It seemed at times during Saturday’s NXS race the event might be eternal but as I write this Monday morning, I have it from a good source close to the situation all racing has concluded at Daytona Beach and the circus has packed up and rolled out of town.
Like every year since 1982 the Cup season kicked off with what most hold to be the biggest event on the annual schedule, the Daytona-ByGum-500. (If you want to argue the Brickyard 400 is on the same level, I blow my nose in your general direction. Now if you want to say the Southern 500 is still the granddaddy of them all, brother pull up a stool and have a brew on me.)
Like every year, one race deep into the season some folks are trying to analyze trends for the upcoming season based on the result of Happy Daytona Day. (I’m almost certain FOX wasn’t intending to be ironic when they penned the line “Happy Daytona Day Only On FOX” despite the fact it seems to be the only place where the quasi-holiday is celebrated.) Like every year, however, what we can take away from Daytona is damn little.
The Daytona 500 is an event unique to itself. Even the Firecracker 400 run in the heat of the summer is a completely different race. In fact, back in the day, the teams would bring their low drag fastback cars to the 500 and their high downforce notchbacks to the 400. Talladega is the only other plate track on the schedule, and it’s a totally different beast from Daytona in that it’s much wider which gives drivers more room within which to crash. The circuit now heads off to Atlanta, one of the intermediate, shallowly banked tracks that make up the meat and potatoes of the NASCAR Cup schedule the sort of tracks where a title will actually be decided….if anyone can still figure out the points that deep into the season. The “intermediate” tracks range in length from one mile to two with a preponderance of them around a mile and a half. Certainly while they are both mile tracks Dover is very different from Phoenix, but other tracks like Atlanta and Charlotte are virtual clones separated only by GPS coordinates. I’ve always maintained the real season starts the weekend after Daytona.
So is there any takeaway from Daytona that might predict what this season will look like? It was hard not to note that the Stewart-Haas Racing organization made the switch from Chevy to Ford (and Hendrick to Yates engines) without missing a step. Kurt Busch obviously won the race in his new mount which was said to be designed by someone who had a Focus rental car for the weekend. Kevin Harvick was clearly fast throughout Speedweeks. Clint Bowyer was celebrating his return to a competitive car like a man just released from indenture. Even the girl member of the team was showing some speed at times, at least when they could get Danica Patrick to stop stomping on boxes of her former sponsor’s fig bars. (I found it curious that company went on record as saying SHR could not “control” the ever effervescent Ms. Patrick. “Control”, really? That sounds a little too Stepford Wives for my taste.) While SHR certainly exceeded expectations at Daytona with Busch’s victory Sunday four of the last six points races at Daytona have been won by Fords. Again, we’ll have to wait to see if the team can also figure out their new mounts on the intermediate tracks.
Also on the issue of the distaff members of the circus, Monster Energy’s marketing guy said that despite some objections from the Bible-Belters the Monster Girls won’t be changing their “uniforms” this season. Wow. I hope they reconsider that decision. If those young ladies wear the same outfits all season including through the heat of the summer they’ll likely be smelling pretty rank by Homestead.
On the record, I do not believe the fix was in to allow Busch in the Monster car to win the first full points race in which they were title sponsor. I also read that Monster got the bargain of the century with that sponsorship in that their 20 million dollar investment in NASCAR this year has already yielded more than 22 million dollars’ worth of exposure given Busch’s win alone. I don’t believe that either.
Perhaps it was notable to some that Daytona International Speedway sold out of grandstand tickets for the second year in a row. That has to give other tracks on the schedule going forward hope. If they too tear out enough seats they could also sell out, though Fontana might be left with three or four recliners in the back of an F350 as reserved seating.
Certainly we all saw graphic evidence even 7-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is human. Daytona seems to be kryptonite to him lately. He suffered through a series of poor runs and wrecked four times. Perhaps it will be of comfort to the 48 bunch and his fans that since Atlanta took over the second race date of the season two years ago, Johnson has won both Cup events at the track.
As for the new “five-minute” rule to repair wrecked race cars, I think race fans were pretty much evenly divided. Half of them didn’t understand the rule and the half that did didn’t think much of it. Then Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wrecked and wasn’t allowed to return to the track, at which point almost everybody instantly hated the new rule. Many of Earnhardt Nation were baffled that the new rule also applied to the 88 car. I will say this: this five-minute clock needs to be more transparent. Fans watching from the grandstands and at home need to be able to see the clock ticking down so everyone knows everything is on the up and up. The first time a driver seems to have exceeded the time limit but is allowed to return to the race, or the first time a popular driver seems to have just made it but is judged to have missed the cutoff by a few seconds, you’re going to hear more howling, mewling and whining since Prez Woody Wilson explained that the 18th amendment (which he tried to veto) meant that beer was illegal in the US. It didn’t help matters any that the presenting network Friday claimed that Christopher Bell had exceeded his time limit not once but twice on his way to an eighth-place finish.
I see the pros and cons of the five-minute rule. I don’t like seeing junk cars out on the track shedding part,s especially if the safety of the driver piloting the rambling wreck might be compromised by the damage in another collision. On the other hand, I recall the Atlanta season finale of 1973. Benny Parsons entered the event as the points leader but soon got swept up in a wreck not of his making. His orange Chevy was trashed but his team and volunteers from other smaller teams worked frantically to piece the Chevelle back together in time to allow Parsons to return to the track and run enough laps to clinch the title. It was a rare “David Beats Goliath” story in NASCAR’s history. That might have been before most of you started following the sport but perhaps you were around for the 2000 Daytona 500? Dale Earnhardt the original was in a violent wreck that saw the No. 3 car flip, though it landed back on its wheels. Earnhardt originally got in the ambulance but after looking out the window and seeing all four wheels were still on his car he decided to hop in and see it would start. It did, and Earnhardt went on to finish the race on the lead lap, albeit in 21st place. It was a vivid display of the “never say die” gumption that made Earnhardt a folk hero, and the move was met by thunderous applause. Had NASCAR decided Earnhardt broke some five-minute rule and was eliminated likely there’d have been wholesale rioting, perhaps coast to coast. Perhaps it would be easier to just have all cars running two laps down or more exit the race with 40 laps left to go. (Without throwing a caution.)
The 500 was also the first time NASCAR rolled out their brand spanking new bit of gadgetry, running all three of the top touring series races in segments. Well, um, maybe they should have done a bit more tweaking to the rule before being sent out center stage. The truck race was a mess, with the first caution falling at the end of the first lap and wound up with another big wreck on the last lap, meaning almost thirty percent of the race was run under caution. Compared to Saturday’s NXS race the truck event looked like a Smurfs’ picnic. 34% of that race was run under caution and the average green flag run was less than eight laps. Between ten yellow flags and two red flag periods the race dragged on forever. Curiously the winners of segment one and two in the truck and NXS race didn’t go on to win the race. Elliott Sadler won both segment one and two on Saturday but failed to finish the race. (Sadler finished 24th) Oddly enough he is listed as third in the NXS points thanks to those 20 “bonus” points for the segment wins. In the truck event, Johnny Sauter finished 15th in a thoroughly thrashed Chevy that went airborne and flipped. Still he’s listed second in the points four positions and seven points ahead of Austin Wayne Self who finished second in the race itself. Kyle Busch won Stage (when did we switch from “Segment” to “Stage”? “Stage” is a hot rod Buick to me, but I guess all the world’s a stage) One but of course crashed out of the race. Those mischievous pranksters at Goodyear apparently once again gave Busch a set of their novelty tires that don’t hold air, unlike the tires on the other 39 cars. It’s getting old guys.
Silly as it seems to me, the actual bonus points system isn’t as obnoxious as the delay of game they cause. By my clock (and believe it or not it’s not a sundial) the break between green flag racing in segments one and two and segments two and three were 14 minutes and 12 minutes, damn near a half hour despite FOX’s overly optimistic prediction the segment breaks would last five minutes. I never believed that. A caution lap at Daytona lasts over two and half a minutes as it is. The race lasted about four hours and 15 minutes. FOX spent 45 of those minutes away in commercial and another 15 minutes with race coverage side by side with ads on the larger portion of the screen.
You’ve got to fear that Monster wasn’t impressed with those delays. After all, in their Supercross series the two 250cc events are fifteen minutes plus one lap each and the two 450cc main events are twenty minutes plus one lap each. Twenty minutes is apparently the maximum amount of time a Millennial can concentrate on anything without having his brain explode. I raced motorcross with some success decades ago (to give you an idea the Elsinores were just edging out the Husqvarnas and Bultacos as the bike to beat, but yes they ran on gas not coal) we’d run either two forty-minute motos or two thirty-minute motos plus two laps with the overall winner decided by best average finish in both races and ties broken by the better result in moto 2. Let me tell you, forty minutes on an insanely powerful 250cc two stroke bike on a natural outdoor course will kick even a teenager’s ass and I routinely finished better in the first contest than the second because I was just flat worn out. So it would seem Monster will want shorter races, and my guess is when they weigh in they’d like a 33% reduction. I’m going to guess there’s not going to be a companion 33% reduction in ticket prices, nor will TV ratings jump 33 percent if the change is made.
Another feud that might be brewing involves Monster and the sport’s most popular driver and most successful team. When Monster took over title sponsor rights, the 5-hour Energy sponsorship on Eric Jones car was grandfathered in. That seemed to be the only conflict of interest but apparently Monster also makes a lemon-lime type soda type drink with caffeine (and Mountain Dew has a ton of caffeine too) called, ahem, Mutant. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and in fact the other three Hendrick drivers to a lesser extent, all carry backing from Mountain Dew. (Which is basically a Pepsi product while Monster falls under the Coke umbrella.) And the war between Mutant and Mountain Dew is about to go nuclear. As such the PR shots of the cars Hendrick distributes don’t include the Monster decals on the side or along the top of the windshield. When the cars are in race trim they do carry the correct decals, but the Monster patch on the right shoulder of Junior’s driving outfit is held on by Velcro so he can he remove it when it’s not required he wear it. At one point this week he was sporting the Monster patch upside down. Yep, 20 million a year gets you NASCAR but not Earnhardt. (And you might have noted that once Junior wrecked out Sunday about a third of the fans packed up and left.) Buyer beware.
NASCAR has grown used to criticism, but rarely does the organization get bitch-slapped with publicity like a story in the Wall Street Journal did last week saying in essence NASCAR has hit the skids and its glory days are over. One bit of evidence cited in the article included the rather aloof stance Brian France displays towards at least the actual races in NASCAR. Perhaps to refute that perception or perhaps because his handler accidentally let him off the leash Sunday France chose to make a rare statement at the morning drivers’ meeting prior to the 500. He had very little to say but used comparatively many words to say it. Drivers, team owners, and media members alike were left baffled by what France said and huddled together to try to unencrypt what he said. I think basically it came down to NASCAR doesn’t like blocking. NASCAR thinks it causes the big wrecks. But NASCAR is not going to police blocking. That’s up to the drivers. It was an odd thing to say in that blocking wasn’t the cause of all the wrecks last week. More often it was bump-drafting gone wrong that triggered the big accidents. France said that if a driver chose to block he better hope the driver behind him was a “Good Samaritan”. I think he was actually going for the other driver better be a believer in the Golden Rule and not Old Testament like Kyle Busch. France went on to add “Don’t look for NASCAR.” I think what he was admitting there was by lap 20 most of the NASCAR brass would already have left the track to beat post-race traffic headed for a gentleman’s’ club with an open tab.
Obviously the biggest SNAFU of the weekend was reserved for Hollywood not Daytona Beach. Some might say there was some karma in play there. Imagine if Kurt Busch had been directed to head to victory lane but before he could get the first ball cap on, someone rushed in to say there’d been a scoring error. Busch had exceeded his five minutes of repair time in the pits. And the actual winner was…..Dale Earnhardt, Jr.! Yep, that’s pretty far-fetched. But as long as NASCAR officialdom keeps living in a LaLa Land where some cheap gimmicks are going to fix everything, we’ve got a lot of Moonlight between us and the new dawn of stock car racing under another umbrella.