*Did You Notice?…* The last two 500 winners have been Cinderella stories? Jamie McMurray, in 2010 was all but unemployed after a disastrous tenure at Roush Fenway; former boss Chip Ganassi picked him up at the last minute. And who can forget Trevor Bayne’s run last year, the youngest 500 winner in history for a team in the Wood Brothers that hasn’t run in over a decade?
Well, you know what they say about how these things always come in threes (or maybe that’s just celebrity deaths… oops). But there’s plenty of other longshots this year that could turn into Victory Lane surprises in a hurry under the new rules. Let’s check them out…
*Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.*
*Ride: No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford*
*Sunday Qualifying Rank: 8th*
*Best Daytona Finish in Cup: None*
Stenhouse, in just his second career start seems like a longshot at first glance. But then, you stop and consider whom and what the 2011 Nationwide Series champ has to work with. The Who: two veteran teammates in Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, providing instant knowledge a rookie desperately needs. The What: he’s driving for a team that was in position to win the 500 last year, with David Ragan, until the driver made a fatal goof and jumped a late-race restart. The No. 6 group then recovered to take care of business, winning the Coke Zero 400 in July.
Typically, the biggest problem with rookies at plate tracks is no one ever trusts them in the draft. Enter last year’s champ, Trevor Bayne, who also doubles as Stenhouse’s best friend and will serve as the perfect draft partner. Both, driving limited Cup schedules this season also have nothing to lose. Considering the horsepower Roush Fenway Racing has shown so far (see: front row), if Stenhouse can keep his nose out of trouble Sunday it would be surprising if he _isn’t_ a factor down the stretch.
*Ride: No. 13 GEICO Ford*
*Sunday Qualifying Rank: 5th*
*Best Daytona Finish In Cup: 2nd (2006)*
Mears, with Ford power under the hood clearly benefited from an offseason manufacturer change from Toyota. But can his strong, one-lap qualifying speed turn into 200 laps of mechanical success? The team struggled to finish races last season, even when they didn’t start and park and you’d think their Ford engine could be the guinea pig re: overheating. But Mears is an experienced drafter, has more money in the bank this year (GEICO stepped up their backing) and knows how to take care of his equipment. More than likely a surprise top-10 finisher than someone sitting in Victory Lane, but you never know…
*Ride: No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota*
*Sunday Qualifying Rank: 11th*
*Best Daytona Finish In Cup: 2nd (2007)*
Who can forget NASCAR’s perennial runner-up losing the Great American Race to Harvick by inches? Five years later, Martin hopes for one last chance after scaling back to a limited schedule with new team Michael Waltrip Racing. Their Toyotas have flashed some speed at the plate tracks, stronger engines this February giving Martin hope and no points leaving him with a more aggressive mentality. But, at age 53, he would be the oldest Cup winner in history and even with that freakish fitness regimen, Father Time may have the final say in this one.
*Ride: No. 34 Scorpion Truck Bed Liners Ford*
*Sunday Qualifying Rank: 11th*
*Best Daytona Finish In Cup: 2nd (2007)*
Every year, it seems there’s a driver who feels they lost the Daytona 500. The latest list has included Elliott Sadler (2009, lost the lead right before the rain); Clint Bowyer (2010, lost the lead during GWC finishes); and Ragan, whose jumpy restart cost him a chance at the 2011 Daytona 500 that went to his drafting partner, Bayne. It was an ugly mistake in a year that ended with Ragan losing his sponsor and ride with Roush Fenway Racing; now, he’s part of a rebuilding effort at small-time Front Row Motorsports and has a limited number of chances at Victory Lane. Daytona is one, this team capable of big things on the plate tracks; after all, they finished third last season with David Gilliland. The July Coke Zero 400 winner, Ragan knows how to position himself down the stretch and with Ford’s engine strength should remain a factor throughout.
*Ride: No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet*
*Sunday Qualifying Rank: 29th*
*Best Daytona Finish In Cup: None*
No. Just no. Next… (a top-15 is more realistic)
*Ride: No. 51 Hendrickcars.com Chevrolet*
*Sunday Qualifying Rank: 33rd*
*Best Daytona Finish In Cup: 2nd (2008)*
Busch and James Finch, the new little pairing that could seems more motivated than ever this Speedweeks. But what they don’t have is scrap metal to spare; already, they’ve burned through two cars in two separate wrecks over Shootout Weekend. While Kurt to the front would be an amazing story – along with Roger Penske’s worst nightmare – you wonder if the damage for a small team like this one has already been done.
*Did You Notice?…* Thursday’s Gatorade Duels are somewhat anti-climactic? Part of it is the small entry list (just 49 cars; only six will fail to qualify) but the bigger issue is many of Sunday’s starting spots are already locked up. Yes, those cars who finished inside the top 35 in owner points last year earn a spot on the starting grid automatically, raising the eyebrows – and ire – of many observers around the sport.
The bigger problem, more than ever seems to be the relative ease through which these spots can be bought. This season, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer were the big names with new teams, seemingly on the outside looking in until backroom deals ensured their presence in the race. In Patrick’s case, the argument is bigwig Stewart-Haas Racing helps “partner” Tommy Baldwin Racing in the long run, providing technical and engineering support while their driver never has to break a sweat about missing a race.
The problem, of course, comes when you’re making these transfers for the right to enter a sport’s biggest race. You can’t buy your way into the Super Bowl, Tennis’ U.S. Open, golf’s Masters… we could go on and on. From a marketing standpoint, NASCAR feels a need to protect its biggest sponsors and stars. But from a competitive standpoint… it stinks of unfairness. If Novak Djokovic falls in the first round of the U.S. Open, crowds run the risk of falling apart. But in the end, the sport takes the hit because of the realization it succeeds based on the competition itself – not by automatic self-promotion.
With the rules this year, chances are high we’ll see a multi-car wreck in the Duels. But you wonder if, should that happen the silver lining will be drivers and teams complaining about the rules to the point NASCAR might make another 2013 concession. One can hope…
*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we take off…
– I typically avoid comment on television matters due to my association with the broadcasts through the years. But you can’t ignore FOX’s decision to put Danica front and center, talking with her as the lead-in Saturday night before any other driver or storyline was introduced. For me, that decision sends a message of how major these TV networks expect her impact to be. To an extent, the precedent is there; remember how her first Nationwide start tripled the overall Daytona rating on ESPN? So no matter how much you complain about the coverage, fans were showing up for it, at least initially in the past. And history does have a way of repeating itself…
FOX (and others) though have to stay conscious of Danica overexposure. Using the golden goose too much, too early can drain any type of popularity boost and just leave people sick of the new product quickly. It happens in all forms of television; remember when there were, what, about nine _Law and Orders?_ Even the most avid fans will only be able to take so much before they’re annoyed, or bored, or simply burnt out by all this publicity. Already, Saturday felt like overkill and we’re not even officially in Week 1…
– The one thing you need to know about the 2012 Shootout Rules is FOX was so preoccupied with Danica, they never even stopped to explain them before the race. Forget the casual fans; how did the diehards even know how you made it in the lineup? It doesn’t matter for NASCAR that the ratings were stable; they still pale in comparison to the 500 and most other early regular season events. Attendance, too, at 82,000 for the Shootout is far below what you typically see for a full-scale Daytona race. Add in the Demolition Derby feel of the last four years, combined with the two-hour timeslot and there’s no doubt NASCAR needed to make some changes. Returning the race to its roots, restricting next year’s entry to 2012 Cup polesitters only, along with past winners is a good start; but what about the length? Do we really need to do in 75 laps what can be accomplished in 20 or 25?
– The one quote that disturbed me during the Shootout: Kevin Harvick saying “he’ll change his strategy” for the Daytona 500 after getting wrecked. Here was a guy that started in the 20s, charged almost instantly into the top 5 and makes a living running up front in plate races. So if even one of the most aggressive drivers in the sport is planning to take it easy on Sunday, running the first 450 miles “in touch” with the draft but not taking risks how many more are thinking the same thing? Will “monkey see, monkey do” lead to a single-file, wait-and-see event where only the last half-hour makes a difference? It’s the nightmare scenario no one wants to talk about…
– Under the radar, but noted: *David Stremme* and *Tony Raines,* with unsponsored teams easily beat former 500 champs *Michael Waltrip* and *Bill Elliott* in Daytona qualifying (they’re both in serious danger of missing the race). Is it David outperforming Goliath, or a sign of two men hanging on for far too long?
– So far, NASCAR has held off making any major rule changes during Speedweeks. Can we keep it that way this time? I don’t know of any other sport that changes “how you play” just four days before its Super Bowl.
Look, there’s no such thing as “perfect” in athletics. People will always say, “Make it better.” It’s up to the sanctioning body to grow a backbone and develop some consistency.