As hard as it is to fathom with much of the nation in the maws of record heat, or in the case of the west coast, ablaze, and New England at risk of its first hurricane in 30 years, NASCAR’s “regular” season comes to a close next weekend — at Daytona no less. I’m not sure who thought that was a good idea. Daytona (along with Talladega of course) are the two “restrictor plate” tracks where it can be said that driver skill all too often plays second fiddle to sheer damn luck. Yep, deciding the championship field at Daytona is like selecting a tap dancing championship in a minefield. It’s equivalent to holding the Kentucky Derby with a new rule that the competitors must compete astride rodeo broncos.
Not that the 2021 NASCAR “regular” season has been all that normal at all. The Firecracker 400 lost its traditional date to Mid-Ohio. The Brickyard 400 changed to a new venue, the road course at Indianapolis. The second event of the season switched to the road course at Daytona. Christopher Bell won his first Cup race that day. Last season’s two most prolific Cup Series winners were Kevin Harvick, who won nine times, while Denny Hamlin scored seven wins. Neither of the once dynamic duo have managed a Cup win this year to date.
Another new race date debuting this year was run at the Circuit of Americas, The event provided ample evidence that while it’s possible to run a Cup race on a damp track, it is best to end the event in the midst of a full blown monsoon. NASCAR also ran its first Cup race on a dirt track at Bristol this spring. I refuse to believe no sage warned them that running a race on a muddy dirt track with cars with windshields was a very bad idea. The Truck Series also ran at a new venue, Knoxville. For unknown reasons, the drivers all seemed to turn on each other in a homicidal fury late in the event. It was literally uncomfortable to watch.
One could say the “regular” season got off to a not so regular start. If you bet the ranch that Michael McDowell was going to win the Daytona 500 by leading one lap, you’ll probably be heating the farm this winter by throwing stacks of 100 dollar bills into the fireplace. Who finished second? Reigning titlist Chase Elliott. But nobody remember who finished second. In fact, a look back at the top 10 in this year’s Daytona 500 is instructive.
The 500 winner, McDowell, of course punched his ticket into the playoffs (for all intents and purposes) with a victory in the very first race of a season scheduled to run 36 events total, pandemic permitting. Has any NFL team ever clinched a berth in that year’s Super Bowl by simply winning their first regular season game?
The pandemic did throw NASCAR a few curveballs. There was rarely practice or qualifying leading up to this year’s races. Only on tracks new to the series, I am told.
Racing at Daytona, a driver’s chances are largely up to fate. You can be running along, trying to race conservatively to grab a good finish, when “The Big One” happens right in front of you and it’s over. “The Big One” is a funny name for a not-too-amusing smoking and often flaming pig pile of a wreck that can eliminate half the field. NASCAR first started requiring restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega in the aftermath of Bobby Allison’s horrific lap 22 wreck during the 1987 Winston 500. The calamity almost caused Allison’s Buick to go through the catchfence and into the crowd. Since NASCAR owned Daytona and Talladega, if they made the teams run restrictor plates (which cost those teams money), that was seen as preferable to them having to pay big bucks to repair their race tracks.
NASCAR had actually required plates before as a way to limit the horsepower of the more exotic and powerful Hemi and Boss engines in the waning days of the horsepower wars between Ford and Mopar.
The plates were said to be a “temporary” measure until someone could come up with a better idea to slow the cars. The “temporary” plates were still in place in 1993 when Neil Bonnett’s Chevy got up and into the catchfence at Talladega in an incident that looked eerily similar to Allison’s wreck in some aspects. In the same incident, Jimmy Horton’s car flew right up and out of the track, landing in the parking lot several floors below. Horton said at the time, “when the first person to reach you after a wreck is holding a beer, you know you’re in trouble.” Stanley Smith suffered life-threatening injuries in the same incident.
In the wake of the twin tragedies that cost Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin their lives in practice crashes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, NASCAR responded to criticisms that cars were going too fast by cynically requiring the teams run plates at New Hampshire. That Sunday’s race with the plates is among the worst NASCAR races I’ve ever seen. Jeff Burton led every lap, flag to flag.
If driver talent doesn’t guarantee success at Daytona, the track did seem to have its favorites. Dale Earnhardt Sr. won three points-paying races at Daytona, claiming the 1990 and 1993 Firecracker 400s and of course that memorable 1998 Daytona to score that one big victory that had eluded him for decades. If you include Daytona qualifying races, IROC races at the track and the Busch Clash, Earnhardt’s numbers at Daytona are even more staggering. In 46 starts in points races at Daytona, Earnhardt managed an overall average just a tad worse than 10th place. The Intimidator’s results at the other plate track, Talladega, were even more impressive. He managed fully 10 Cup victories there.
In fact, the last victory of Earnhardt Sr.’s career took place at Talladega on Oct. 15, 2000. As I recall it, Earnhardt was mid-pack with 10 laps left to run. He motioned to Kenny Wallace to fall in behind him and they’d draft their way to the front. Despite what you might think after his broadcast career, Wallace is no idiot. If the Intimidator offered to help you get up front, you did so knowing that big black No. 3 car was likely heading forward. The plan worked so well Wallace even found himself with a chance to pass Earnhardt for the win. As Wallace tells the story, he doubted the third-place driver would work with him to help complete the pass. As it turns out, that third-place driver was Wallace’s teammate, Joe Nemechek, so likely he’d have helped Wallace. Wallace just didn’t recognize Nemechek’s car because it was running a special one-race paint scheme that weekend. OK, so maybe Wallace was a bit of an idiot, after all.
If Talladega had allowed Earnhardt a lot of success, it had asked him to pay a price as well. In 1998, two Cup champions, Earnhardt and Bill Elliott, tangled hard. Both cars got up on their sides and erupted into flames. Earnhardt suffered a broken collarbone and had to line up a relief driver for the next weekend’s race at Watkins Glen, something Dale hated to do.
So one of the sport’s most successful plate racers went on record speaking his mind on the plate tracks.
“I don’t care what they say, that ain’t real racing.” Earnhardt growled.
Of course, in the end, running the 2001 Daytona 500 cost Earnhardt Sr. his life. To that end, I suppose if NASCAR manages to get through the upcoming weekend of racing at Daytona and nobody is badly hurt or killed, that will be a huge relief.
It wouldn’t have taken much tweaking of the schedule to correct the problem. The week after Daytona, the circuit will run at Darlington. Many of you know the Lady in Black is my favorite track left on the schedule. The Southern 500 is the perfect place to decide a regular-season champion. At Darlington, a driver must manage his tires perfectly as the abrasive track surface tries to chew them to dust. A team has to bring an extraordinary car to Darlington. A driver must be ready to face an extremely long race (last year’s Southern 500 lasted three hours and 48 minutes). The weekend after that, the circuit hits Richmond, the short track that drives like a big track, another track worthy of hosting the regular season finale. I’d even prefer the contest be decided at Bristol, though I prefer the old single-groove Neanderthal with all that cage rattling going on to the new layout. At least they’re not going to bury the joint under acres of mud this time around.
There’s not a lot that is likely to change in the standings this weekend even if the Big One does rear its ugly head. Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon are still mathematically alive to claim the 16th and final playoff spot even absent a win Saturday night. Reddick has a 25-point lead in that regard. Harvick has locked up a championship berth even without a win this season. Any full-time driver who can score a win Saturday will grab that 16th spot. Kyle Larson will start Saturday’s race with a 28-point advantage over Hamlin in the regular season championship. Whichever of those two drivers scores the most points for the year will start each round of the title fight with a 15-point advantage. Whoever finishes second will start each round with a 10-point bonus. Is a 10-point bonus worth anything? Ask Harvick about last year.
Meanwhile, the Truck Series playoffs started Saturday night. The race suffered a lengthy delay due to a massive blackout that left the back straight in the dark and NASCAR’s timing and scoring system inoperative. Apparently, the same thing happened at the track in Kansas City in 2010. That’s part of the risk you take by scheduling a race to start at 9:16. It leaves little wriggle room in the schedule. Between the firefighters, the utility teams and the electricians, nobody could say when or if power would be restored. I think Ford missed out on a golden marketing opportunity. You’ve probably seen commercials for the new variant of the F150 that comes optionally equipped with an on-board generator capable of powering a home for a long period of time. Ford, after all, has an assembly plant in Kansas City that cranks out F150s like Mars Candies cranks out green M&Ms. Powering a suburban home isn’t that big a trick. Now if Ford had managed to liberate a baker’s dozen worth of electric F150s and restore power at the race track sufficient to resume racing, that would have been something to see.
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