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For the first time in a while, I actually enjoyed watching every lap of a NASCAR race today.
The Daytona 500 was actually that good. And it needed to be.
NASCAR has in the past few years drifted aimlessly. If you didn’t notice all the empty seats when you occasionally tuned into a race, you definitely noticed the lack of drama or excitement. While it’s true some of that has been caused by bigger names in the sport having retired recently, there was more to it than that.
NASCAR just didn’t put on a very good show the last couple of years. The racing was boring, the prices to attend was too high for its core audience and NASCAR didn’t seem to care. It was becoming like the 50th franchise of a once-tremendous restaurant. The name brought back great memories of the past, but current events seemed a little like people going through the motions.
Add to the fact that it’s not rocket science to figure out what makes for an entertaining show on a race track, and it became all the more frustrating. Older fans stopped paying attention, younger fans weren’t engaging in the first place and there became a growing problem. Great races generally need only three things: close racing in the early stages so someone won’t change the channel or take a nap, some sort of big wreck in the middle that becomes a huge video highlight (as in “hey, did you see that wreck Sunday?”) and then 5 or six cars racing to a photo finish on the last lap.
That’s it. That’s the list. Everything else is gravy.
Daytona had all of that, plus the elements of a Hollywood movie. Of all the sports leagues, no one does a storybook finish better than NASCAR, and they provided another today. When Dale Earnhardt, for example, passed away in a wreck at the Daytona 500 in 2001, it somehow turned out that the winner of the race the next time the group came back to the track – the 2001 Pepsi 400 – was the late Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr. Call it coincidence or whatever, but these types of emotional finishes seem to happen more in NASCAR than any other league I’ve watched.
That sort of situation existed today, as Joe Gibbs racing was in mourning as Gibbs’ son JD passed away about a month ago. JD was an integral part of the racing operation, was loved and respected by everyone in the garage, and was the guy who discovered driver Denny Hamlin. A moment of silence was observed on the 11th lap in honor of JD, and a camera closeup showed Coach Gibbs either praying or crying. Or both.
As events would have it on the final lap of the race, the winner ended up being Denny Hamlin. Announcer Jeff Gordon said what we all were thinking as Hamlin took the checkered flag, saying “This was meant to be.” Meant to be, in fact, to the point the Gibbs racing team finished 1-2-3 in the final results. Any number of people on the track seemed to either have tremendous allergy issues, or were shedding a tear out of respect for the Gibbs family’s loss.
It’s only one race, but there were things today that portend well for NASCAR if they can keep duplicating this kind of show. The biggest is they finally appear to be trying to wrestle with the problems the sport has. Before the race, NASCAR Chairman Jim France actually suggested that more drivers try to race down on the bottom of the track instead of at the top, where long, uneventful 25-car freight trains of single-file racing can bore even the greatest race fan to tears.
His suggestion to me seemed two-fold: 1, stop playing it safe and let’s see some aggressive racing people like to watch, and 2, you take a chance, we’ll back you up. I asked former driver Rick Mast on Twitter about that before the race and he likened it to “kinda like taking the safety off the trigger.”
The broadcast was also good, although it too had its moments. Mike Joy has always been one of the smoothest auto racing announcers around, but even he uttered one phrase I’ll never understand. As a car got caught being out of the draft, Joy said the car was going “backward like a hot dog shooting out of a bun.”
You know how a dog turns his head sideways when he has no idea what you mean? Yeah, that was me. The next time I see a hot dog shooting out of a bun will be the first time. Particularly going backward.
Darrell Waltrip had his moments too, telling a story about Chad Knaus in his younger days and saying he thought Chad was “a little over the top.” I had the pleasure of covering Darrell in the early 80s, and he was the greatest interview ever because he was ALWAYS over the top. He even made me laugh out loud when there was a 21-car wreck and David Ragan found himself underneath another race car in the middle of this huge mountain of stock cars turned to scrap metal.
Waltrip’s comment? That David Ragan was so far under another race car, he could even see the springs that car was running.
Was it a perfect race? No. But it was fun. It was compelling. It had action that kept you on the edge of your seat, even if you knew that action was going to wreck half the field. You didn’t walk away, because you were sure you’d miss something. Just like in those golden years of the 80s and 90s.
NASCAR got it right Sunday. Good race, memorable moments, the right guy won.
Now they have to prove what we saw today will be the rule this season, instead of the exception.