*ONE: Thank You Thank You Thank You for this New Plate Package*
A two car tandem still ended up deciding this Shootout, and along with the return of pack drafting came the return of the “big one.” But if the first 180-some miles of the season were any indication, NASCAR actually managed to find a technical fix to the problem (and yes, it was a problem) that turned last year’s Daytona races into a four-hour dance marathon with stock cars. The pack racing seen Saturday had all the inherent problems that the pack racing of the past has, but the amount of control the drivers’ had over their own destinies was exponentially greater.
Kurt Busch was able to make a searing charge through the field mid-race completely on his own accord. Along with Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and others all reiterated that despite the wreckfest that played out Saturday night, the race was once again back in the driver’s hands. “You’re not going to have to think, ‘Man, if I don’t have a partner, you’re going to be in big trouble,’” stressed Tony Stewart post-race.
Frankly, the racing seen Saturday was thrilling to watch. While much of the handling element of Daytona is still gone thanks to the repave, that challenge has been replaced by the high closing speeds that were seen when the high-grip surface was combined with a larger restrictor plate. What was on display Saturday was high-speed, high-stakes racing that put the race in the hands of the wheelmen. It’s still not the Daytona of old, but considering the joke of a display that the World’s Center of Racing played host to just a year ago, the Shootout was a welcome improvement.
Color me confused. NASCAR listened to the fans. And go figure, they got one right.
*TWO: So Who Can Derail Such Momentum?*
Sadly, an improvement of the on-track product proved to be a zero-sum deal, as a return to FOX broadcasting managed to suck much of the life out of an entertaining exhibition. Without using any names, the FOX broadcast team relied on the only part-time competitor in the field as the in-race reporter (who also happened to be related to another broadcaster and to be a car owner who clearly had no vested interest in covering two of his own entries in the field), a rookie driver that’s never run a Cup race at Daytona to provide expert analysis of what fans could expect to see in Saturday’s race (while asking repeatedly what said driver was learning watching the FOX broadcast that they could apply to the 500), and concluded the broadcast with the completely asinine remark that the race winner had turned the chorus of boos they had been subjected to in driver introductions into a swarm of cheers by winning the race, even though FOX’s own audio was full of audible boos during the post-race celebrations.
A total disregard for impartiality is nothing new to FOX’s (or for that matter, any of the broadcast networks) coverage of NASCAR racing. Neither is deciding what the story of the day will be before the green flag even drops. But for all the optimism that was rightly conveyed in seeing improved racing at Daytona and a thrilling conclusion to the first race of the season, it was equally depressing to see that even though the sanctioning body appeared to learn a lesson this first weekend of the season, it was the same old same old from FOX.
If Saturday’s effort was any indication of the 2012 season to come, take a piece of advice race fans: watch the 500 on mute and give MRN some air time. Unless of course your favorite drivers are Mikey, Danica or Kyle.
*THREE: Front Row Is Going to Rue Hiring David Ragan*
If Saturday was any indication, that is. Ragan’s debut race with the No. 34 team lasted only eight laps before resulting in a violent crash. And to top it off, Ragan triggered it, spinning Paul Menard in turn 2 and triggering a six-car wreck that destroyed his car and a number of others.
Life at Front Row Motorsports is not life at Roush Fenway Racing. There are not a seemingly infinite number of race cars available in the fleet to replace crushed machines. This is undoubtedly going to be an adjustment for Ragan, who until this year spent his entire NASCAR career in the big-dollar, big-resource realm of Ford’s flagship operation. Couple the different surroundings with Ragan’s past history of being overly aggressive on-track (he incurred the ire of nine-time ARCA champ Frank Kimmel after bowling him over to win at Lanier back in 2005 and was referred to as a “dart without feathers” by Tony Stewart after his Cup debut at Martinsville in 2006), and you’ve got a real issue for FRM. While Ragan has certainly come a long way from those days, one can’t help but question whether bad habits are going to resurface now that for the first time in a long-time, he’s driving equipment that isn’t top of the line. For as far as FRM has come in recent years, the No. 34 team of 2012 is not the No. 6 team Ragan has driven for the past few years.
Sans the longtime relationship with Ford, this hire didn’t add up on paper even before the Shootout. Why did Roush’s perpetual underachiever get the nod for a full-time ride, not to mention one that operates as the polar opposite of the big boys in the garage? One race in, and Ragan’s one-for-one in driving over his head and wrecking a car for his troubles. That kind of math isn’t going to add up long in his new home.
*FOUR: Again, ARCA Officials The Class of the Field*
Saturday’s ARCA race was a thriller, and that was in no small part due to some excellent work by the personnel officiating the 200-mile race. Be it sending officials onto pit road to get Mike Coffey’s crippled car off the racing surface without throwing a yellow flag or letting the race go green as Paulie Harraka struggled to get his car restarted after a spin on the backstretch, ARCA knew full-well they were hosting a green-flag, fuel mileage race, and they did everything they had to, without compromising safety, to ensure it played out.
It’s always a refreshing change of pace to see common sense take over officiating. Daytona is an enormous 2.5 mile facility. Translation: drivers that spin out off the track have tons of space to get turned around, and with the pack taking nearly a minute to make a lap, there’s no shortage of time for a driver to get their car refired and facing in the right direction. Which begs the question…why is it that ARCA can allow incidents like Harraka’s spin to play out while NASCAR felt the need to throw a yellow flag the second Clint Bowyer went spinning entering turn 1, off the racing surface and without making any contact with the wall? It’s simple really, bad habits die hard, and in the case of NASCAR, that bad habit is called interventionism. Be it for mystery debris or harmless spins, NASCAR over the past few years has habitually used the yellow flag not to put caution on the speedway, but to manipulate races. And it’s not like it’s translated into a better on-track product.
ARCA played host to one of their most unique and unpredictable Daytona races in recent memory, a plate race without a “big one” and decided on fuel mileage. That was all a product of their officials knowing when to use discretion…both in the name of safety and in the name of letting their race play itself out. They may be the minor leagues, but the big boys of race control could certainly learn a thing or two from those guys.
*FIVE: Lack of Cup Drivers a Good Thing for the Nationwide Series*
With no Cup drivers planning full-time double duty in 2012, and involvement of said drivers looking to be at its lowest levels in nearly a decade, the Nationwide Series is going to be closer to its own entity than it has been in some time. This is a hugely positive development, both in terms of returning legitimacy to the series championship and in providing a field of competition conducive to driver and ownership development.
What’s uncertain is how this change will translate in terms of ticket sales and TV ratings. One can only hope that watching the series continue to transition over from Cup Lite to a more unique, standalone form of stock car racing will translate into better viewership and attendance numbers. But even if it doesn’t, even if the lack of Cup drivers does in fact translate into fewer dollars and sets turned in, as Cup drivers and naysayers have been reiterating for a decade as the independent Nationwide Series owners and drivers found themselves fighting extinction, this is not a bad thing for the Nationwide Series.
Truth be told, as painful as it may be, 2012 is shaping up to be a year of revaluation for the Nationwide Series. With Cup driver involvement diminishing, this season will be a true chance to see just where the competition of the Nationwide Series field stands…and just how many fans are interested/willing to watch.
Either the fans will keep tuning in and buying tickets, and the series will remain a AAA companion to the big leagues of the Sprint Cup Series. Or they won’t, and the Nationwide Series will be forced to contract, be it geographically reducing the span of the series’ schedule, the number of races, or the number of cars in the field. Whatever the result, a Nationwide Series that’s actually in line with both fan demand and the money available to race will be a far more beneficial entity for stock car racing than a means to an end for Cup drivers and teams to beat down inferior competition.
For good or bad, 2012’s going be a big year for the Nationwide Series.
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