s third-place finish matched his best of the season. Logano was also third in the World 600; however, still mired at 20th in the points, the No. 20 team really needs a win to get back in title contention.
  • Kasey Kahne’s fourth-place finish was his best result since Darlington.
  • Kyle Busch (fifth) has top-five finishes in three of the last four Cup races.
  • Gordon (sixth) has scored top-10 finishes in four of the last five races.
  • Montoya has led laps in six of the last seven races.
  • AJ Allmendinger’s 10th-place finish was his best since Charlotte.
  • Tony Stewart (11th) hasn’t had a top-five result since Las Vegas, the second race of the season. To put that in perspective, I was shoveling snow off the walks the day of the Vegas race and it’s 90 some-odd degrees outside right now.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. (19th) has missed the top 10 in his last three Cup outings.
  • Did anyone else notice that former Daytona 500 winner Geoff Bodine was out there racing again on Saturday? (He ran 38th).
  • The top-10 finishers at Daytona drove three Fords, three Toyotas, and four Chevys. Kurt Busch in 14th was the top finishing Dodge pilot.
  • Martin is now 0 for 53 at Daytona, a record of futility that rivals Charlie Brown’s field goal kicking percentage.

What’s the Points?

Harvick takes over the points lead from Edwards, who had held the top spot since after the Texas race in April. Harvick has a five-point lead over his Ford rival. Kyle Busch moves up two spots into third, a further five points behind Edwards while brother Kurt and Kenseth round out the top five.

Jimmie Johnson’s bizarre decision to pit without his wingman Earnhardt cost him; he fell two spots to sixth in the standings. Of course, he’s only 22 points out of the lead while Earnhardt in seventh is fully 52 points behind.

Gordon and Bowyer swapped eighth and ninth spots, with Gordon now holding the advantage. Ryan Newman sits 10th, while Denny Hamlin (courtesy of his Michigan victory) holds the first Wild Card spot sitting 11th.

Uneasy lays the head that consumes mass quantities of Whoppers. Stewart is technically 12th in the standings, but if the Chase were to start tomorrow (I think I just vomited into my nose) Ragan would get that 12th spot based on Saturday night’s win and the Wild Card scenario.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — Quite frankly, I’m tired of waiting two hours to see drivers really get up on the wheel for the final 10 laps. This new plate track format licks the sweat off a dead wombat’s scrotum. One can.

Next Up – The Cup series heads off to the uncharted territory of Kentucky.

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