NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Daytona Dilemma, Flagship Ford, And Points Paradox

Primetime vs. Sunshine

Following the excitement and frenzy of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Daytona 500 win Sunday, the chorus of cries began to run towards putting NASCAR’s marquee event in primetime.

“It’s more exciting! It’s under the lights! It’s just like football!”

It’s a horrible idea.

We’ve dabbled with late start times before in the Daytona 500; the 2007 and 2008 affairs both ended under the lights, while the 2009 race was halted abruptly due to – you guessed it – rain. People were apoplectic over it, particularly when post-race coverage showed no precipitation on the track, along with the notion that racing could resume shortly and finish no later than a typical Sunday night NFL game. Had the race started around 1:00 PM, it would have been run in its entirety without a problem.

The first real primetime start was 2012, following the Sunday rainout and run on a Monday evening. That race featured Danica’s first start, and first-lap wreck which collected her as well as Jimmie Johnson. Coupled with the notorious jet dryer incident with Juan Pablo Montoya, it seemed like it was an event made for primetime.

That is, of course if you’re not one of the 150,000+ in attendance that got to spend the previous day huddled under the grandstands like a bunch of refugees. Or if you’re among the thousands that spent, well, thousands to travel down there, but had to leave without seeing the race due to travel arrangements or work commitments. School buses had to slog through mud bogs to carry fans to and from the parking area, as late as 2:00 AM.

Lucky me, I had an interview the following day and had to be home for it. Not sure how the kids got to school in the morning, but I know how we got home: 22 hours straight behind the wheel on three hours of sleep, kept awake only by a steady stream of Monster, Red Bull, and the obligatory stop at Tennessee Alabama Fireworks. That wasn’t ideal.

So, with Daytona here’s the real answer: move it back up a week and start things at 1:00 PM. Had the race been run the second Sunday in February, as it used to be, we would have had a warm day in the mid-70s with no chance of rain. Yeah, I know, the 2003 race got rained out in the middle of the day and Richard Petty won it on that same date, this year in 1964. I guess what I’m saying is just leave things alone, and start it on time. Rain delay coverage might get boring after about the first hour, but so does sitting fists-clenched under the grandstands, cursing the weather and hoping it stops in time to dry the track so you didn’t just waste three days and $1,500.

And stop with the pre-race concert. It’s useless and adds nothing. Just show the Thunderbirds perform, or shorten the pre-race. It’s not a Super Bowl Halftime Show, NASCAR; please stop trying to mimic something it isn’t.

Penske Power

If the Daytona 500 was any indication as to Team Penske’s power this year, Phoenix should serve as confirmation. Brad Keselowski’s Miller Lite Ford looked to be one of the few cars who could mount a legitimate challenge to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and teammate Jimmie Johnson. The Fords of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle looked to have some muscle as well, but Keselowski’s car was superior to both. When Penske left Dodge to return to the fold with Ford, it was explained as a way to better benchmark themselves against the competition with Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.

Mission accomplished. Even with the rash of suspensions and fines levied against both the No. 2 and 22 teams last year, Penske consistently had the better cars compared to Roush, while fielding half the entries. It should serve as no surprise, either, considering this company won the 2012 Sprint Cup Championship as the lone Dodge entry, and nearly won the 1993 Manufacturer’s title on the strength of Rusty Wallace’s 10-win season alone. That year, all the Chevrolet teams combined had nine.

With Speedweeks in the rear-view mirror, the next phase of the 2014 season comes into play: downforce tracks and no minimum ride height requirements. Ford has a new nose on its Fusion, plus they won here in Phoenix last March with Carl Edwards. Brad Keselowski was fourth in that event – and is my pick to win this weekend in the desert.

Point System Paradox

With the new Sprint Cup Series points system that is supposed to reward winning – a win virtually assures you a spot in “The Chase” – might drivers start racing too aggressive, leading to a rash of accidents? Keep in mind we do have one of the best rookie classes since the stellar years of 1993, 2002, and ’06. But with Daytona as their awkward debut, might this lower the bar a bit as to what is acceptable, or attemptable in the closing stages of a race, going for a win? The potential fallout with this aggression is the potential for driver injury and the impact that could have on a team’s season. Look what happened with Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin last year in Fontana, how these cars seem to have a habit of finding the one wall that does not have a SAFER Barrier built into it. Every. Single. Time.

With that said, just how easy will it be to win a race as the year wears on? If one were to assume the usual suspects win a race or two (or five) in the first half of the season, what is to stop them for getting more aggressive with setups, horsepower, strategy, etc., and winning even more races? Once you have that win under your belt, the top teams with the most funding can go for broke virtually every week. A team could still make “The Chase” based on the number of drivers needed to seed the field for the elimination round. However, in the end I wonder if the number of teams that are able to win a race may actually end up being _reduced_ from years prior.

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