NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2013 Daytona 500 Race Recap

The Key MomentJimmie Johnson made the most of his 400th career start, edging ahead of Brad Keselowski just as the final caution flag flew. That gave the No. 48 entry the preferred outside groove for the final restart, where it was all over after that. (Finally.)

In a Nutshell – Dang, I’ve seen more passes made at the local geriatric center’s Valentine’s Day party.

Was it a steep learning curve and getting acclimated to new equipment, or is this car going to earn the nickname, “Generation Sux?”

Dramatic Moment – There were damn few of them as the drivers drove lap after lap in a single-lane, processional parade.

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

Gentle readers, what many of you saw live late Saturday afternoon and what most of you have seen replays of since was nearly the end of auto racing here in America. Had Kyle Larson’s car or its engine actually tumbled into the stands, we’d have had hundreds of fatalities. The incident bears eerie similarities to the tragedy at Le Mans in 1955, during which Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes wrecked hard, its engine and hood cart wheeling into the packed grandstands in a frightening scene. Levegh and at least 83 spectators were killed in the fiery tragedy, with many more hurt in an incident that made international news. That disaster, along with a child killed by a wheel entering the pit area at Martinsville, later that year led the Big Three automakers to decide to abandon racing under the auspices of the Auto Manufacturing Association.

As it is, I am sure there were liability lawyers parachuting into DIS after the wreck. NASCAR seems to be cowering behind a cloak of denial, claiming nobody could have foreseen this sort of incident taking place. Really? I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier but I’ve been predicting this for over a decade in my four times a year diatribes against plate racing. In a sad irony, the plates were added to NASCAR race cars after a blown tire put Bobby Allison’s vehicle up into and almost through the catchfence at Talladega. Five years later at the same track Neil Bonnett, plate affixed beneath his carb, also went up and into the catchfence, tearing down a huge section and injuring some fans. In 2000, Geoff Bodine’s race truck got up into the fence and tore down a huge section not far from where Saturday’s incident occurred. In 2009, Keselowski (also involved in Saturday’s incident) put Carl Edwards up into and almost through the fence at Talladega. That car was also equipped with a restrictor plate. While no fans were seriously injured, having broken my jaw in a motorcycle accident I don’t recall it being a particularly pleasant experience.

In conclusion, when the drivers strap into their race cars every week they assume a certain degree of risk. That’s not the case for the fans, though take a look at the fine print when getting a ticket; you are warned you cannot hold the track liable if you are injured at the speedway. Still, fans expect to leave the track in their cars and not in an ambulance… or a hearse. Here’s the deal. Restrictor plates haven’t worked. They cause a level of danger that’s simply insane for both drivers and fans as witnessed Saturday. The solution isn’t higher, sturdier fences. (Tony Stewart’s car went airborne during the 2001 Daytona 500 and was higher than the fence. And most of you will recall the tragedy that claimed Dale Earnhardt later in that same race.) The solution isn’t to move or eliminate the crossover gate. Longtime readers will know that I don’t often use caps for emphasis. I think it’s a sign of weak writing. But I will make an exception here and use the strongest possible language I think the editors will allow: STOP SCREWING AROUND AND FIX THE FRICKIN’ TRACK! Lower the banking, lose the plates, and get back to real racing. Once again, NASCAR officials are left with blood on their hands not due to their actions but due to their inaction.

What’s the protocol for deciding whether to throw a caution on the last lap or letting the race finish under green? Certainly, cautions thrown for debris during the race were ordered for a whole lot less dangerous conditions.

What have we learned from nearly two weeks at Daytona about the complexion of the season that lies ahead? The answer is, as it has been every year since 1988 and the re-introduction of the plates, absolutely nothing. The Daytona 500 is a unique animal all to itself. While it bears some semblance to the two Talladega races (especially since both tracks were recently repaved) and, of course the July race here they are still apples and oranges. The Firecracker 400 is not only shorter in length but it’s typically held during brutally hot weather, which makes the track a lot greasier. Combined, the four plate tracks account for just four races, 1/9th of the series schedule. The bread-and-butter of the season consists of the 1.5-mile to 2-mile speedways (cookie cutters, if you will). It is prowess at that sort of track that likely will determine this year’s title contenders. Daytona is all noise and hype, while the cookie-cutters are the hard work and reality of the season.

Let’s talk turkey. The Cup preliminaries to the Daytona 500 were, to be kind a bit monotonous and, to put it more bluntly just plain boring with little passing or side-by-side action in the Duels and the one they used to call the Busch Clash. After heavily hyping the new Gen-6 cars as about to return “real” racing, to NASCAR it was a bit of a letdown. What was up? With NASCAR only releasing the official rules package days before January testing began, a lot of the teams are a little light on inventory of the new Gen-6 cars and wadding one up in one of the preliminaries wasn’t a good way to start off the season. (Note to family members of fabricators and body men in the No. 99 shop: You ought to see them again somewhere in late July.) Still, I’m not ready to write off the new cars quite yet. As noted above, Daytona is more an aberration than an example and it’s good to be able to tell the three manufacturers cars apart at a glance again.

Did NASCAR just barely escape apocalypse? Informed sources say GM spearheaded the move to return to more stock-appearing NASCAR Cup cars with a less than subtle threat that they were considering joining Dodge in leaving the sport. Facing the potential loss of most of their major teams, NASCAR acquiesced. So you want to enter an Australian-built car that’s not even in production yet, one which you aren’t even taking orders for? Sure! You know our notebook is written on an Etch-A-Sketch, anyways. Chevy was also given the luxury of waiting until Ford and Toyota (and even Dodge) had introduced their new cars before finalizing their design. So I guess, to paraphrase Robert McNamara, “What’s good for GM is good for NASCAR.”

As for the new SS street car that debuted at Daytona, it’s a sweet looking ride, particularly in the gray dressage in which it was presented. And it is rear-wheel drive, as opposed to the Fusion and Camry to differentiate it. But I was disappointed to see it was still a four-door entry, making it a little less “sporty” though not surprised. Chevy hasn’t built a cool, two-door full-size car since the 1969 Biscayne 427/425 horse.

So does Johnson’s win in a Holden count as the first NASCAR Cup win by a foreign car since Al Keller’s victory in a Jaguar?

It was announced Thursday that the Twin 150s (I neither recall nor care what the official name of those contests is) will be moved from Thursday afternoon to Thursday evening, primetime in TV land. On the surface, the move makes sense. A vast majority of fans can’t tune in live on Thursday afternoon, after all due to a minor annoyance they label their jobs. On the other hand, the move to cooler nighttime start times (and the Daytona track is one of the most temperamental when it comes to temperature changes) will reduce greatly the amount of information a team can glean from Thursday night’s races and take to Sunday’s Big Show.

OK, when are you going to talk about Danica Patrick, Matt? I’ve tried to bury it down here a bit because I think over the course of the last two weeks, more verbiage has been devoted to Danica-mania than the story deserves. Firstly, I am not going to comment on her new, post-divorce relationship. It’s none of my business nor is it any of yours. For Ms. Patrick (as with Kasey Kahne) the measure of a person isn’t who they go to bed with at night but what they do with their lives after they get out of bed in the morning. Patrick’s winning the pole was a notable achievement, the first time a female has done so in NASCAR’s top division which has changed its name more times than the former artist formerly known as Prince. As a Yankee who tends towards the liberal side of social issues moreso than the average stock car fan, I have frequently been made uncomfortable by insinuations that NASCAR was a backwards bastion of white males alone. If Ms. Patrick’s winning the pole encourages more young ladies to chase the dream of auto racing in any of its varied forms, I’m all for it. Hopefully, though they will be able to enter the upper leagues of the sport based on their talents and not racy bikini ads.

Patrick’s pole-winning car had barely come to a rest when the allegations and insinuation started. The story was too good to be true. She was being allowed to run an oversize restrictor plate or engine to run so fast so NASCAR could garner some much-needed positive publicity and help put an end to sagging TV ratings. (NASCAR will be renegotiating TV rights packages this year.) Patrick’s pole was the story of the week prior to Saturday’s wreck, with media outlets that usually snub the sport like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times covering her “win.” NBC’s Brian Williams interviewed Patrick on that network’s nightly news; ABC’s Diane Sawyer concluded that network’s coverage of the happening with an enthusiastic, “You go girl!” Oddly, FOX News was the only major media outlet to report there were suspicions in the garage area that Patrick’s pole was the result of some shenanigans.

So do I believe NASCAR slipped Danica a big plate? Personally, I don’t. Her two teammates were also fast in qualifying as were the Chevys in general. They said NASCAR rigged the finish when Earnhardt won his first Daytona 500 to kick off the sport’s 50th anniversary season. They said NASCAR rigged things so Richard Petty would get his 200th win in front of Ronald Reagan on the Fourth of July. (Cale Yarborough must not have gotten that memo.) They said it was too good to be true when Jeff Gordon won the first Brickyard 400, accomplished in front of his adoring fans in his adoptive home state of Indiana. Absent someone with inside, documented information publishing a tell-all book on the above, I’m going to choose to believe, every once in a great while there’s planetary convergence that allows for a few “feel good” stories in a sport whose history is littered with unhappier outcomes.

Speaking of which, Daytona Speedweeks is entirely too long, especially for fans being gouged by local innkeepers and other businesses with high prices and minimum stays. Here’s my suggestion: start Thursday with qualifying in the afternoon and the 150s at night. Run the Truck race as a single-day event with practice, qualifying and the race all on Friday. Kick off Saturday with the Busch Clash (or whatever it’s called next year) and the Nationwide race. Sunday, of course is the big show.

While they were plagued by cautions that got to be irritating at times, the three support races last Tuesday and Wednesday (the Late Models, the mods and K&N series) all featured thrilling finishes with controversial last-lap passes. It was nice to see Steve Park recovered enough from his head injuries to win the Modified race, though Mike Stefanik was clearly less than thrilled. But what happened to Chase Elliott and Brandon McReynolds, two of the rising young stars of stock car racing I was expecting to see in those events?

Wow, Johnson really tore up the No. 48 car’s splitter and front end celebrating his win, didn’t he? No way NASCAR is going to measure what’s left in post-race inspection, is there? You don’t think Chad Knaus told him to do that if he won, do you?

NASCAR announced last week that they will no longer provide crowd estimates for their races this season as they traditionally have done. Those numbers have been very embarrassing as of late and even with the numbers inflated, more than the weekly enemy body counts during ‘Nam they’ve been a clear sign about the decline of the health of the sport. Typical NASCAR: If there’s a problem, ignore it and deny it.

Speaking of which, as you might expect in this social media-crazed world, videos of Larson’s big wreck started popping up on YouTube about the same moment his car came to rest. It was amazing how quickly NASCAR was able to deliver ultimatums to the online video outlet to take them down, claiming they violated copyrights even when the videos were submitted from fans’ phones, coming from their unique perspectives in the stands — not the race broadcast. Again, if we ignore and deny it, it will go away.

If I had a nickel… for every time I’ve seen the “if I had a nickel” NASCAR promo commercial, I’d be checking tomorrow’s weather forecast to see if I was taking the Shelby GT500, the Boss 302, or the Raptor to work every morning.

You’d think Patrick winning the pole might have been a heads up. What was with the bare-midriffed young ladies surrounding the drivers in FOX’s pre-race promos? Guys, women are good for more than just looking at.

Those of you coming out of winter hibernation after leaving NASCAR for the holidays and winter might have noted a seismic change in the journalistic coverage of the sport. Where’s Monte Dutton’s columns on the Ghastly Gazette? Apparently, Dutton was informed January 4th his services as motorsports news writer were no longer needed, effective immediately after 16.5 years. (Been there, done that; I’ll show you the scars if you’ll buy me some weed, whites and wine.) Monte was one of the most humorous, pointed and straight-talking scribes left in the ink-stained newspaper NASCAR community that has dwindled to a handful. He’s now posting a daily blog on his own website whilst awaiting a final reckoning on what he wants to do if he grows up. The blog is mainly about NASCAR but includes anything and everything, including his reflections on a terrible traffic accident near his home that could easily have cost his mom and two nephews their lives. Fortunately, apparently everyone is fine. Good luck, old friend.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Matt Kenseth clearly had the dominant car Sunday but suffered what was either drivetrain or engine failure (the team is still diagnosing) after leading 86 laps.

Shortly after the No. 20 car fell out, Kyle Busch was forced to retire with a blown engine. He was running second at the time. Busch had an eventful day overall, triggering the first big crash when he got into the back of Kahne, then having a jack collapse during a pit stop.

Pre-race favorite Kevin Harvick clearly had one fast Holden, having already won the Unlimited and his 150-qualifier to put the field on notice. Unfortunately, he was caught up in the lap 33 wreck which put him in the garage.

If anyone was going to beat the No. 29, the railbirds predicted it would be Tony Stewart or Kahne. They both got a piece of the lap 33 wreck as well.

It hasn’t been a great month of February for Edwards and the No. 99 team. After an unimpressive run in the 500, Edwards wound up wrecking his fifth car since January testing. None of those wrecks were his fault, either.

Front Row Motorsports team owner Bob Jenkins saw all three of his cars eliminated in the wreck that bought out the fourth caution.

Jeff Burton had a credible run going when a backmarker supposedly turned right and slammed him into the wall. Considering he’s just keeping Austin Dillon’s seat warm this year, he needs some strong runs to ensure continued employment in 2014.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Johnson’s fortunes improved considerably over last year’s 500 when he completed just one lap and finished 42nd.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second for the third time in the last four Daytona 500s. He still hasn’t won a plate race, though, since Talladega in the fall of 2004.

Keselowski had to be heartbroken to finish fourth after leading the race late. But considering his car got a piece of the two big wrecks and was repaired with battlefield surgery, that wasn’t too bad.

Patrick acquitted herself well, leading some laps and running within the top 10 most of the day. She became the first woman to lead a lap in the 500 and had the best finish of any female who ever entered the race (eighth place).

Some of the drivers for the smaller teams enjoyed great finishes. The list includes Regan Smith (seventh), Michael McDowell (ninth), and JJ Yeley (10th).

Greg Biffle enjoyed yet another strong Speedweeks, finishing second in the Unlimited, second again in his 150 qualifier and running up front most all of the Daytona 500 before fading to a sixth-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Earnhardt is the only driver to score a top five in last year’s 500 and this year’s edition. Mark Martin and Biffle scored top 10s in both races.
  • Keselowski was the only driver to finish in the top 10 in last July’s Firecracker 400 and to repeat the feat in Sunday’s race.
  • The top 10 finishers Sunday drove six Chevys, three Fords and a Toyota. For those of you who didn’t get the memo last season, Dodge left NASCAR, ironically enough after being the mount of our reigning Cup champion.
  • Despite Camry-equipped drivers leading 125 of 200 laps, Toyota is still 0-for-7 in race wins when it comes to the Daytona 500.
  • The average speed for this year’s Daytona 500 was 159.250, the fastest Great American Race since Michael Waltrip won the tragedy-marred 2001 edition averaging 161.783. For comparison’s sake, Junior Johnson won the ‘63 500 at an average speed of 164.083 aboard his Chevy.

What’s the Points? – Oddly enough, the current points standings pretty much mirror the finishing order of Sunday’s race. Can we wait at least a month or two before getting too worked up about the championship?

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) — This one didn’t earn enough beer to fill a Smurf’s shot glass.

Next Up – NASCAR heads off to Phoenix… then Vegas. Wow, talk about two buzz-killers. And hopefully, I am headed back off to work after a nasty bout of pneumonia that damn near killed me.

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