*Did You Notice?…* In the midst of Danica-mania, the most important point to be made about this year’s Daytona 500 is that there is no absolute favorite? Entering Speedweeks, I thought Hendrick Motorsports was poised to dominate; to an extent, they’ve flexed some muscle by putting five of their engines within the top six (only Trevor Bayne, third-quickest in the Wood Brothers Ford broke them up.) But Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited showcased some cracks in the armor. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s engine ran sour during the final segment, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were swept up in an early wreck, and Kasey Kahne, not known as a plate specialist, was underwhelming at best. (Maybe he was focused on the half-marathon instead?)
In theory, that leaves a Hendrick ally, Tony Stewart, as the favorite above them all. Not so fast. Yes, his Stewart-Haas Racing team placed three cars within the top 5 in qualifying. But Smoke has been 0-for-14 in this event, armed with the type of bad luck that Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s 20-year monkey would give a thumbs up to. I’ve witnessed firsthand, at the track, Smoke having the fastest car two years running (2007-’08) only to see him victimized in the worst way. Since becoming driver/owner, in ’09 he’s led just 17 laps out of over 750 in the Great American Race and, despite solid starting spots become more of a “comfortable top-10 contender” then someone who’s a threat to win.
OK, then, so I guess we’ll move on to Kevin Harvick, the Sprint Unlimited winner who led 40 of 75 laps and appeared to be on cruise control in the final segment. Here’s the problem: nobody’s pulled off the Unlimited/Daytona 500 double since Dale Jarrett back in 2000. The odds aren’t great for the event’s other fast car, Matt Kenseth, who’s trying to win NASCAR’s Super Bowl back-to-back. Only three drivers in history have ever done it, the last being Sterling Marlin in 1994-95 and _none_ accomplished the feat with two different teams.
Bottom line: barring some history-busting moment, the race for this year’s Harley J. Earl trophy appears wide open. And while speculating is part of the fun, it’s hard to find any rhyme or reason within how the last few Daytona 500 winners have emerged. I took an in-depth look at Speedweeks for every man holding the trophy since 2007, and here’s what I discovered:
*2007:* *Kevin Harvick*
*Bud Shootout:* 5th
*Gatorade Duel:* 29th
*500 Starting Position:* 34th
*Laps Led:* 4
*Took Lead For Final Time:* Turn 4 of final lap
*2008:* *Ryan Newman
*Bud Shootout:* 17th
*Gatorade Duel:* 3rd
*500 Starting Position:* 7th
*Laps Led:* 8
*Took Lead For Final Time:* Halfway through last lap
*2009:* *Matt Kenseth*
*Bud Shootout:* 8th
*Gatorade Duels:* 26th
*500 Starting Position:* 39th
*Laps Led:* 7
*Took Lead For Final Time:* One lap before race-ending caution for rain
*2010:* *Jamie McMurray*
*Bud Shootout:* 3rd
*Gatorade Duels:* 6th
*500 Starting Position:* 13th
*Laps Led:* 2
*Took Lead For Final (And First) Time:* 1st lap of green-white-checkered finish
*2011:* *Trevor Bayne*
*Bud Shootout:* Not Entered
*Gatorade Duels:* 19th
*500 Starting Position:* 32nd
*Laps Led:* 6
*Took Lead For Final Time:* 1st lap of the first green-white-checkered finish (Led through two total GWC to take the win)
*2012:* *Matt Kenseth*
*Bud Shootout:* 21st
*Gatorade Duel:* WON
*500 Starting Position:* 4th
*Laps Led:* 50
*Took Lead For Final Time:* Lap 165
As you can see, these stats are all over the board with a general theme of “upset” emerging. You know something funky’s happening when Matt Kenseth, in 2012, wins by leading a reasonable number of laps, starts inside the top 5 and that’s *the exception to the rule.* By comparison, the other five winners during this span either weren’t leading entering the last lap of the race or _had yet to lead by the end of the race’s scheduled distance (lap 200)._ That’s right; if not for overtime, there would be no checkered flag for both Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne. The average starting position of the other five, once a key stat for Daytona was a pedestrian 25th.
So when it comes to this Sunday, despite the drama of Danica and the statement of Hendrick engines, I’d still expect the unexpected. Someone like Jeff Burton, who quietly went four-for-four in top-10 results in plate races last year or Clint Bowyer, who’s been knocking on the door at these types of events, may go the whole week under the radar and then be sitting in perfect position when it counts. That’s how the Great American Race has played out, as of late and as long as these plates and these rules are in place I don’t really expect much to change.
*Did You Notice?…* The new mode of survival for some of Sprint Cup’s smaller programs: if you can’t beat ‘em, let ‘em give you cash to survive? Phoenix Racing is the latest example, with Austin Dillon of Richard Childress Racing slotting in to run a handful of times for owner James Finch while gaining much-needed experience that’ll help his full-time rookie campaign come 2014. Will there be a future with Phoenix? Absolutely not. But the connection to RCR, combined with their need for success on the track, will put the one-car operation in a better position to succeed.
On the other side of things, we have FAS Lane who has hooked on to young, funded driver Timmy Hill to jumpstart their own survival. In this wacky world of upper class, lower class, and no in-between, you have to do what you can to keep your operation afloat, so you can’t blame these guys for picking money over talent. It’s just a sad sight to see that now even the independent rides, once controlled by benevolent owners like Junie Donlavey who found diamonds in the rough, are now getting the diamonds spoon-fed to them in order to sustain themselves.
*Did You Notice?…* Why Kyle Larson’s controversial Late Model finish is good for the sport? In case you missed it, Larson flat out dumped C.E. Falk in the inaugural Battle of the Beach event at Daytona, “slamming into his bumper entering Turn 4 before finishing the job down the front straightaway.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BPVmoxRuW0 The audience was split, Falk was distraught but NASCAR let the win stand without penalty.
A heated debate ensued, one that led to a groundswell of fan support for Falk and an apology issued by Larson through Twitter today. I’m with the masses, thinking Larson crossed the line in turning what could have been a bump-and-run that failed into a dirty disaster just to grab the winning trophy. But in the midst of the madness, I found a silver lining in all of it and realized just why Larson’s emergence is so important for this sport. The same type of mentality that controlled his last-lap, Late Model tirade was the same one that caused his divebomb in Turn 3 at Homestead last November. In that one, Ty Dillon was the adversary, a Camping World Truck Series title was on the line and those around the No. 3 Truck were racing with kid gloves.
Just not Larson. His flat-out determination to win, regardless of the circumstances, led to an aggression that makes fans stand up and cheer when it works. In that case, like on Monday night, the move fell short, but at least he’s actually trying to make one. That type of edge, feeling like you deserved the win and being unafraid to use sheet metal to do it is what made Dale Earnhardt, Sr. become the Intimidator. I think it’s been a long time since we’ve seen someone have the same type of reckless mentality, and if Larson can perfect it, considering the young man’s versatility, there’s one hell of a superstar in the making on our hands. There will be no running third for a Chase spot, or politely getting out of the way Mark Martin-style when someone comes up behind him. It’s going to be a grind, every single lap and guaranteed excitement – the type the sport’s been missing from far too many drivers for far too long.
*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we take off…
– Can you believe we’ve gotten this far without mentioning Danica? Two things have stuck out over the past 72 hours with this whole pole sitter drama. One: it’s clear many connected to the sport have been so desperate for someone new to talk about (remember, there have been no real rookies since 2009) that too many of my media brethren are falling into the classic, modern-day reporting trap: milk this story until there’s nothing left, we’re all sick of it and suddenly, the Daytona 500 is over and people are Danica’d out with nine months left in the season. What are you going to do then, 35 weeks of stories on Ricky? Which leads me to my second point: I hope the boyfriend, the publicist — someone — is trying to intervene and get this poor girl some down time. The whirlwind of national attention, at least by the media is taking the focus off of the racetrack, and while Danica continues to ace all the interviews that can’t be a good thing when you’re suddenly up front for the biggest stock car race in America. I’m just getting a funny feeling about this whole deal… and I worry it’s not going to end well.
– Attention, Danica conspiracy theorists… I get where you’re coming from. But it happened… time to let go. The only argument you may have, in hard evidence she had an advantage may be her weight; the difference between Patrick and Smoke, for example has to be more than five pounds. A lighter car, of course equals a better time although that type of advantage is going to be negligible in crunch time of the 500.
– You know what’s crazy? With all this talk about sponsor woes in the Cup Series, both the Nationwide and Trucks look like they’re incredibly healthy, at least for the first few races of 2013. In particular, the sport’s second-tier division is coming out swinging, to the point there may not be a single start-and-park in the 40-car field on Saturday. Over on the Truck side, we’re in the same boat although a lot of the “full-time” deals announced recently, like for John King and Ryan Truex are really “let’s do one race and hope we can sign a sponsor before the next one in April.” Still… considering the deep concerns over whether the Trucks would even field a full grid of 36, every week not too long ago this string of team and sponsor announcements has to be good for them, and the sport.
– Why does NASCAR bother to have the “four car” ownership rule still on the books? I’d just save face, throw up the hands and go “we tried” at this point. Check out this quote from Kurt Busch, whose No. 78 team is getting assistance from Richard Childress Racing, after wrecking two of their cars during the two days of on-track action for the Sprint Unlimited. “I was in Charlotte last year (for his first start with Furniture Row),” said the ’04 champ. “The setups for all four cars were there on one sheet. The crew chiefs are in a meeting, the engineers are in a meeting, the drivers are in a meeting. You have all the top guys spread around into the meetings as well. It’s like we’re the fourth car. Instead of it saying ’33’ on the door, it says ’78’ and Furniture Row.”
Thanks for letting us know, Kurt! So in that case, with Austin Dillon running for RCR this Daytona 500, there are five cars on the grid with their backing instead of four. Shouldn’t there be some sort of _Survivor_ competition here based on the rulebook? Somewhere, Jack Roush is grumbling…
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