It started on the Sunday a week prior to the Daytona 500. The non-points Clash, a 75-lap race with a 20-car field dodged rain much of the afternoon and was cut short. But the racing that did happen was in the form of a long single line of cars. Only when someone dared step out did anxiety levels raise. There was a big crash near the end and Jimmie Johnson ended up winning, but thanks to the rain we got only a hint of what was to come.
“When it gets to single file on the top, I mean, you’re just waiting,” Johnson said. “That’s all we did at ‑‑ every time we got 5 or 10 laps in, it went single file at the top, and everybody is just waiting for that chance that it’s safe to make a pass or you think that you’re coming to the checkered or something like that.”
Thursday the Duel qualifying races were staged. Half the field in one, the other half in the second. Ford’s ended up dominating both races taking the top three spots in each. But like the Sunday prior both races were long single lines running near the top of the wall.
There were whispers of “Daytona, we have a problem”.
The drivers seemed to do little to alleviate those fears.
“The only thing I can tell you is once those cars get single file like that, just look at the lap times, that tells the story,” Clint Bowyer said Thursday. “Once those lap times pick up a second, literally a second, the longer that chain got the faster I went up front.”
Suddenly many in the media (and many fans) were prognosticating gloom and doom; all anyone would see would be single file racing all day Sunday. Team owners, crew chiefs, drivers were asked if NASCAR had mentioned anything about any rule changes for the big race, any sort of tweaks. Nope, came the answers.
Then came the big show; the Daytona 500 on Sunday. During the drivers meeting NASCAR’s Jim France, who has not yet had a formal media session with the media and remained mostly silent, spoke to the drivers at the driver’s meeting.
“I hope a few of you drivers out there will get down on the bottom with Denny and Chase and put on a good show today,” France said.
That ‘good show’ started when the green dropped. Not only were there two lanes of racing, the bottom lane seemed to be slightly faster at times. And there were at times three wide packs behind the leaders.
In other words, the racing was nothing like we had seen all week long. Yes, there were some huge crashes that thinned the field out, but the 14 cars on the lead lap in the final overtime finish (the race went 7 laps over the advertised distance) diced it up in the final two laps with Denny Hamlin winning his second Daytona 500 in front of over 100,000 fans in the stands, most of whom looked to have stayed until the checkered flag. For those who had predicted the gloom and doom, were left eating crow. In hindsight, perhaps we should have known better.
“This is the Daytona 500,” winning crew chief Chris Gabehart said. “It’s the sport’s best 36 drivers out there, and racetrack is heated up 50 degrees. It’s time to get after it. This one counts, and not only does it count, but it’s the biggest one of the year, and anybody who thought they were going to line up and ride around the top for the Daytona 500 for 490 miles doesn’t know the competitive nature of these guys.”
“I chuckled with my guys on the intercom five laps into the race when they’re two wide and you can see the cars sliding around and getting runs. I’m like, oh, yeah, anybody who thought this thing was going to line up and be boring has got another thing coming. Needless to say, that was the case.
It’s just a whole ‘nother thing. The Daytona 500 with everybody out there trying to get after it, it’s not going to be boring. “
Nothing spoken during the 12 days that made up Speedweeks could be truer. Because despite what many thought, this year’s Daytona 500 was far from boring. And it seems evident by the sold-out grandstands that remained full until the end and the all-important overnight TV ratings which showed an increase in viewership over last year’s 500. Of course, TV ratings don’t really matter like they used to although the naysayers use the decline in the past years to project a ‘sky is falling, NASCAR is dead’ mentality, but in this case at least, we all have something to celebrate. Whether it will hold true moving forward remains to be seen, but no matter what happens the momentum from the first race is a wave the sport hopes to ride for some time to come.