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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

While David Ragan was collecting his first win (anyone else see that coming after his near-miss in the Daytona 500?), a longtime friend and competitor of Ragan’s was racing amid a swirl of rumors about his future and came up big this weekend. Joey Logano showed that his win on Friday in the Nationwide Series was no accident, finishing third on Saturday night for the weekend’s best average. Logano and Ragan grew up racing together, starting in Legends cars, and both find themselves at a career crossroads, subjects of intense speculation about their futures in the series. Both delivered at a critical point this week.

What… was THAT?

With the white flag in the air, there was no reason for NASCAR not to throw the yellow flag for the turn 3 incident on the last lap. This was not a minor incident where the track was basically clear, there were cars spinning in the racing groove with other cars still coming on behind them. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting fans to get their money’s worth with an exciting finish, there’s everything wrong with risking injury to people to do it. Had NASCAR thrown a caution, it would have avoided a massive pileup off turn 4 which collected a gaggle of cars, including perennial Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, 2010 Daytona 500 champ Jamie McMurray and at least a half dozen others. It’s too bad Ragan’s first Sprint Cup win (which still would have happened if the caution had flown) had such an ugly ending when it should have been a perfect night for Ragan.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

The old adage that it’s better to be lucky than good is never truer than at Daytona, and though Mark Martin was a threat to win for most of the race, he wound up wrecked and had to settle for a disappointing 33rd-place finish. The opportunities for Martin, who at 52 is in the twilight of a stellar career, to add to his win total are dwindling, and Daytona made it one less.

When… will I be loved?

With so much… er, action…on the racetrack, how does the villain of the race stay out of all of them? Easy, this week’s bad guys weren’t even in the race, but on top of the pit box. When crew chiefs Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus failed to communicate on pit strategy, the result may have cost Earnhardt and Johnson a shot at winning the race. Johnson was somehow called to pit road while Earnhardt was not, leaving both drivers high and dry was their drafting strategy was taken away. Both drivers were perplexed as to why the miscommunication happened as they had left the pit calls up to the men on the boxes, and it didn’t work.

For Knaus, it’s the second time a failure to communicate has cost a Hendrick driver. Johnson was pushing then-teammate Casey Mears in the lead at Talladega in 2007 when Knaus failed to pass along the message that Mears was pitting, and when Mears slowed to get onto pit road, Johnson got into the back of the No. 25, sending Mears hard into the inside wall. The bottom line here is that the drivers have to rely on the crew chiefs for pit calls… and these two head wrenches dropped the ball on their drivers.

Why… do some fans love restrictor-plate racing?

Race fans, weigh in. Please give me some feedback as to why you enjoy this kind of racing, because I just don’t understand the attraction. Sure, the finishes can be exciting, but these races take the race out of the drivers’ hands like no other type of track does, because a driver can make zero mistakes and still be taken out. Sure that can happen anywhere, but at Daytona and Talladega, it’s almost a guarantee that several innocent drivers will end up in the wall, and several of those can ill afford the repair bills. Not cool in my book. Is that fun to watch? If it’s not about the wrecks, what is it? Is it because certain drivers have a better chance at these tracks than any other? These races have some exciting moments, but what makes them so popular?

How… many cars were involved in some sort of incident on Saturday night?

According to race breakdowns, out of 43 cars, 30 were involved in incidents to some degree. Many were able to continue, but many were damaged too severely to continue or to be competitive. As I said on the last point, that’s not cool, especially when may teams were having what might have been their best race of the year, only to be taken out by drivers who don’t need to worry about saving their equipment, because they have a fleet of cars back at the shop. Perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to reconsider the place of Daytona and Talladega on the schedule.