Who’s In The Headline – Matt Kenseth added another notch to his Daytona belt. The two-time 500 champ wrestled the lead away from Martin Truex Jr. on lap 56 and took control of NASCAR’s season-opening exhibition race, the Sprint Unlimited. Kenseth did his best rolling chicane maneuvers over the final 19 circuits of the event, successfully stifling any attempted sieges on his lead. (Try saying that one three times fast.) Racing comfortably to the checkered flag, he stayed ahead of Truex by .219 seconds (about a car length or so) to take his first career Sprint Unlimited/Busch Clash/Bud Shootout triumph. Carl Edwards, hot on Truex’s heels landed a podium finish in his first run as the pilot of Joe Gibbs Racing’s new fourth team while Casey Mears and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five.
What Happened? – In a throwback to the golden days of yore, or at least last year’s Daytona 500, the action was intense and bordering on insane for the vast majority of the race. Drivers were two and three-wide for almost all 58 laps that were run in anger under the green flag. While the front handful did stretch out single file a couple of times, it didn’t last long; if anything, it was a moment to catch your breath after holding it for laps on end. As a result, the stress-inducing aggression and close proximity of racing led to a caution-filled event; a full half of the field was taken out by a “Big One” and two small ones, the plate wrecks even NASCAR novices know are coming.
Why Should You Care? – The one fact that rang true for most everyone who commented after the race was that it is very difficult to pass the leader under this rules package. As a result, those running lower than fifth at any point during the 500 are probably going to take some very risky chances to try and move forward. Expect one or more large wrecks, similar to Saturday night that will eliminate a large number of competitors from any chance of victory.
“Water Cooler” Talk Amongst Friends
Some of them love restrictor plate racing and some of them hate it. (That goes for drivers as well as fans). But after Saturday night and Sunday, they are all talking about it. Racing was intense from the drop of the green at Daytona. There was three-wide action just about every lap, an intensity the drivers can’t avoid. The total carnage that ensued, ones that saw teams lose racecars worth six figures is going to generate a buzz. Now, it is up to fans to decide if that is the type of buzz that they want to see.
Most people go to Florida in the winter time to enjoy the warmth of the bright sunshine. It’s a brief respite during the doldrums of winter, a cold that grips most of the rest of the country and drives people to fits of depression. With that said, it is only natural that we hold the Sprint Unlimited race at night. The temperature at race time was a balmy 54 degrees with winds that felt like they were blowing 30-40 mph. People were walking around pit lane dressed like they were in attendance for the Iditarod, not the Sprint Unlimited. Sadly, the sport draws far more money from television revenue than at track attendance so this event, whatever it is called going forward, will most likely continue to take place in very cold conditions unless someone with racing sense takes control. Maybe a new title sponsor will fix things?
Sunday’s qualifying format leaves a lot to be desired. When knockout qualifying was announced for 2014, Daytona was excluded because of the uniqueness of the race and its format to set the starting lineup. Unfortunately, that thinking went out the window this year with disastrous results. Even with the session time limits reduced to five minutes, we still saw cars sit on pit lane for four of them before making a dash to the line. The end result was something between a gold rush and a group of clowns in a parade, a point openly reinforced by pointed criticism from Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman and others.
Fixing it? Now that’s the tough call. Single-car qualifying is what is best for the teams but it isn’t going to turn the knob on television sets. That is what this sport is all about these days and it will take some data analysis to try and determine if the expense justifies the reward.
The most obvious answer is Kevin Harvick. Last year’s champion bounced off of the third turn wall late in the event thanks to Joey Logano bump drafting him hard into the corner. Harvick, who bailed out of his car on pit lane after the checkered flag went searching for Logano after slamming into the side of the No. 22 Ford. A verbal confrontation ensued, one where heated words seamed to come from Harvick’s mouth more than Logano’s. In the end, this incident isn’t the first failure to see eye-to-eye on something between these two kids. It is probably going to take a major donnybrook between their teams before this one is hashed out in the NASCAR hauler this year. On the plus side, it will have the potential for another ratings-boosting black eye for the sport, as the mainstream media runs more video of an all-out melee in the garage or on pit road.
Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard, Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle are all mad at Bobby Allison for tearing down the catchfence at Talladega in 1987, causing NASCAR to implement restrictor plates that ended up contributing to their vehicles being destroyed Saturday night.
Bowyer is doubly mad after his Daytona 500 car was destroyed in qualifying on Sunday, the victim of an incident where Reed Sorenson slid up in front of him. Bowyer pulled no punches afterwards, claiming, “It ain’t [Sorenson’s] fault. It’s NASCAR’s fault for putting us out in the middle of this crap for nothing.”
Monday Morning Smiles
Casey Mears came home in fourth place Saturday night with all of the fenders intact on his car and a $38,000 check in his company’s bank account. For a small team like Germain Racing to make it through an event where half of the field was eliminated and also post a top-five result is a great start to the season. Now, if they can build on that momentum next weekend the year could start off well down the road to shocking the world.
AJ Allmendinger, David Gilliland and Brian Scott, along with their teams, are in a great mood after they chose not to compete on Saturday night. They made the decision that the return on investment was not worth the risk of destroyed equipment. Well, with everyone below third place receiving less than $40,000, paired with 13 teams stuffing mangled racecars in their haulers it would seem like they made the right decision.
Jeff Gordon is sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500 in his final full season running the Cup series. The endless stories that will be written this week about that fact will be enough to drive some people to drink. However, it is a great story, one that reaches Cinderella status if he’s able to ride that momentum to a victory in the race.
When the checkered flag flew:
- Kenseth won the 3rd Annual Sprint Unlimited. It is his first victory in this race in his career.
- The win is Kenseth’s second career top five in the race and his fifth top-10 result.
- Truex Jr.’s second-place finish was his first career top five in this event and his second career top 10. Truex led one lap all season last year; Saturday night, he led 28.
- Edwards’ podium finish was his first career top five in this race and third top 10.
- Larson scored a top five in his first-ever run in the event.
- Gordon’s qualifying run is his 78th career pole, third on the all-time list behind Richard Petty‘s 123 and David Pearson‘s 113. It is Gordon’s fourth pole in 45 career races at Daytona.
Rating From The Cooler (1-6 Beers) – Love or hate plate racing, the Unlimited offered wide open excitement from the drop of the green flag until the checkered was waved. Drivers moving from the back to the front, sweeping from the top of the track to the bottom and back to the top all while inches clear of their competition gives the fans plenty to cheer about. While people deny it, they like to see crashes and half of the field was torn up. So, with that in mind I give five frosty cans of Budweiser for the start of the 2015 season. I’m sure the fans in attendance would agree.
As for the qualifying fiasco on Sunday, it was a horrendous way to start setting the field for the biggest race of the NASCAR season. Watching racecars sit stationary for four of the five minutes of the final session to determine the pole for the Daytona 500 is an abomination. While fixing it is going to be a challenge, something has to be done. I’ll do my part and hand out one moldy can of Hop ‘n’ Gator for the qualifying of the Great American Race.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – Thursday night at 7:00 p.m ET, the Duel qualifying races will be shown on FOX Sports 1. The races will also be broadcast on MRN and their affiliates. Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET the Daytona 500 rolls off on FOX with coverage on MRN as well.