Another year of the Daytona 500 has wrapped up, and unfortunately, I believe that this sport is in a worse position now than when Speedweeks began a week and a half ago. Most obviously, I am referring to the catastrophic wreck on the final lap of the NNS race yesterday that resulting in almost thirty injuries to fans in the grandstands.
But more abstractly, the race failed to live up to its own hype. The almost electric atmosphere prior to the race when many analysts were claiming that this was going to be the 'Best Daytona 500 ever' collapsed under its own unachievably high expectations. I understand that not every race will be perfect and some may in fact be a bit dull. However, NASCAR needed this race to be competitive to draw back the fans that have for so long been switching the channel.
Let me preface any further discussion with the admission that I strongly dislike restrictor plate racing. It was not always so, but in the past ten years, it has evolved from a beautiful art to a mass frenzy lacking any driver courtesy.
Is it a problem that with each plate race, there are several cautions within the final quarter of the race that severely ruin any chance of the race coming to some naturally close finish? How about green-white-checkered finishes that only realistically give the chance of winning to drivers in the first two rows on the restart?
Is it a problem that the ensuing wrecks consistently have shown the potential to injure drivers, in addition to fans?
Is it a problem that the aero package chosen for the weekend can so flagrantly affect the type of racing that we see on any given plate track weekend?
Is it a problem that fans can complain openly about a specific type of drafting, only to complain again about NASCAR's solution to the supposed problem?
Is it a problem that thirty-two races each year are determined by a combination of skill and driving talent, while these four races have devolved into showcases of luck with lane choice on restarts and avoiding wrecks?
Don't misunderstand; I love Daytona and everything that the track and the races stand for. During today's race, as with every other NASCAR race I watch, my love for the sport grows deeper. And my passion for the sport leads me to frustration when I see that others do not enjoy the racing.
Today's race was a tad dull at times, but I can hardly say it was boring. There was a preponderance of commercials that detracted from the possible stimulation that the racing provided. What I found interesting was that there were many drivers commenting about how frustrated they found passing without a bottom groove. However, if the final twenty laps educated us with something, it was that the bottom groove was attainable with the help of other drivers. Up until then, drivers had only stayed in the low line for two or three laps after a restart before bailing to the top. Obviously, with that lack of commitment, no line is going to work.
If I recall, last year, the top groove had difficulty forming and sustaining any sort of momentum. And yet, eventually it would move closer to the front as the run progressed. So I do not understand why the drivers were so complacent about forming a bottom line and yet, frustrated with the lack of passing. Worse is the fact that Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon both had top five contending cars at the end of the race, only to be stuck in the inside line without any help.
But when this paltry side by side racing is juxtaposed against the horror that took place on Saturday afternoon, we are left with an even bigger conundrum: trying to balance the desire for adequate racing on these tracks while maintaining safety. The two should not be mutually exclusive, even though they have been for the past several years. Year after year, fans have increased their own expectations of plate racing. And every year, it has become closer and closer. Photo finish between Harvick and Martin in 2007? Forget it. Twelve cars under a blanket in 2011 at Talladega? Boring. Edwards flying into the grandstands after blocking Keselowski? Yawn.
Obviously, the decrease in our collective attention spans has not helped. But these unreasonably high expectations have not helped either, especially when we sit down and analyze a race like todays, one that resembled races from the 1990s (more or less).
The late race cautions that keep the field together and ruin any chance for good finishes do not help. Nor does the lack of common courtesy. And when the wrecks ensue, half of the field leaves the race with destroyed cars. Even if many teams can afford the cost of wrecked cars, a season with sustained carnage is not beneficial to one's race team.
I cannot be sure about a solution to the restrictor plate racing problem. We are our own worst enemies, I suppose. All of the technologies in the cars as well as the techniques used during the races of the past ten years cannot be forgotten. We cannot repeat the past.
However, I am a proponent of making the size of the plate larger in an effort to increase speeds and spread the field. The more spread out the field is, the less collective energy that is in play during a wreck (and thus, hopefully fewer dangerous incidents). Perhaps softer tires that actually wear through a race run (maybe to the extent that drivers actually have to let off the throttle through the turns-gasp!). Some fans have suggested a wicker bill to increase the wake left behind the cars. But while that improves competition, it might hinder efforts of reducing large scale wrecks and safety.
I breathe a sigh of relief that Jimmie Johnson won this race, not because he is my favorite driver, but his name deserves to be on the Harvey J. Earl trophy. Not to take anything away from an Aric Almirola, let's say, but the Daytona 500 deserves to be won by a driver that has accomplished a lot in our sport. Notice how Derrike Cope winning the 1990 Daytona 500 is never on any of the pre-race montages. And even though the race failed to live up to its own hype, Danica was fairly impressive. Her timid, conservative driving seemed self-serving at the end, as she was content to stay in line rather than moving to the bottom lane and risking her position.
I will finish by saying that I am grateful that all of the fans injured last night are at least in stable condition. Even though we as fans need to be aware of the danger that can occur on any given Sunday, hardly do we ever assume that these precautions are realistic. I could just as easily been sitting in that grandstand, just as any other fan. We must support each other and unite in times such as these.
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