Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, Amy says not much from Daytona carries over to the rest of the season, but she has five things we did learn from Speedweeks.
1. Denny Hamlin is an early title favorite
Hamlin was stellar throughout Speedweeks, winning the exhibition Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel. The only hiccup was a second-place run in the Daytona 500, which is hardly something to hang someone’s head over. Hamlin also won the season finale at Homestead last year, and he’s outstanding at Phoenix—only Jimmie Johnson has a better finishing average there, and Hamlin has finished inside the top 10 in more than half his starts at PIR. If a Chase berth can get clinched early, Hamlin can relax and enjoy the ride, something he never got to do in 2013.
Hamlin is a driver for whom it’s clearly important to have a psychological edge. Get in his head and he’s as good as beaten. What he and the No. 11 team need is to have a solid first half of the season, in preparation for the Chase, building Hamlin’s confidence as they go. The team has some of the best equipment in the garage, so all he needs to do is put it all together. That happened in Daytona and there’s no reason to think Hamlin won’t keep doing it.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Daytona 500 win was exciting and historic, but could it spell larger things for his 2014 season?
2. And so is Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Yes, it’s early, and the driver simply known as Junior has a tendency to be his own worst enemy. But what we saw in Earnhardt at Daytona was something we haven’t seen in him in years… and when we did see it in the past, it was while Earnhardt was winning fifteen races in five seasons nearly a decade ago. What’s been missing? Earnhardt’s willingness to go out and take the win. He’s won some races, yes, but his more recent wins have been ones he drove fairly easily to. This time, it was no Sunday drive for Earnhardt, who had to hold off Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Jeff Gordon — three of the best in the game — to take the big prize. And he did just that by making the car a mile wide when he needed to, en route to doing something his father never did: winning a second Daytona 500.
Now, with a Chase berth assured, Earnhardt doesn’t have to pressure himself to win. He can go forward in fine-tuning mode. And often, after having the pressure to perform removed, a driver continues to excel, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see Earnhardt win another race or two before the Chase. If he can be there at the end, they’re there for the taking… and for the first time in a long time, Earnhardt looks like he’s ready to be on the take. Can he capture the title, too?
3. NASCAR needs to revisit a few things in the rulebook
There are a couple of tweaks NASCAR needs to consider after a couple of botched calls in Daytona. For one, they need to let racers race. Penalizing James Buescher for pushing Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series race was just a lousy call all around. Buescher said he wasn’t pushing, and Keselowski and his rear bumper camera back him up. It appears that even NASCAR might be second-guessing their call, as they have refused to give ESPN, who has the on-board camera footage, the time when the call was made, making it impossible to look at what they were seeing. The rule is simply too subjective, and NASCAR ought to back off and let the racing evolve as it will, even if that means tandem drafting. The current rules raise more questions than providing answers. What happens if a driver pulls out of line intending to make a run… and only one other driver takes the bait? Are they going to be penalized for trying to race (after all, they’ve been warned to give 100%, right?) If NASCAR wants to eliminate the tandems, they need to make changes to the cars that discourage it, not a bunch of rules that are next to impossible to enforce fairly.
The other call NASCAR blew was Kasey Kahne’s speeding penalty in the Daytona 500. Kahne clearly sped up to avoid a spinning Michael Annett, and he appeared to slow back down to pit road speed as he came to his pit. Did Kahne speed? Yes, absolutely. But given that his other choice was to get involved in a crash with Annett, NASCAR could have given him a pass since he did slow down. Drivers are allowed to come down pit road too fast if they did it to avoid an incident on track…but they’re not allowed to try and avoid a spin on pit road. Kahne might have avoided the penalty if he hadn’t pitted, similar to evading a wreck on track, but it shouldn’t have been up to him to make that call on the spur of the moment, especially when he was clearly doing his best to avoid trouble and slowed back down to follow the rules.
4. Fans love an underdog
It’s kind of funny to call a frontrunner for a series title an underdog, but since no Nationwide regular had won the season opener in Daytona since 2001, that’s exactly what Regan Smith was on Saturday. Smith held off Cup regular Brad Keselowski for the win, and the finish went over like gangbusters with fans, especially on the heels of a Kyle Busch win in the Camping World Truck Series the night before. Smith, the reigning Most Popular Driver in the Nationwide Series, took the checkers and fans couldn’t have been happier — especially if reaction in Daytona and on social media were any indication.
And perhaps NASCAR is taking notice, as the sanctioning body says they’ll take a closer look at some rules for 2015 to limit Cup drivers in the lower series. Recently, it seems as though more fans have stopped watching those races because of the dominance of the Cup drivers and their superior equipment, more than were watching them only to see the big names — changes are long overdue. There needs to be a way to let the Cup guys race sometimes, to let the drivers get a taste of that competition, but watching them run roughshod over the field every week wasn’t the answer. Now, at least NASCAR appears to be ready to address the question.
5. The learning curve is still steep
Talent is a wonderful thing to have, but it can only take a driver so far, and some of NASCAR’s excellent rookie class learned that the hard way at Daytona. Both Brian Scott and Austin Dillon were at the root of incidents on Sunday (Dillon triggering two separate wrecks and Scott getting damage from three incidents, though he only set one off), and it’s likely that inexperience coupled with being overeager was to blame. Other rookies were victims of accidents: Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, and Michael Annett all failed to finish, though some of them got within ten laps of the end before their misfortunes. Only Alex Bowman made it through the race without being on either the starting or the receiving end of a wreck.
Could all (or even any) of the drivers swept up in those accidents have avoided them with more experience? That’s hard to say at a restrictor plate track. It’s even harder to say that Scott and Dillon were in over their heads, but it is clear that the path to the top in this sport isn’t an easy one. Even the most talented youngsters will have to learn some lessons the hard way.
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