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, has five things that could make race fans leave Daytona happy.
1. No controversy
This one’s important, and will probably be harder to achieve than it should be. But what fans need to see is a race with nothing they can argue about with NASCAR. That means no inspection issues, no questionable cautions, no cause for questions. All in all, there needs to be no reason for anyone to question the outcome.
With conspiracy theories flying left and right (most of them completely baseless), in order to quiet them, NASCAR needs a race that’s straightforward. On a restrictor plate track, there should be little reason for a debris caution that’s not legit, because there’s no need to try and make a closer race of it. But any penalties that are not cut and dried also fuel the fire. The hardest thing to police in a race at Daytona is the yellow line, so any penalties there need to be consistent (and don’t hold your breath, because this is one area where they have never been consistent). Of course, if any car bearing the Chevrolet banner, especially one from Hendrick Motorsports or a team running Hendrick equipment, wins the race, accusations of “fixing” will pop up, no matter how the win goes down, but what’s really needed is a race that runs its course, from flag to flag, without any reason to wonder if NASCAR was manipulating the outcome.
2. A first-time winner
There are few feel-good stories as compelling as a driver taking home his first career win. There’s nothing quite like watching someone take the checkers for the first time, hearing his words on the radio, seeing the raw emotion of his experience. With plate racing being an equalizer of sorts, there are certainly some drivers who could use a little of that first-time magic. There’s Kyle Larson, who’s been knocking on the door of a top finish a few times this year. Or AJ Allmendinger, longing to prove himself after his fall from grace a couple of years ago. Maybe David Gilliland, whose teammate did what many thought impossible by taking tiny Front Row Motorsports to the winner’s circle last year and whose Nationwide Series win was one of the most improbable in recent memory. For most drivers, the first win is the sweetest, and sharing in that is good for fans, too.
3. Or at least someone different
If there can’t be a first-time winner this weekend, perhaps an improbable one would do just as well. Again, there are a few possibilities: Tony Stewart who has won the summer race at Daytona four times but is struggling this year after a devastating leg injury last summer. David Ragan has won both at Daytona, and in his current, underfunded, Front Row ride. Road-course specialist Marcos Ambrose is racing for his job. Casey Mears was once an up-and-coming talent who has recently toiled with an underfunded team that was once a championship outfit, so both driver and team have something to prove. It would be hard not to enjoy a win by any of these racers. This would provide a break from the same ol’, same ol’, and make for a great story to boot.
4. A little rivalry
While Daytona isn’t the place to take out petty grievances on another driver, it’s the kind of track where it’s easy to get angry at someone. If that can be channeled into controlled aggression, it can make for some moments that fans remember for a long time. There’s been talk of a rivalry between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, and those two have put on a show for fans before because they race each other with respect. That’s the kind of rivalry that’s good for NASCAR and its fans, but those two aren’t the only ones who could create quite a story. There are teammates and former teammates who would like nothing more than to best each other. There are old friends who’ve battled for years and young guns trying to make a name for themselves. The sport needs something polarizing for fans, and a close, clean on-track rivalry could be exactly that as fans take sides and align themselves with one
side or the other.
5. Two grooves that work
Restrictor plate racing is only fun to watch if the cars don’t spend too much time strung out in a line, and in order for that to happen, there need to be two lanes that work equally well so two, or even three, draft lines can race each other successfully. If only the bottom groove is working, then the field strings out, but if the top runs equally well¸ it makes for quite a show as the two lines battle back and forth for dominance. If a third line can work its way up the middle, that’s icing on the cake. There have been some compelling races this year, but not enough of them recently to keep fans excited. A barn-burner to open the unofficial second half of the season would be just what the doctor ordered to make everyone sit up and take notice.