Contrary to what you’ve read or seen reported from Daytona International Speedway this week, today isn’t Danica Patrick’s canonization, primarily because A) she’s not deceased and B) to my knowledge hasn’t dramatically impacted the Catholic Church. No, today is the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s main event.
Danica Patrick and NASCAR. There, now this column will come up on your Google search.
Contrary to what you’ve read or seen reported from Daytona International Speedway this week, today isn’t Patrick’s canonization, primarily because A) she’s not deceased and B) to my knowledge hasn’t dramatically impacted the Catholic Church. No, today is the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s main event.
Every year since 1959, the 500-miler has kicked off the stock car racing season, and in more recent decades has supplanted the Indianapolis 500, 24 of Le Mans and Monaco Grand Prix as the biggest race in the world – as far as ’Merica is concerned. This race was once the ultimate test of man and machine, taking Detroit steel and pushing it well past the intended limits. Tough guy legends like Lee and Richard Petty, David Pearson, Fireball Roberts, Cale Yarborough, Fred Lorenzen, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt all won the 500.
Sometime later, tube-frame cars were introduced and not long after restrictor plates were affixed atop the carburetors to reduce airflow in an effort to keep speeds down and prevent one-and-a-half-ton race cars from literally flying out of the park. The unintended consequence of the plates was pack racing – a display so spectacular it not only tests the drivers’ nerves, but audience’s, too. One seemingly minute error more often than not ends in calamity, giving ESPN plenty of highlight footage.
In the last 10 years, this also produced winners like Michael Waltrip (twice), Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ward Burton, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne – capable, for sure, but not exactly a list of racers on the fast track into the Hall of Fame. This “anybody can win it” ... thing, plays well to a broad audience, but fans of sport generally like to observe great performers do great things. Some of the aforementioned relied, heavily, on luck to win, while others were benefactors of a particular skill set employed in pack racing that doesn’t serve them anywhere else.
Last year, new configurations to the front end of the cars and air-to-fuel ratio created an anomaly: two-car breakaways. Pack racing was gone, but in its place were nap-worthy processions of two cars glued to each other for practically the entire race. It was met with disdain. We’re not talking hate like “Oh I hate commercials,” but more like “With the very being of my soul, I swear upon the graves of my ancestors I hate this and beg my creator to strike down this blasphemy.” That kind of hate.
Through three exhibition races and enough practice laps to equal the distance from here to China, pack racing appears to have returned to the delight of fans, broadcasters and the suit and tie types from NASCAR. The drivers, not so much.
Paul Menard offered: “NASCAR is trying to dictate physics. Physics says two cars are going to push and they’re trying to make rule changes to keep us from doing it, so it’s kind of hybrid pack racing and tandem racing. It’s causing a pretty unsafe situation.”
Over the course of seven days, crashes in the races and practice sessions have created a lot of memorabilia for lucky fans who happen past the piles of decal-laced sheet metal in the garage. It’s not safe out there. Given I possessed anything close to ability to race cars, you wouldn’t catch me out there, not even for the $1.5 million winner’s share of a considerable purse.
Still, people like pack racing, despite what happened to Dan Wheldon in October.
I really thought that was the tipping point, when every racing series that applies really examined the potential repercussions trying to spice up “the show.” Claiming Indy cars and stock cars are apples and oranges is correct, at Watkins Glen or Fontana, Calif., where pack racing doesn’t exist. Yes, NASCAR has developed the safest race cars on the planet, but by encouraging giant groups of cars zipping around at more than 195 mph, at some point you’re tempting fate. The tighter the packs and the faster the cars become, more variables are introduced that go well beyond the control of the rule makers or even the drivers.
I just hope it doesn’t take a tragedy to put an end to pack racing in NASCAR.
Reasonable expectations for the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season
* Carl Edwards, your time is now. Your destiny was sabotaged by a pot-bellied ninja named Stewart last year, but now you’re a stronger, smarter competitor because of it. Right?
* Dale Earnhardt Jr., you’re coming off a solid season, but just a solid one. You finished higher in the standings (7th) than you have since 2006 (5th), so how about translating some of that good mojo into wins this season.
* Tony Stewart, you’re the aforementioned ninja who shattered Edwards’ dreams, and cost a lot of gamblers gobs of cash. Nice work. The funny thing is, your team should be stronger this season, so a repeat – and fourth series crown overall – is absolutely expected.
* Jimmie Johnson, your December getaway in Las Vegas was spent on the floor with the commoners for the first time since 2005. Sucks, doesn’t it? Bet you and your guys are pretty fired up about that.
* Denny Hamlin, your boss hired a championship-winning crew chief for you in the offseason. Forget 2010. Forget 2011. We want the old fiery Denny back.
* Kyle Busch, you’re entering your eighth full season as a Sprint Cupper (yup, that sounds awkward). You’ve won 23 times, but average a 11.14 finish in the driver standings. What’s up with that? You’re better than that, so get up there and challenge for a championship.
* Kasey Kahne, you’re driving for Rick Hendrick and all his vast resources now, so no more excuses.
* A.J. Allmendinger, you also moved to a proven outfit. It’s now or never.
* Mark Martin, you’re still driving? Amazing.
* Kurt Busch, you’ve been humbled. Take out your aggressions on the track.
* Marcos Ambrose, I can’t help but wonder how good you would be had you started racing the big heavy cars at an earlier age. This could be a breakthrough season.
* Brian France, things are going quite well after a few years of getting beat up in the press. Don’t change a thing.
Chris Gill, who covers auto racing for The Corning (N.Y.) Leader, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.