ONE: A Finish for the Ages
The simple truth is that the vast majority of the 2016 Daytona 500 was little more than a 200 MPH procession. We saw the odd single car spin — Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Danica Patrick — but there wasn’t a Big One, nor any really significant passes for the lead beyond pit road exchanges. That, of course, changed in the final two-and-a-half miles, when we saw a monstrous bump-and-run, a thrilling inches-from-disaster pass, a unbelievable save from Matt Kenseth, a drag race to the finish for the ages and the closest finish in the history of the Great American Race since the advent of electronic scoring in 1993. For Denny Hamlin it was very much a career defining victory (and more on that below) whilst for Martin Truex, Jr. and Kenseth, all that was left was the bitter taste of defeat. For Truex, Jr. in particular it was an agonizing few inches from what would have been a storybook victory celebrated throughout the NASCAR community. “They don’t get much more crushing than that,” said Kenseth, who was seeking a third career Daytona 500 and was, right up until turns three and four of the final lap, very much the driver in the proverbial catbird seat. Truex was more sanguine, but the pain of such a close defeat was etched on his face. The bigger picture for Truex, though, is teammates – something he’s not really had for a few years. You suspect there is plenty more to come for the New Jersey native in 2016. He’ll be one to watch long after the pain of this defeat has subsided.
TWO: Hamlin’s Career-Defining Moment:
Few serious prognosticators would deny that Denny Hamlin is a great racecar driver, as his career results (27 wins to date and at least one victory in all eleven full time season) would attest, but for the most part Hamlin’s career has been defined much more by what he hasn’t done – what he hasn’t achieved. Back in 2010, Hamlin had a tremendous season, winning eight of the first 34 races. Heading into Phoenix, he looked all set to dethrone the at the time seemingly unbeatable Jimmie Johnson and win a maiden Cup championship. But a late-race pit stop in the desert screwed things up, and Hamlin confounded his misery with an early spin at Homestead-Miami Raceway, opening the door for Johnson to steam through and win what was then his fifth straight championship. Then again in 2014, Hamlin held the lead with six laps to go of the race – just nine paltry miles from a championship – but couldn’t hold off Kevin Harvick. Yesterday, though, there can be no doubting Hamlin got it done when it counted the most. “It’s the pinnacle of my career, for sure,” said Hamlin in the post race press conference. “I haven’t got a championship yet. This is obviously the biggest win for myself.” With his playoff place all but secured, Hamlin has the time to bed in his new crew chief and great friend Mike Wheeler and get set for another shot at a hitherto elusive championship.
THREE: Jeff Gordon
Talk about a seamless transition for old Four-Time himself, Jeff Gordon, who switched from hanging up his driver gloves to the booth just like the old pro that he is. I really thought Gordon brought some great insight to proceedings throughout the race and with a fresh perspective and up-to-date analysis we saw from long-time crew chief Steve Letarte and veteran driver Jeff Burton when they shifted to NBC broadcasting duties midway through last season. I’ve not been shy in the past in bashing FOX coverage from the broadcast booth, but the addition of Gordon is going to be a real bonus and one that for this writer at least will lessen some of the shouty WE ARE FOX SPORTS stuff to which we are more often than not subjected. There will be much less hyperbole and frippery with Gordon behind the microphone than is usually the case, too, and that can only be a good thing. We already know Gordon is a first ballot Hall of Fame driver. That’s unarguable. But yesterday we might just have seen the start of a Hall of Fame broadcasting career. There’s much to come from the crafty veteran. I’m excited to see it play out over the first half of the season.
FOUR: Commercial Recap
One of the broadcasting trends we’ve seen these past few years is less driver-sponsor advertising. A decade ago when I first started covering NASCAR, you would see a veritable plethora of drivers hawking their sponsor products but over the last five years that number has dwindled. So it was good to see a few more this time around with some notable efforts including Greg Biffle leading off the first commercial break with a KFC spot. Note, also, that Sprint didn’t pay for that all-important first ad – they were second up. We also had some fun new Nationwide ads with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as an office worker and then more Junior with the Valvoline Pit Pals spot. But for me, the winning ad was the new official NASCAR campaign from advertising agency giants Ogilvy and Mather and in particular the It’s in our blood spot.
There are many obvious routes you can take with NASCAR advertising and this one treads a different, yet simple, path. This was really nicely done and for me, at least, an improvement from what we’ve seen in the past couple years. Long may this trend continue.
FIVE: Next Up… Atlanta
Next up, we head to another famous NASCAR circuit – Atlanta Motor Speedway. This will give us our first look at the 2016 racing package and I have to say my hopes are really high. The short sample size we had from last season when the 2016 rules package was tested at both Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway, suggest that we could be in for some close and compelling racing at circuits where traditionally that’s not the case. This will be Cup race number 109 at the track, a streak that runs all the way back to the legendary Fireball Roberts winning the first ever Atlanta race back in July of 1960. In many ways, after all the hoopla of the 500, this is the real start of the season and after Sunday’s 500 miles are in the books, we’ll be able to get some first insights into who will be fast this calendar year. Plus, the weather already looks favorable so let’s hope that continues. Should be a fun one to watch, folks.
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