NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Five Points to Ponder: Pole Conspiracies, Smoke Rising and the Great American Race

ONE: And We’re Back

The NASCAR offseason is just about the shortest in all of professional sports. So why does it always feel like ages between the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the start of Daytona Speedweeks?

I’ll leave that answer to those more qualified in the study of neurosciences in the human brain, but I for one was itching for some on-track action after what was for much of the country a bitter, frigid winter. Unlike in years past, the offseason was chock full of announcements, from new qualifying formats to a completely new way of crowning the champion — replete with snazzy monikers for the different Chase segments — and not to mention a slew of other stories (the return of the No. 3, for example) and other controversies.

All this change bodes well for what might be the most unpredictable season we’ve ever had. Yes, we can all make predictions about who might be the champion and who’ll be racing for a title in the final race, but no one has any idea how this new format will play out — and that should spice things up considerably. The Sprint Unlimited was a robust appetizer, the Budweiser Duels will ratchet up the excitement a notch on Thursday afternoon and then it’s the big race this Sunday. Can’t wait.

TWO: Pole Conspiracies

I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next, but those suggesting that NASCAR somehow contrived to fix Daytona 500 qualifying so that the No. 3 Chevrolet of Austin Dillon would start the race on the pole need to get a life — and quick.

In its return to the Sprint Cup Series, the No. 3 won the pole in Daytona. Too good to be true?
In its return to the Sprint Cup Series, the No. 3 won the pole in Daytona. Too good to be true?

In its return to the Sprint Cup Series, the No. 3 won the pole in Daytona. Too good to be true?

Sadly, it’s a repeat of 2013, when there was all the whispering about Danica Patrick’s pole-winning qualifying run. It truly is fatuous nonsense. Why on earth would NASCAR do it? What is the upside in a race where qualifying means essentially nothing? Yes, seeing the legendary number atop the scoring tower for the most storied race in the sport is fantastic and historic. It’s also not going to put one more butt in a grandstand seat or garner one more set of eyeballs on the TV broadcast. At best, it’s a minor sideshow that will be forgotten by about the second lap.

And, just for the record, Dillon is the fifth rookie to start the 500 on the pole, following Patrick, Jimmie Johnson, Mike Skinner and Loy Allen. Richard Childress Racing cars have always been fast on restrictor plate tracks and this run is just another example of that long tradition of excellence for Richard Childress Racing at Daytona and Talladega. Nothing more, nothing less.

THREE: Smoke Signals

Wasn’t it great to see Tony Stewart back on track in the Sprint Unlimited after a 15-race, seven-month absence from serious competition? Stewart is one of the true great characters of NASCAR and his absence was sorely felt last season by fans, media, officials and competitors alike.

Stewart’s night ended early in the Unlimited, though as part of a nine-car melee on lap 36 of the 75 scheduled laps. “I was a little nervous about it because I knew we were going to hit nose-first, but it doesn’t feel bad at all,” Stewart said post-race — and that is good news. Crashes are as inevitable as death and taxes, so at least he’s got the first one out of the way early on.

Now his thoughts will turn to winning the big race for the first time in 16 attempts. As you would expect, Stewart is confident. “I always like my chances here,” he said. “You can’t win 19 races here and not win the big one at some point.” Don’t be surprised if he finally gets it done on Sunday — and what a popular result that would be.

FOUR: The Great American Race

Sunday will mark the 56th running of the Great American Race, a tradition that stretches all the way back to the roots of NASCAR in 1959. Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500 in what was a hugely controversial finish; initially, the judges gave the win to Johnny Beauchamp, only for the Petty patriarch to be adjudged the winner after three days of review and assessment.

Since then, the roll call of Daytona 500 winners reads like a history book of NASCAR Hall of Fame types, as is right and proper for such a prestigious event. It’s been the first race of the season since 1982 (a fact I’ll admit I didn’t know before I began writing this article; I had erroneously assumed it was longer). It certainly is a strange thing to have the first race of the season be the biggest and to have the largest purse. But on the other hand, it starts the year off strongly, and that’s important this time more than most with the myriad of changes. Bring it on. Enjoy the race, folks.

FIVE: Seventh Heaven for Johnson

And finally this week, it’s the time of year where we all make predictions and prognostications as to how this season might transpire.

As I mentioned above, this season is harder to call than perhaps any since the Chase began in 2004. No one has any idea exactly how the new format will break down with the three elimination points and the winner-take-all race at Homestead.

All that being said, my tip to win it all this year is Jimmie Johnson. Not exactly a brave forecast, I know, but something in my water tells me this year is the one during which Johnson joins Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt atop the list of most championships. I know Johnson divides opinion — with the vanilla label bandied around him like it’s a bad thing. But for me, Johnson is hands-down the greatest driver of this era (and that’s saying something, with the level of competition), arguably the greatest of any era. Winning a seventh title will cement a legacy that already needs no embellishment.

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