Happy Hour: Seven Days of Daytona Series


For those of you keeping track with the Tailgate Crashers Baseball Hall of Fame induction articles, you’ll be happy to know that the series will conclude next week with the final three inductees. As far as the highly touted “Running With the Outlawz” series, that also will be making a return following the conclusion of Tailgate Crashers Hall of Fame series. Both series were pushed back two weeks to make room for the Super-Pro Bowl/All Star-500 Weekend shenanigans here at Tailgate Crashers. And since Federal law mandates at least one redneck NASCAR analyst per sports-themed web site on the net these days, I get the lucky honor of covering one of only seven worthwhile NASCAR races on the calendar – the “Great American Race”, the Daytona 500. For the more astute fans out there, you will have already known that the official buildup to Daytona began last weekend with the running of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona race, colloquially known as the start of “Speed Weeks”. Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout ended the pre-500 festivities for the most part, and ushered in the final preliminaries building towards Sunday’s race.

The race itself, which is on FOX this year (scheduled green flag drop around 2:10 PM) will mark the next epoch in NASCAR’s evolution, if you will. NASCAR’s Boom Years have now passed, and for the most part, we can now call the golden years of the sport’s explosion to be book ended between 2001 and 2006. Coincidentally, the boom period was book-ended by tragedies – the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001 and the crowning of Jimmie Johnson as Cup Champion in 2006. While six seasons seems to be an awfully short “epoch”, consider the sport-changing events that have taken place in the last six years:

– Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch arrive as NASCAR’s new top guns beginning in 2002.
– Dale Earnhardt Jr. becomes the sport’s most popular driver and its key public figure in the wake of Dale Sr.’s death in 2001.
– NASCAR goes national with major network deals with NBC Universal and FOX, marking the accelerated growth of the organization.
– Safety innovations in and out of the stock cars have helped reduce the risk of fatalities on the track, and have helped drivers avoid serious injuries.
– Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, and Kasey Kahne have emerged as the sport’s future superstars. Rusty Wallace, Dave Marcis, and Ricky Rudd retired… for awhile.
– Old NASCAR staple pins like Rockingham, Pontiac, 76 (Gasoline), and Winston disappeared. New (and returning) brands like Nextel, Dodge, Sunoco, and Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez take their place.
– NASCAR announces plans to build its Hall of Fame in Charlotte, marking the end of a two and a half year search for a location.

Jeff Gordon is still the guy that everyone loves to hate. Kurt Busch is still the guy that everyone plain hates. Jimmie Johnson’s team still cheats. Darlington still has a race on the calendar, in defiance of all conventional wisdom. So does New Hampshire. In short, everything has changed… and nothing much has changed. Of course, the sport itself has undergone a massive transformation, from the trendy new sport that the nation began to watch in 2001 to the multi-billion dollar enterprise that it is in 2007. Television ratings have skyrocketed, albeit with a sharp decline during the 2006 Chase for the Nextel Cup. Amidst general concerns of the sport’s peak in national popularity and broad changes in the immediate future, it is safe to say that NASCAR’s fledgling years as one of the nation’s top three sports are over. NASCAR has firmly entrenched itself in the national spotlight, and has no plans of leaving anytime soon thanks to a fresh big money deal with ABC/ESPN, ensuring more overexposure in two hours than Speed Channel brings in two weeks.

We will return to the television situation later on. In the interim, it bares mentioning that the sport has done two things in particular that warrant the beginning of a new age as far as describing the sport goes. First, NASCAR has finally begun work on its own Hall of Fame, filling in the last little piece needed to make the sport a bonafide American institution. With the sport’s past quickly being gobbled up for the sake of expansion, securing a site for a Hall of Fame was crucial. Secondly, and most importantly, NASCAR has finally taken the step into the international auto market, importing three Toyota-make teams for the 2007 Nextel Cup Season: Bill Davis Racing, Red Bull Racing, and Michael Waltrip Racing. The move, coupled with the Busch Series’ continued stops at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City have begun to build up an international presence in the sport. Even more important is the importing by Chip Ganassi Racing of Formula 1 star Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya is arguably one of the first big international racing “names” to arrive in NASCAR, with the emphasis on the international there. 2006 saw the arrival of Bill Lester, the first African American driver in the Cup Series since 1986. 2007 will see the full-time arrival of the sport’s first Colombian-born driver in Montoya. Montoya is arguably the most successful driver to arrive in NASCAR from another racing organization since A.J. Foyt hit the scenes in the late 1960s. A former Indy 500 winner, Rolex 24 winner and CART Series Championship winner (all on the first attempt), Montoya brings a racing pedigree unmatched by almost any other driver in Cup this year, save for maybe Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Montoya will be a hot-button issue in 2007, largely since it marks a turning point in the sport’s international presence. Montoya will largely represent the open-wheel fundamentalists who accuse NASCAR of being inferior to road-course heavy series overseas. His pedigree may alienate some traditional diehards for awhile, so it will be interesting to see how well Montoya does. If his qualifying runs from Sunday have any significance on the upcoming season, you may want to buckle up now – he posted the third fastest time in the traditional qualifying session, bested only by the next promising rookie (David Gilliland) and a grizzled NASCAR veteran of some 20+ years (Ricky Rudd).

All of these factors will converge when the green flag drops on the Daytona 500. The new television schedule will be a bit different for long-time viewers, although it generally works out well considering NBC has lost out on its broadcast rights, thus sparing us the pain of Wally Dallenbach over half of the season. On a much sadder note however, the reduction of TNT’s coverage is also marred by the tragic passing of Benny Parsons over the winter. I was completely unaware of Parsons’ struggle with cancer over the last half of 2006, since I stopped watching the sport in the wake of my own father’s death in July. When I heard the news several weeks ago, my heart just sank. It wouldn’t be fair to memorialize BP in a throwaway article like this – he deserves better. Later this week, we’ll take a special look back at the life and times of a true NASCAR legend.

With that in mind, let’s try and close this slice of Speed Addicts nostalgia on a less somber note. With the Daytona 500 less than a week away now, we often find ourselves looking back at past races, wondering if they can help us predict the outcome of the forthcoming running of the 500. Of course, it comes as no great surprise to NASCAR fans and casual readers alike that narrowing down the greatest finishes of an American classic forty eight years old is no small task. And, as always, choosing the bare minimum of five races from a collection of forty eight races will always involve a lot of personal opinion on by part. Having said that, let us take a look at the five most incredible finishes in Daytona 500 history.

Noteworthy Omission: 2001 Daytona 500
I felt the need to clarify the specific reasons why the 2001 Daytona 500 is not among the greatest finishes in 500 history, despite the fact that my favorite driver won his first race here. For starters, I’m a bit hesitant to categorize something where a man loses his life as being “great”. Second of all, aside from Dale Earnhardt’s crash, the ending to the race itself was not really exciting enough to warrant a spot on the top five, aside from the emotionally charged commentary from Darrell Waltrip during the final lap. Had Earnhardt not been hurt in the crash, then the race might have more value to me. As it is, though, you’ll be hard pressed to find another moment in NASCAR where you can feel simultaneously joyful and solemn at the same time.

Honorable Mention: 1998 Daytona 500
Once again, I just couldn’t find it in myself to place this race in the main five, considering the fact that it ended under caution. Still, the race is one of the most memorable considering the outcome of the event (ie Dale Earnhardt finally wins the 500).

5. 1990 Daytona 500
There will always be underdogs that come through with a classic upset over the heavily favored drivers, but no such occasion is as timeless as the 1990 Daytona 500. On this afternoon, Dale Earnhardt was in the lead as the white flag fell on the race. Would this finally be the year for Earnhardt to capture the elusive Daytona 500? Until his 2001 accident, one of Dale Earnhardt’s most documented, publicized, and examined Daytona mishaps occurred here: heading into the final turn, Earnhardt cut his right front tire, and fell off the pace dramatically. This allowed eternal field-filler and general mediocre driver Derrike Cope, who was running second at the time, to pass Dale Earnhardt with less than a quarter-lap to go in the race. Cope managed to hold off 2nd place finisher Terry Labonte long enough to claim his first (and only) victory in NASCAR Winston/Nextel Cup racing. The race is remembered as much for Cope’s victory as it is for the expression on Theresa Earnhardt’s face, who was shown on television watching the ending of the race unfold from her RV in Daytona. Earnhardt would have to wait eight more years before he finally got his first Daytona 500 victory.

4. 1959 Daytona 500
The inaugural Daytona 500 at its current site was the scene for what quite possibly is the most exciting finish to a race in history. The event came down to two men, Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp. In the final laps, Petty and Beauchamp swapped paint feverishly, allowing veteran Joe Weatherly (who was two laps down at the time) to catch up with the lead draft. On the final lap of the race, both Petty and Beauchamp came down towards the tri-oval side by side. Things got complicated when Joe Weatherly inexplicably attempted to pass both Beauchamp and Petty, as all three drivers crossed the finish line at roughly the same time! The race winner wasn’t officially declared until the following Wednesday, despite Johnny Beauchamp proclaiming victory. Lee Petty was discovered to have barely edged out Beauchamp at the start/finish line via newsreel footage, and was thus declared the winner of the first Daytona 500!

3. 2002 Daytona 500
This is a rarely talked about gem of a race, despite only being five years old! Known more for its chicanery at the end of the race than the literal finish of the race, the 2002 running of the Great American Race saw more twists and turns than an episode of 24 (or, for wrestling fans, a Stephanie McMahon script). The race, which was red-flagged due to a bizarre restart-induced caution that sent half a dozen cars into the Daytona infield, including race leader Jeff Gordon, who attempted to block Sterling Marlin but was inadvertently spun out in the process. Things were complicated further when Sterling Marlin, the front-runner and favorite at the time, got out of his car during the race stoppage to examine (and half-heartedly try to repair) some damage that he picked up during the melee. As a result of this rule violation, Marlin was essentially black flagged, and put at the end of the longest line. This opened the way for Ward Burton, who held off Tony Stewart to win a controversial but exciting Daytona 500.

2. 1979 Daytona 500
1979 was the first year that the Daytona 500 was televised live on TV, and to this day remains one of the most exciting (and bruising) finishes ever seen in auto racing. As the white flag fell on an exciting race, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough came down to the start/finish line, nose to tail. As the two came off of Turn 2, Yarborough came out of the draft with Allison and attempted to pass the leader. The two swapped paint… and touched again… and both men started bouncing off each other like pinballs, finally creating enough momentum to carry both cars into the wall in Turn 3! A.J. Foyt, who was running third at the time, slowed upon seeing the wreck in front of him. This, in turn, allowed 4th place Richard Petty and 5th place Darrell Waltrip to pass Foyt, and in turn place themselves in contention for the win! Petty came off Turn 4 and into the tri-oval with the lead, and managed to hold off a maniacal Darrell Waltrip, who on four worn out tires simply could not muster enough momentum to pass Petty for the victory. The fireworks were just getting started though, as both Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison emerged from their cars and immediately went into a shoving match by their wrecked cars. Cooler heads wouldn’t prevail, either, as Cale and Donnie began to throw the punches! The whole ordeal escalated again when Donnie Allison’s brother Bobby jumped into the fray as well, turning the whole crash scene into a battle royal of sorts! The pre-finish and post-race activities still rank amongst the most exciting in NASCAR history to this day.

1. 1976 Daytona 500
There have been many exciting finishes in the history of NASCAR, but the 1976 Daytona 500 arguably has the greatest of them all. The immortalized ending of the race is well known to older NASCAR fans by now; the race came down to the final lap of the event, as Richard Petty and David Pearson, who had been swapping the lead for nearly a hundred laps prior, came down to the white flag. Petty headed into the first turn with the lead, but handling problems on his car forced his STP car to drift up the track, allowing Pearson to pass him for the lead. Down the super stretch, Petty got one last run on Pearson, and managed to duck underneath his car heading into the final turns. As the two were coming off Turn 4, Petty almost had Pearson cleared when Petty’s car slip up the track again, tagging Pearson’s front bumper. The two cars then proceeded to swerve across the track, smashing into each other and spinning down through the tri-oval towards the start/finish line and the checkered flag! Petty spun down towards the infield grass, while David Pearson’s damaged car began to coast towards the checkered flag. Petty actually ended up closer to the start/finish line than Pearson did, but his radiator had literally been knocked backwards into his engine, rendering the car unable to start. Pearson managed to coast his crippled car across the start/finish line before the 3rd place driver at the time could come back around to the start finish line. Petty, who desperately tried to restart his car before Pearson crossed the line, actually had to get help from his pit crew, as they literally pushed Petty across the start/finish line! But it was all for not, as Pearson managed to take home the 1976 Daytona 500, and with it, the most incredible Daytona 500 finish in history.

I think this article will suffice to open up the “Seven Days of Daytona” series here at Tailgate Crashers. Each day, with Monday’s column starting us off, Tailgate Crashers will feature a brand new Daytona-themed article, ranging from recaps of the Twin Duels on Thursday, to breaking news on the Waltrip/Kenseth/Kahne Scandals, to the final countdown to the race on Saturday. Here’s the tentative schedule for the rest of the week:

Monday – Opening Article, End of the Boom Era
Tuesday – Coverage of the brewing controversies surrounding Michael Waltrip, Matt Kenseth, and Kasey Kahne.
Wednesday – Remembering Benny Parsons.
Thursday – Coverage of the Twin 150 Duels from Daytona.
Friday – Examination of NASCAR’s new television status.
Saturday – Final countdown to the big race, including official predictions.
Sunday – Complete post race coverage of the 48th Annual Daytona 500.

All in all, a pretty full week of NASCAR supplements. Hell, after this week, we’re going to need a few months away from left turns. Again, welcome to Speed Addicts Reunion Week here at the Pulse… er, Tailgate Crashers! If you hate NASCAR, then I’ll see you on the flip side. For all of you staying, Cool Runnings.