Did You Notice? … The way fans reacted to Austin Dillon’s last-lap punt of Aric Almirola to win the Daytona 500? I ran a poll after the race on Twitter and 67 percent of fans surveyed thought Dillon was over the line.
It didn’t matter what Almirola said after the fact (he doesn’t blame Dillon at all for the wreck.) The fact it was for the sport’s biggest race proved irrelevant. Instead, what I’ve heard this week has ranged from “cheap shot” to “the kid should be ashamed of himself.”
Let’s take a look at the move one last time before we continue. Shall we?
The way I see it, Almirola was blocking like crazy down the backstretch. Dillon then simply ran into the back of him rather than let Almirola back in line, killing his speed. (And with that, a chance to win the Daytona 500).
But let’s take a look at a similar move made by a former driver of the No. 3 car.
Remember this one? Bristol, 1999, Earnhardt winning while “just trying to rattle his cage?” Terry Labonte was furious that night and the fans greeted the win with a chorus of boos. Labonte had the faster car, was about to pull away with fresh tires but Earnhardt wouldn’t let him have it.
But you know how that story ended? Both men showed up to race the next week and the crowd was sold out. The sport still signed a mega-TV deal for 2001 and kept growing. People may have been angry… but they got over it. The move was a water-cooler topic for weeks and chalked up to the Intimidator just “doing his thing.”
Why doesn’t Dillon, whose move wasn’t nearly as blatant get the benefit of the doubt? Why are people crying foul over hard racing for the sport’s biggest prize?
As our Danny Peters pointed out, personality has a lot to do with it. While Childress claimed after the race “we had 97 percent, I would say, or 98 percent support from the Earnhardt fans that said, we’re glad to see [the No. 3] back” I’d dispute that number. There’s definitely a faction of fans who felt his grandson hadn’t earned the right to be in the No. 3 car.
You’re hearing those fans scream out loud in the days after his Daytona 500 win, and Dillon hasn’t been the type of driver who dominates a race the way Earnhardt did. He’s led a total of just 79 laps in his career, half his number of NASCAR Cup starts (158). Only three of those laps led came in his two wins, Sunday at Daytona and in last May’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
I think that’s why Dillon is struggling to earn more respect. You may only need to lead the last lap but he’s replacing a guy in Earnhardt who led 25,684 of them. If you don’t run up front consistently, even if you know how to close (and Dillon does) fans may perceive you differently.
And in this race, Lady Luck played a role for Dillon. He lost the draft on a bad pit stop and was half-a-lap behind until William Byron spun with 10 laps left. Without that, we’re talking Ryan Blaney, 2018 Daytona 500 winner or potentially Denny Hamlin or Darrell Wallace Jr.
But you know what? Fans need to get over it. Lady Luck has played a hand in racing since the second two cars strapped in against each other. Dillon still had to put himself in position to win and then made an aggressive move Earnhardt would have approved of.
“I had such a run, and I had to use it, and if I lift right there, I get run over out the back, too,” Dillon said. “It’s part of this place. I’ve been run over‑‑ I’ve been in the catchfence and not mad after a race because it’s just part of it, man. Your eyes roll back in your head and you say don’t lift, and you just go.”
Isn’t that the type of aggressive mentality fans saw in Earnhardt? But Dillon doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt cause his daddy was rich, his granddad is the car owner and he’s a 27-year-old new-age millennial with a video podcast? Not a gruff old southern boy with a hunting rifle in his hand?
I don’t get it. If even Almirola is letting Dillon off the hook, fans need to get over this one, too.
Did You Notice? … People are being led astray by Daytona 500 TV ratings? A thumbs-up reception to the racing (it had 84 percent approval in Jeff Gluck’s podcast poll) and a positive vibe at the track was met with an ugly Nielsen number this week.
The national rating of 5.3 makes this Daytona 500 the lowest-rated ever. But a closer look reveals it’s not as bad as it seems. Viewership of 9.3 million is flat with the last time the race competed against the Winter Olympics (2014). The difference in the final Nielsen rating is only five percent.
And are we really surprised to see a decline the first race after Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired? The year after Michael Jordan left the Bulls for the last time, in 1998, NBA Finals ratings decreased from 18.7 to 11.3. In golf, no Tiger Woods last season meant the lowest Masters rating in 13 years.
The bottom line is this year is the one where NASCAR declines should be expected. With a whole new crop of young stars it’s going to take time for allegiances to grow. I, along with several garage and media members, was struck by how few fans were wearing favorite driver merchandise at Daytona. Keep in mind everyone was still excited to be there; the vibe was great. They were all just seemingly in the market to find their new wheelman.
A strong contingent of young talent up front gave them plenty of options to choose from Sunday. If Blaney can dominate races like that, best friend Wallace trailing right behind they’ll be crossover national stars. Chase Elliott could win Atlanta this weekend and hit a new gear in popularity.
Bottom line? Holding flat in viewership from the last Winter Olympics isn’t that bad when you consider Earnhardt was the one who won that Daytona 500. There’s plenty of other metrics to measure the sport and all of them are trending positive.
Which reminds me….
Did You Notice? … The impact Hamlin’s Barstool Sports Pardon My Take podcast interview had on NASCAR?
I was in New York City after the race and I’ve never heard more people mention the sport. People thought Hamlin was hilarious as he connected with a whole new cross-section of 18-to-34 males. Wallace even used the 70 percent Adderall line against him once the two tangled after the race. “He might need to take Adderall for that one” has turned into a Wallace-Hamlin rivalry still red hot three days after Daytona.
When our Joseph Wolkin asked Hamlin about his last-lap wreck with Wallace, the driver claimed he blew a tire. There was nothing he could have done to avoid the contact. But now, it seems like Hamlin has blown his top over Wallace’s comments and there’s a second driver (add Elliott) blocked from his friends list entering the 2018 season.
Rivalries. Raw emotion. Drivers not just handing each other spots. If this attitude foreshadows what 2018 is like, we’re going to see a whole lot of new fans sign up.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- You can’t say enough about Wallace’s second-place finish. The rookie had so much media attention leading up to the race. There’s an inordinate amount of pressure as the first full-time African-American in Cup since 1971. He’s driving in a sport that once openly supported segregationist candidate George Wallace. And did I mention he had a total of four Cup Series starts before Sunday’s race? The outpouring of raw emotion, from mom’s hug to the tears on the podium was all too real. You couldn’t help but feel a changing of the guard, in that moment with Danica Patrick walking out the NASCAR door for the final time. It’s a different type of targeted audience (first woman vs. African-American) but for Wallace, the sky is the limit. He can actually win.
- There were so many people who did well at Daytona it’s important to recognize who didn’t. Jimmie Johnson tore up three race cars. Chip Ganassi, who usually does well on plate tracks with Jamie McMurray never got the No. 1 car going. McMurray’s more famous teammate, Kyle Larson, started a last-lap wreck in the Clash and crashed in Sunday’s 500 miler. These are names we could easily see inside the top 10 at Atlanta. But they left the new Chevy Camaro ZL1 body with a more awkward start than expected.
- 66-year-old Mark Thompson missed the wrecks and ran 22nd in his first Daytona 500. How about that? Just goes to show you never give up on your dreams. The man can always say he outran a seven-time champ and 18 drivers in the Great American Race.