Daytona 500 Capsule: Patrick, no passing, and injured fans
The Scoop: Jimmie Johnson wins his 2nd Daytona 500 in his 400th career Sprint Cup start, charging to the front in the closing laps and holding off teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin – who still has never won the Great American Race. Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., and Martin all made a concerted effort after the race to express their focus on the fans hurt in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, when Kyle Larson’s race car hit the fence and showered debris and a tire on the crowd at the start-finish line. The trio also spoke highly of pole sitter Danica Patrick’s historic effort in the race: 8th place (highest finish for a woman) and six laps led (first woman to lead Daytona 500 and only 13th driver all-time to lead both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500). Rain threatened, but never delayed or stopped the race. Matt Kenseth led a race-high 86 laps, but mechanical trouble sent him to the garage late and teammate Kyle Busch dropped out just moments later with an engine failure. Drivers raced single-file almost the entire race, discouraging many fans and making for a disappointing debut of NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car. The racing got exciting with about 20 laps to go, when others like Johnson took to the bottom line to pass the leaders. Patrick ran in 3rd place on the final lap, but fell back as they passed. And three multi-car crashes tore up about 20 racecars, but injured no drivers or fans.
140 Characters or Less: Johnson wins, Patrick historically leads. Toyota drivers’ rotten luck. Fans pack stands, while we remember those still hurt from Saturday.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: The 1st Sprint Cup version of this award goes to Danica Patrick – the irony. She did not lead a lap at the start of the race, but got to the front twice and led three laps each time. But her biggest take from the day is that she hung in the top 10 most of the race, overcame twice poorly exiting her primo pit box, and managed to stay relevant until the checkered flag. She didn’t wreck and, maybe more importantly, didn’t press other drivers to shuffle her out of the way. Only at the end, when she fell from 3rd to 8th on the race’s last lap, did Patrick lose significant spots by others passing her. Job well done. Johnson deserves a share of this, too, not just for winning, but for timing his trip to the front of the pack just right to take the win and then for holding off all pursuing him for the finish.
North Korean Missile Dud: Tony Stewart and Kevin Havick. A lap 32 crash, not of their doing, sent both drivers to the garage – they finished 41st and 42nd. Harvick won the Sprint Unlimited and the first Budweiser Duel Race, making him a favorite to win his 2nd 500. Not so much. Stewart won Saturday’s NNS race and has won numerous Daytona races – but never the 500. He had a fast car and this crash leaves him winless in 15 starts in NASCAR’s biggest race.
Never Fear, Underdogs Are Here: Regan Smith (7th), Michael McDowell (9th), and J.J. Yeley (10th). Plate races help equalize racecars and allow those fortunate to survive the carnage chances at better finishes. In Sunday’s case, Smith, McDowell, and Yeley fit the bill and each finished in the top 10 – and out of nowhere. Unlike Trevor Bayne in 2011, none of these three drivers ran near the front all day. But their chances improved as the race eliminated contenders and when the pack bunched up, they pounced.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Brad Keselowski. His No. 2 Miller Lite Ford received damage in two crashes and hit debris later in the race. His car had more tape than the driver’s side mirror on my ’99 Grand-Am. But he nonetheless pounced late and ended the day 4th. In fact, Johnson and Keselowski raced door-to-door toward the end, bringing to mind their battle for the championship last year and their early war of words (so to speak) this year.
Wheel of Misfortune: Toyota drivers. Kenseth led most of the race and retired with a massive parts failure. Kyle Busch blew an engine (and did so in the NNS race, too). Martin Truex Jr.’s motor soured, knocking him front contention. The pack shuffled Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer out of the lead and the top 10 at the end. Only Mark Martin (3rd) (and where did he come from?) represented Toyota in the top 10. And, oh yeah, let’s throw a bone to Carl Edwards and the No. 99 Ford, who tried to hang back and stay out of trouble all race, but got caught up in a wreck not of his doing, tearing up his 5th Daytona car since January testing.
Head-Scratcher Crown: Michael Waltrip. Pit strategy allowed his No. 26 Sandy Hook Support Fund Toyota to lead and get good exposure for Newtown, CT. But he disappeared after that and never made his way back to the front. He even commented on the radio about how he is too old to deal with driving in the pack when the intensity increases. Maybe Waltrip should stick to being a team owner and a broadcaster (we will criticize that another time) and finally retire from driving.
Ghost Driver: Marcos Ambrose. He is not known as the best plate racer, but his car showed speed at times through Speedweeks. The lack of movement amongst the leaders in the race kept some drivers from ever sniffing the lead, but Ambrose barely even got TV time.
Georgia on My Mind: Unadilla’s David Ragan did not attempt a climb to the race lead, but hung solidly in the top 25. Ragan’s day ended with a 2nd half multi-car crash that he had no way of avoiding. Terence Mathis (former Atlanta Falcon) is the VP of marketing for Leavine Family Racing and Scott Speed’s No. 95 Dish Network Ford actually led once during a caution mid-pit sequence.
- Halifax Health released a statement saying that seven fans are “still hospitalized” and “stable,” following their injuries from debris in the NNS race. We can only report accurately the official statements of those involved, but do not take this to mean only positive things. “Stable” can mean plenty and every NASCAR, Daytona International Speedway, and Halifax Health statement this weekend has been worded to cover their bases and also stiff-arm the media from actually figuring who got hurt and how badly. Do not stop praying for the injured and their families – they are not out of the neck of the woods yet, by any means. DIS did allow fans seated near the affected area from Saturday a chance to move their seats, but fans heavily populated that area during the Daytona 500. Fortunately, Sunday’s race was much safer than Saturday’s.
- Danica Patrick’s success will certainly attract more female race fans and elevate the sport’s popularity. But NASCAR also seems to be making an extra effort in another arm of its striving for diversity: attracting black and Hispanic race fans. Mathis told me Saturday that the key to NASCAR turning its ratings and attendance around is marketing to those particular minorities. And this seemed to add up for the Daytona 500. Ray Lewis waved the green flag, 50 Cent and T.I. attended the race, and a black preacher gave the invocation. During the race, several commercials aired that seemed to target that fan base. One Taco Bell commercial played Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Papa”, but with Spanish lyrics. One McDonald’s commercial had hip-hop music as well. These are not uncommon traits for these brands’ commercials, but they fit in line other things seen Sunday. NASCAR has tried in the past few seasons to re-attract its blue collar core fan base and still is working in that direction with the looks of the new Gen-6 car. But the success of Patrick draws more eyes to the sport and NASCAR is obviously trying to capitalize off of that, which is a smart move and these potential fans’ interest in NASCAR is a wonderful thing.
- 50 Cent may make NASCAR regret inviting him to the Daytona 500, however. He tried to kiss FOX reporter Erin Andrews on pit road, sent out sexually explicit Tweets while at the race, and Tweeted about the lack of black people at the track (which I found funny, but did not amuse others around me as much). Any and all are welcome to races and can behave how they want (and do – go to the infield). But NASCAR expects its dignitaries to act as such and cannot like how he acted.
- Celebrity antics continued, as actor James Franco messed up his Grand Marshall duties: “Drivers - and Danica, start your engines.” Also, Zac Brown told the media he and his band were going to tear the stands down with their pre-race concert, an awkward comment, considering the fans hurt in the stands Saturday.
- Many fans complained about the single-file racing through much of the Daytona 500, though some I talked to really liked the race, too. The bottom line is that new racecars, new formats, more money, or other factors do not make drivers necessarily want to race. Drivers chose to not risk wrecking their cars and rode around conservatively. Many factors led to that, such as the unpredictability of the new Gen-6 car and the newer pavement not affecting handling and tires as much. But the bottom line is that teams have plans and want to finish well and laying back and waiting to mix it up with the leaders is part of it. Tandem drafting’s nature shook this up, but it was true the last two years at plate races, too.
- Daytona ate equipment for teams of all sizes, but the crash that ended David Ragan’s day also did so for Front Row Motorsports teammates David Gilliland and Josh Wise. That is a huge blow to a small team that undoubtedly is lean on their number of racecars – especially with the switch to the new car this season.
Next: Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. – The new car hits a more normal track and will bring the results of Patrick and some of the underdogs back to desert Earth.