ONE: Congratulations, Austin Dillon
In the deluge of Daytona post-race coverage, I’ve seen some folks question the nature of Austin Dillon’s career-defining victory in the Great American Race. The way he took out Aric Almirola on that final lap of the Daytona 500 didn’t sit well, it seems. It wasn’t “the way it should be done.”
To those of that opinion, I say simply listen to the words of the second-place finisher. You know, the man whose dream was crushed into the back straight catchfence in a blink of an eye with victory in the 500 just two corners away.
“He’s not driving too aggressively, he’s trying to win the Daytona 500 just like I was,” Almirola said of Dillon’s winning move. “I saw him come with the momentum and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500. I wasn’t gonna just let him have it.”
It was a line of argument Almirola continued to espouse on Twitter Monday morning.
Laid in bed replaying the last lap a million times in my head last night. Nothing I’d change. Woke up this morning with a new focus. Trying to win the next 35 races and run for a championship.@SmithfieldBrand @FordPerformance @StewartHaasRcng
— Aric Almirola (@Aric_Almirola) February 19, 2018
Two immediate thoughts here.
Firstly, Almirola is a gentleman. That’s not to say the fire doesn’t burn in him – it clearly does. But if anyone would react magnanimously to such a crushing disappointment, Almirola would likely be that driver.
Secondly, this is the freaking Daytona 500. If you’re not doing absolutely everything to win – especially when you have a shot at it on the final lap – then why on earth are you taking part? It’s not a Sunday afternoon drive up the coast. It’s the 60th running of the biggest, most storied stock car race of them all, a chance to write your name in huge letters in the sport’s storied history.
“Too early,” said Jeff Gordon on the FOX Sports broadcast. That was following the end of a stage one wreck that took out six drivers, including Jimmie Johnson and William Byron, the driver of the No. 24 Gordon made famous.
“Stage points are important but the Daytona 500 is the most important thing.”
Those words are coming straight from the lips of a three-time winner. Gordon’s someone who might just know a thing or three about the importance of winning the Great American Race. His point was that the big picture mattered. Getting your name on the Harley J. Earl Trophy is what counts above all else.
So if Dillon can’t mash the gas on the last lap, fighting for the sport’s biggest race, when was it ever OK for him to do it?
My guess? The reaction would have been different – a lot different. We would be hearing about a fearless youngster doing what needed to be done at just the right moment. But that is also the nature of the sport, to some extent. Where you stand on the popularity pecking order matters.
Dillon has always been viewed as a silver spoon type driver; someone who was handed every opportunity thanks to the family he was born into. And yes, he definitely got a bunch of chances others with different last names wouldn’t have. But is that so wrong? Wouldn’t you do the same if it was your son or daughter?
Of course you would. You absolutely, without question, would give them every opportunity to succeed. But even if you do get those chances that some would say were unmerited, you still have to prove it on the great leveler: the racetrack. Keep in mind Dillon is the winner of a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title, an XFINITY Series crown and, of course, the Coke 600 last year. In that one, he led just the final two of the 400 laps in the race; he led only the final lap in this Daytona 500.
The bottom line is Dillon has shown he knows what it takes to win. If the young driver didn’t have talent, he wouldn’t still be in a Cup ride regardless of who his grandfather is.
So on Sunday, Dillon got it done on the biggest stage of them all, returning the iconic No. 3 to Victory Lane at Daytona. And he did it 20 years after Dale Earnhardt’s memorable (and only) triumph in the Great American Race.
For those who want to snipe about the manner in which he did it, well, sorry folks. I’d humbly suggest you’re missing the point.
TWO: An Underdog Kind of Day
This column has long celebrated the underdog so it would be remiss of me not to mention two tremendous performances by Chris Buescher (fifth) and Michael McDowell (ninth) in the biggest race of them all.
“I’m really proud of this team and all the effort that they put in to come down here for two weeks,” said Buescher post-race of his third ever top-5 finish, his first since the Bristol Night Race in 2016. “It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of time invested and it’s very expensive,” he added. “For us to be able to have something to show for it at the end of the day after three years of trying, that’s pretty cool.”
Buescher’s finish capped a great day for JTG Daugherty Racing whose other wheelman, AJ Allmendinger, finished 10th. Perhaps JTG is ready to step it up a notch this season.
For McDowell, it was a great first start for his new team – Front Row Motorsports – just his sixth ever top 10in 11 years and 250 races, equaling his ninth-place run in the 2013 Daytona 500.
— Michael McDowell (@Mc_Driver) February 19, 2018
Of course, the true test for both these drivers begins next week, when the differences between their resources and those of the mega teams becomes readily apparent. For now, though, congrats to both on a great start to 2018.
THREE: Best of luck in the (other) 500, Danica
In the 191st and final race of her top echelon stock car career, a crash not of her own making on lap 102 of 200 saw Danica Patrick finish 35th. It certainly wasn’t the storybook finish she would have hoped for in her last NASCR race but such are the vagaries of plate racing. “That’s the gamble about Daytona is it can go so well and it can go so awful,” said Patrick. “I’m grateful for everything. Thanks to all the fans. Still got one more [race]. It’s not a stock car but still got one more.”
And the one more she refers to is of course this May’s Indy 500 where she will pilot an Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy for one last attempt at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Ultimately, there will be a number of people who will say that Danica’s career was a disappointment. Just seven top-10’s, one pole, 64 laps led and an average finish of 24.1 in 191 races would make that case mathematically. But her impact on the sport goes way beyond just the results.
Take one seven-time NASCAR champion’s post-race Daytona tweet as an example….
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) February 19, 2018
Even the Daytona 500 celebrities got in on the Danica Farewell Act.
“For me to be able to witness her last race, that feels very special,” said honorary starter and movie star Charlize Theron. “The girl in me is secretly obviously cheering for her. I just love that even my kids were just really impressed that a girl was racing cars today, too. I think that’s such a good thing and we need more of that. Hopefully, we’ll have more of that enter this culture.”
Here’s hoping Danica has a brilliant Indy 500. She’s certainly been fun to watch in NASCAR. I wish her nothing but the very best in her post-racing career.
FOUR: Next Up, Atlanta
After the Lord Mayor’s show that is the Great American Race, we head to the lightning-fast, abrasive 1.54-mile long Atlanta Motor Speedway. This will be race number 111 at the iconic venue, a streak that goes back all the way to 1960 – some 57 years.
That inaugural race was won by none other than Fireball Roberts; one of the 33 races he won in a 15-year, 206-race Hall of Fame career. Likely to no one’s great surprise, Johnson is the active driver with most wins (5), with both Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch next up on three wins.
Kyle Busch has a pair of victories while Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin each have one victory. The good news is that the track put off a proposed repave that was meant to begin following the 2017 race.
“We’ve talked to fans, to people in the NASCAR garage, spent a good bit of time with Rick Campbell of Goodyear, and we came to the conclusion that with a little bit of work, cutting out some spots and patching them, we could go another year, noted Ed Clark, AMS President and General Manager in an interview with NASCAR.com.
“Drivers hate repaves,” reacted Keselowski after the decision. “We want to see the surfaces last as long as they can.” And while a repave at AMS will come sooner rather than later, for now, the venue should be applauded for staying with the old surface. It should make for a great race this Sunday afternoon.
FIVE: And finally….
In keeping with a recurring theme, the overnight ratings for the Daytona 500 did not make pretty reading with a 22% dip from the 2017 number – and cut in half from the numbers the race pulled in just a dozen years ago. Sadly, this is hardly surprise news. TV numbers have been dropping precipitously for several years now.
Some of the decline is certainly due to the way people consume racing with the plethora of digital and social channel options available. Let’s not forget, either, that the NFL saw significant dips in viewership this past season – no sport is immune anymore.
Moving forward, I wonder if NASCAR should adopt a similar TAD (Total Audience Delivery) model that NBC has been using to tabulate Olympic viewership. Combining traditional TV and digital channels, NBC can give an overall perspective including streaming that isn’t limited to linear TV only. This might also have the added impact of shifting the narrative from declining TV numbers and give a better look in to the number of fans who engage with NASCAR beyond regular television.