Running the facts, figures and numbers on the Daytona 500
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The Daytona 500 is an event that transcends its own sport, much the same as the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Masters. Over the last 54 years, a lot of history has been made just off the beach (and just on it) on Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-miles of asphalt. The following is a look at the numbers, facts and figures of NASCAR's biggest race.
NASCAR’s Super Bowl Explosion Winner’s Share In The First Daytona 500 (1959): $19,050 (Lee Petty) Winner’s Share In Last Year’s Daytona 500 (2012): $1,588,887 (Matt Kenseth) Full Purse, first Daytona 500 (59 starters): $67,760 Full Purse, 54th Daytona 500 (43 starters): $17,277,409 Last-place share in 1959: Ken Marriott, 59th place, $100 Last-place share in 2012: David Ragan 43rd place, $267,637 Average income, Middle-Class American: $41,560 per year (Source: http://bber.unm.edu/econ/us-pci.htm) -- U.S. Dept. Of Commerce)
This 500 … Brought to You by the Number Six
The big buzzword you’ve hear throughout Speedweeks sounds more like an education initiative than a race car. But “Gen-6” is NASCAR’s biggest change this decade, a new chassis type rolling out in 2013 designed to win back fans through a sleeker, “stock” look that make the Ford Fusions, Chevy SS models, and Toyota Camrys more like what you’d see on the street.
“The collaborative efforts between the manufacturers, teams, and NASCAR has been unparalleled in my 34 years in the sport,” crowed Robin Pemberton last month on the Gen-6’s pending Daytona debut.
Translation? NASCAR learned from the dreadful Car of Tomorrow communication debacle, where even CEO Brian France admitted recently “we made some errors” in a model that was highly criticized. This time, they’ve kept everyone from your low-level crewman, to tire specialist, to car owner, to their top R&D engineers on the same page in developing a car they believe will come out competitive.
Tandem Drafting No More
It’s the Valentine Day’s breakup even Cupid is privately cheering. In January testing, “Gen-6” hated being paired up, with even the slightest two-car bumpdraft causing instability to the point it just won’t happen in the 500. Even plate expert Dale Earnhardt Jr. started a 12-car wreck in testing by trying to lightly push Marcos Ambrose in the turns. The Sprint Unlimited witnessed the same thing, as a six-car wreck decimated the field just 15 laps into the event.
“I’m anticipating handling is going to be a little bit more of a premium than what we’ve had in the past,” says Jeff Gordon, pointing to less downforce in the rear of the car. Others claim the new drafting package is similar to what NASCAR had a decade ago, where drivers laid back to “set up” their slingshot moves inside a large pack.
A Guaranteed Photo Finish?
Say what you will about restrictor plates, first bolted onto the cars in 1988 at Daytona as a safety measure to keep fans and drivers safe. But one thing you can’t argue is that horsepower-sucking piece of metal virtually guarantees “close” finishes. 24 of the last 25 Daytona 500s, since the inception of this “plate” era have produced a margin of victory equaling roughly two car lengths or less. Only Darrell Waltrip’s fuel-mileage gamble, in 1989, was the exception to the rule (Waltrip won by a “comfortable” 7.64 seconds over Ken Schrader). No other sports’ premier event has such a track record of razor-close endings.
Can Kyle Busch break through for Toyota? (ASP, Inc.)
Daytona: Toyota’s Achilles’ Heel
As the first foreign automaker to win in NASCAR’s Cup level since Jaguar in 1954, the Toyota Camry has been competitive at NASCAR’s top level. But when it comes to the Triple Crown of success on which each car is judged — drivers’ championship, manufacturers’ title and the Daytona 500 — Toyota has fallen short. The Great American Race, in particular, has been a Great American Debacle for the Toyota camp.
In its first year on the circuit, two-time 500 winner Michael Waltrip’s team was nearly expelled from the track for attempting to put jet fuel inside the engine of his NAPA Toyota. While Toyota has improved dramatically since, even winning the summer race here with Kyle Busch in 2008, it’s done no better than third in February.
The “Intimidator” Curse: From Zero To Hero?
Even casual sports fans remember Dale Earnhardt’s “reverse of the curse,” winning the 1998 Daytona 500 after 20 years’ worth of black cats, broken mirrors, cut tires and virtually every type of hard-luck story imaginable. In the 15 years since, no superstar has quite matched Big E’s legendary levels of frustration but there are plenty of drivers looking to break an “0-for” in the sport’s biggest race. Here’s a look:
Mark Martin 500 Record: 0-for-28 The Lowdown: 40 career wins, 55 poles, over 12,700 laps led. At 54 years old and a freee agent at season’s end, could this be Martin’s last great shot? Best 500 Finish: 2nd, 2007 Best Shot Thus Far: The sport’s best supporting actor with five runner-up finishes in the point standings had a similar “oh so close” moment at Daytona six years ago. Leading 26 laps in a Herculean effort with an organization that would go broke six months later, he was leading entering the final lap. But as a melee broke out behind him off Turn 4, Martin slowed ever so slightly, anticipating a caution that never came. Kevin Harvick slid by for the victory in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history and left Martin’s beach dreams adrift in the tide. The veteran has been no better than 10th since.
500 Record: 0-for-14 The Lowdown: 47 wins in exactly 500 series starts, three Cup titles and wins at all but two tracks currently on the circuit (Darlington and Kentucky). Best 500 Finish: 2nd, 2004 Best Shot Thus Far: With nearly 300 laps led in the 500, no modern driver in NASCAR matches more with Earnhardt’s tales of woe. The lowest of the low came in 2007-08. The first year, Stewart was arguably the fastest car until being caught up in a wreck with rival Kurt Busch while cruising in formation well ahead of the field. Then, he had the trophy in sight entering the last lap in ’08, only for he and Toyota teammate Kyle Busch to get drafted past by Ryan Newman and (again) Busch.
500 Record: 0-for-19 The Lowdown: 21 Cup wins, four top-5 points finishes Bes 500 Finish: 2nd, 2000 Best Shot Thus Far: Burton, who didn’t even lead a lap in the big race until his ninth start (2002) has finished 24th or worse in the 500 nine times. But if there’s a darkhorse for the race, he could be it: both of Burton’s top-5 finishes in 2012 came at Daytona and teammate Kevin Harvick showed the muscled to win last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited.
Other Notables Seeking Redemption: Bobby Labonte (0-for-20), Kurt Busch (0-for-12), Greg Biffle (0-for-10), Kasey Kahne (0-for-9), Carl Edwards (0-for-8, won last year’s 500 pole), Kyle Busch (0-for-8), Denny Hamlin (0-for-7), Clint Bowyer (0-for-7).
Crash And Burn? Daytona’s “Big One” Looms
With plate racing keeping most cars locked together in close quarters, the question of a major wreck in the 500 is not a case of “if” but “when.” Here’s a look at the multi-car incidents that have most affected the race:
1992: Leaders Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Ernie Irvan go three-wide before Irvan pushes it a bit too far. The 14-car wreck that ensues takes out almost all contenders, as well as Richard Petty in his last 500. Only five cars end the race on the lead lap.
1999: A 12-car wreck, started between teammates Kenny Irwin Jr. and Dale Jarrett wipes out the two-time 500 champ along with Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.
2001: Overshadowed by Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death 25 laps later, a 19-car wreck saw Tony Stewart’s No. 20 flip wildly in what was almost another tragedy. Thankfully, no one came out hurt.
2002: An 18-car Demolition Derby incident on Lap 150 takes out Ken Schrader, who had led 46 laps at that point and considerably thins the field.
2009: As a lapped car, Dale Earnhardt Jr. tangles with Brian Vickers to start a 10-car melee that takes out a dominant Kyle Busch, who had led 88 of the first 123 laps of the race.
2011: Just 29 laps into the event, Michael Waltrip’s ill-timed bumpdraft wipes out 14 vehicles, including five-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.
Opposites Attract: Inside the List of 500 Champs Youngest: Trevor Bayne, 20 years, one day (2011) Oldest: Bobby Allison, 50 years, two months, 11 days (1988) Fastest Average Speed: 177.602 mph (Buddy Baker, 1980) Slowest Average Speed: 124.740 mph (Junior Johnson, 1960) Best Starting Position: Pole, nine times (Fireball Roberts, 1962; Richard Petty, 1966; Cale Yarborough, 1968; Buddy Baker, 1980; Cale Yarborough, 1984; Bill Elliott, 1985 & ’87, Jeff Gordon, 1999; Dale Jarrett, 2000) Worst Starting Position: 39th (Matt Kenseth, 2009)
Doubles and Triples Three-Consecutive 500 Winners
1973-74: Richard Petty
1983-84: Cale Yarborough
1994-95: Sterling Marlin
Owners Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske have also accomplished the “double dip” feat, with Ganassi pulling an unprecedented Triple Crown: he captured Daytona, the Indy 500, and NASCAR’s Indy race (the Brickyard 400) all in the same 2010 season.
"There have been other tracks that have separated the men from the boys. This is the track that will separate the brave from the weak after the boys are gone." – Driver Jimmy Thompson on the first Daytona 500
Daytona: By the Numbers
Husband/wife driver combinations to compete in the 500. Of course, we only mention this because of that little Danica Patrick/Ricky Stenhouse Jr. relationship. Could we be seeing the pair change that in a couple years? Yeah, probably not.
Jet dryer explosion in 53 years of the race (Juan Pablo Montoya, 2012 – luckily no one was hurt.)
Father/son duos to win the 500 in just 53 events: Lee & Richard Petty, Bobby & Davey Allison, and the Earnhardts (Dale Sr. & Jr.)
The number of different manufacturers to win the 500: Chevy, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Ford, Plymouth, Mercury, Dodge and Buick.
The average number of laps led by the last six Daytona 500 winners, proving in this age of NASCAR parity the only lap that matters is the last one.
The number of Daytona 500 wins for Chevrolet, the most of any manufacturer. Ford, however, has won three of the last four (they’re second with 13 wins overall).
The highest number of Daytona 500 starts without a victory, held by Wisconsin’s Dave Marcis. The independent driver, famous for wearing his wingtip shoes in the cockpit, made 32 consecutive appearances from 1968-99, then retired after the 2002 Daytona race but never led more than three laps in any of them. (Best finish: 6th twice – 1975 & ’78)
Most Cup wins of any driver, all-time, without a Daytona 500 on their resume (Rusty Wallace). The 1989 Cup Series champ and a short track specialist, Wallace was never better than third in the big race. (Tony Stewart holds the record amongst active drivers, with 47.)
The record number of cars that started the 1960 Daytona 500; 39 finished the race. NASCAR adopted the current max of 43 cars in 1998.
The fastest pole speed, in miles per hour, recorded for the 500. Accomplished by Bill Elliott in 1987, the advent of the plates a year later have made attaining those speeds impossible. Experts estimate without the slowdown, NASCAR vehicles today could soar over 230 mph heading into Daytona’s high-banked turns.
The fewest miles run by any Daytona 500 winner in history. Michael Waltrip won the 2003 version of the race with just 109 of 200 laps complete after a drenching rainstorm cut the finish short.
Starts by Michael Waltrip before earning his first NASCAR Cup victory: the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s the longest anyone has raced in the sport’s top division before hitting Victory Lane.
Have you noticed the oddity already taking place in NASCAR this season?
Don’t see it?
Look at the Nationwide Series where all three races have been won by drivers not competing full time in Cup this year.
James Buescher won at Daytona, points leader Elliott Sadler at Phoenix and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Las Vegas last weekend.
Consider that only six of 34 Nationwide races last year were won by drivers not competing in Cup full time. In 2010, only one race was won by a Nationwide regular not competing in Cup.
The odds are likely that the current streak will end this weekend at Bristol. Kyle Busch has won the last three Nationwide races there and is entered, along with Cup drivers Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano.
Still, a tide is turning.
Sadler, who did not win a race but finished second in the points in 2011, is excited about his chances of winning multiple races this year.
“I feel like when we show up every week, we’re going to be very, very fast,” he said. “We’re going to haul butt at Bristol. They’re taking my favorite car. It’s neat to have this confidence in this race and it’s neat this race team has this confidence in me.”
Others can relate.
The first three races show what the Nationwide Series can become a way to showcase its drivers, particularly the younger ones. Buescher is 21, Stenhouse is 24.
It’s not just them having success.
Look at what 20-year-old Cole Whitt and 21-year-old Austin Dillon have done so far.
Whitt was fourth at Daytona, 13th at Phoenix and sixth at Las Vegas. Dillon was fifth at Daytona, fourth at Phoenix and seventh at Las Vegas. They’re the favorites for the rookie of the year title and, based on how they started the season, could make that an interesting race.
It’s already been quite a start to the season for Whitt, who might be better known as the driver who bumped teammate Danica Patrick at Daytona, causing her to wreck. He hit the wall during qualifying at Las Vegas, but the team repaired it instead of going to a backup.
“I didn’t want to start that way with Danica,” Whitt said. “I messed up. Hopefully, over time I can earn that respect back from them. That, obviously, put a lot of limelight on us, a lot more than I wanted. Obviously, I felt a little bit of the pressure. Hopefully, with a clean race (at Las Vegas) and run as good as we did, we keep pulling those off and earn the respect of the veterans.”
The challenge for the series, though, remains, finding a way to make it affordable for teams to provide younger drivers quality rides. That’s not easy in this economic climate, but that’s what it will take for the series to gain more attention and interest from fans.
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HOLD ON TIGHT Jeff Gordon was asked what it was like inside his car when it went upside down during his crash in Daytona. Gordon gave a detailed answer that I thought might give you a sense of what drivers experience in such a crash.
Here’s an edited version of what Gordon said:
“You hold on tight and you just hope that it ends soon. You hold onto the steering wheel, but you basically just brace yourself for any impact that may be coming. The one thing about when you are flipping upside down, you really don’t know what’s coming next because you can’t see. You’re spinning around and you’re seeing the sky and the track and the sky and the track and it’s all happening pretty fast.
“There are only a few split seconds through that whole experience where I was nervous. One was when I was sliding on the door. I was more concerned with if those sparks turn into fire and I need to get out, how am I going to go through the other window? I knew some cars had gotten into me and I thought the car might be stuck like that. That didn’t last for very long because I started flipping. Then I was like, ‘Please don’t land upside down.’ Then it landed upside down.
“When it landed upside down, everything was fine. I told the team I was fine, but now it’s like how am I going to get out? The longest part of that entire wreck was waiting for (rescue crews) to get to the window and going through the process of whether or not we should flip it over or not. That seemed like it took forever and I wish I would have waited longer because I wanted to get out in a hurry and they wanted to wait and flip the car over.
“I wish I had waited because I tried to get out and that was the only time I was scared. I was stuck inside the car when I tried to unhook. That was the part that wasn’t much fun. As far as coping with it, maybe it’s just the mentality you have to have to be a race car driver. I was ready to get back in the car as fast as I possibly could and go out there and go race.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME Kevin Harvick and his wife DeLana have a name for their son due this July, they’re just not telling. Instead, they’re calling the child, for now, Otis.
“It is just something silly that we came up with as we have gone through the few months,” Harvick said. “That has been the most common question as to what we are going to name the boy. We don’t really want to tell anybody until it’s time so we just came up with a code name and that is what we came up with.
“It’s really (Ryan Newman’s wife) Krissie Newman’s fault to tell you the truth. She calls me that every once in a while, so we just called it ‘Baby ‘Otis’. At least it has some kind of name; you can refer to it as something. I keep wanting to call it ‘it’ and DeLana gets mad at me. She’s like ‘you can call it ‘son or boy’? So we just came up with ‘Otis’.”
PIT STOPS Trevor Bayne’s ninth-place finish last weekend at Las Vegas was his best finish in Cup since winning last year’s Daytona 500 ... The car Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer at Daytona now resides on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s property among a collection of destroyed race cars.
Sunday’s running of the 54th annual Daytona 500 begins the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and it also marks the beginning of the 2012 NASCAR fantasy racing season. Fans across the land will be preparing their teams week-in and week-out, hoping to celebrate with a championship of their own at season’s end.
As the 2012 fantasy racing season gets underway, I wish you the best of luck. I will attempt to bring you the best advice and updates on a weekly basis throughout the year, providing information that will help you determine which drivers to start, which to avoid and which to keep an eye on.
With the rule changes put in place by NASCAR during the offseason and throughout Speedweeks, the “pack is back” at Daytona. No longer will drivers rely on another car for the entirety of the 500-mile event, instead they will be more in control of their destiny to work their way through the giant, 30-car snarling packs, akin to the “traditional” restrictor-plate races that have drawn some fans’ ire, yet always deliver on excitement.
This is a change for many that have become accustomed to tandem racing on the plate tracks, but is a welcomed sight to this week’s fantasy favorite: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The 2004 Daytona 500 champion has not enjoyed the same success during the tandem drafting era of restrictor-plate racing as he did in the “pack racing years,” when he won a total of seven points-paying races at Daytona and Talladega from 2001-04.
Earnhardt admits that he “never felt really great about” about the tandems, and that was never more evident than in last October’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, when he and teammate Jimmie Johnson hung around the back of the pack until the end. By the time the two attempted to make their charge, it was too late. Earnhardt finished 25th that day and vowed to never use that strategy again.
However, with pack racing back, Earnhardt says he feels “more confident” and has a better ability to formulate a plan to get to the front at the end. Expect the perennial fan-favorite to dice it up in the pack throughout the entire race (see: the 2010 Daytona 500) and be a factor in the final laps.
“I want to go up and win the race,” Earnhardt said earlier this week. “I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about riding in the back. I don’t waste a minute of the day doing that.”
While Earnhardt may be the favorite for Sunday’s win, my safe-bet pick for the week is 2009 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver was strong throughout Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout, coming back into contention after sustaining damage in an early-race incident. In addition to his calm, cool and collected driving style, Kenseth also has the advantage of Ford power under the hood of his No. 17 car.
Throughout Speedweeks, the Fords have once again shown they are able to stay cooler longer while tucked behind another car in the tandem draft. And while pack racing will rule 95 percent of the day at Daytona, the final laps of Sunday’s race will see drivers pairing up in pairs once again, throwing caution — and water temperatures — to the wind in an attempt to drive to the win.
When drivers partner up at the finish, expect Kenseth to be among those at the front with a bevy of teammates (and quasi-teammates) — think Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Gilliland — from which to choose.
My dark horse pick of the week is Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano. While the 21-year-old has had a poor record in the Daytona 500 in his first three attempts (average finish: 28.6) , I feel the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota will be a factor throughout the day.
Before being involved in one of the three “Big Ones” in the Bud Shootout, Logano was among the strongest cars in the field. Despite his relative inexperience with pack racing, he looked at ease in the middle of the pack and had the ability to move to the front. And his teammates’ seeming unwillingness to work with one another — when was the last time Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch actually assisted one another on-track? — means Logano will serve as the perfect dancing partner.
In addition, Logano enters his first year without veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who moved to Stewart-Haas Racing during the offseason. While the loss of a two-time, championship-winning crew chief would seem detrimental to most teams, it may by the opposite for Logano. For the first time in his young career, he truly feels the team is his own. With Zipadelli calling the shots up until now, Logano was living in the shadow (and accomplishments) of former driver Tony Stewart. Now that Zipadelli has moved on, Logano, believe it or not, is the leader of his own team. And JGR’s veteran Nationwide Series crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, should fill the vacated head wrench role nicely.
While he may not win his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, I fully expect Logano to score a solid finish — and provide ample fantasy points.
Momentum is a powerful thing in NASCAR, and as the season goes on I wish you all the best of luck. I encourage your feedback and comments, and apologize in advance if my observations do not pan out (a timely “Big One” can easily knock out an entire fantasy roster). If I could predict the future, I think I’d live in Las Vegas and be a lot richer …
Here’s to a great 2012 season for NASCAR, the competitors, and the fantasy racing participants.
There’s a reason why Talladega continues to endure and endear itself to NASCAR Nation. Vito Pugliese provides a first-hand account of this past weekend’s racing from the 2.66-mile behemoth.
While some experiments and initiatives in NASCAR have not performed as expected, there are some constants that continue to produce. One of them has been producing for over 40 years: Talladega.
As I have written here and elsewhere quite often, everyone loves nostalgia — going retro is all the rage. From the newest versions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang, to the endless ’70s and ’80s remakes that are cranked out of Hollywood like P-51s during WWII, the past is always in style, and for those who fancy old-school NASCAR, it’s hard to beat Talladega — and last weekend’s Good Sam Club 500 was no exception.
Well, at least for the last 25 laps. Even Tony Stewart suggested cutting it down to 40 if most drivers were just going to cruise for the majority of the afternoon. But I digress.
One of the facets of NASCAR that permeated from the 1950s to the 1970s, was that of manufacturer loyalty among fans and racers alike. That aspect became relevant once again on Sunday, as team (and manufacturer) orders were apparently delivered — both internally and externally.
Ford’s Trevor Bayne was in position to help his childhood hero and racing idol, Chevy’s Jeff Gordon, to the finish in the final laps. Gordon’s teammate and BFF drafter, Mark Martin, got mangled with eight laps to go when Gordon, Martin, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano stacked up coming off Turn 2. Bayne committed to Gordon over the radio under caution, but then the partnership dissolved halfway down the backstretch, with Bayne betraying his bumpership, and falling in line with the Ford of quasi-teammate Matt Kenseth.
In this era of two-car tandems that have dictated that a driver work with whomever and whatever goes fastest, it is refreshing to see the element of manufacturer loyalty return. That’s not to say that I was happy to see Gordon get smoked on the white flag lap on what more or less was a lie on Bayne’s part (told to Gordon, who went out of his way to help the youngster during Speedweeks in Daytona). But when I first started following NASCAR intently, a Chevrolet driver working with a Ford driver was something just short of heresy.
Back in the heyday of manufacturer involvement, it was the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega that inspired competition between brands — so much so that Dodge and Ford developed wildly-successful models named after each respective track. In 1969, Dodge released two models specifically to better compete on the fast tracks: the flush-grilled fastback Charger 500, and later the Charger Daytona and Ford’s Torino Talladega.
During the 1990s, the same philosophy was echoed throughout the field. You wouldn’t see Dale Earnhardt drafting with Geoff Bodine in a Ford (OK, bad example), or Bill Elliott’s Ford partnering with Rusty Wallace’s Pontiac. As much cross-pollination as you could expect would be an Oldsmobile or Pontiac working with a Chevy Lumina. The Ford teams were islands unto themselves for the most part — which wasn’t a bad thing a couple of years later when it seemed everyone ran a Ford Thunderbird.
There were also orders of another kind at Talladega, namely Chad Knaus instructing Jimmie Johnson to ding up the rear of his car if he won to avoid any post-race template troubles. Considering the suspensions that were levied to the Michael Waltrip Racing teams for unapproved windshields last weekend, it’s probably for the best that ol’ Five-Time got drilled in the door by Andy Lally late in the going. A bit coincidental, considering the winner was Clint Bowyer, whose title hopes were dashed a year ago after having 150 points docked following a win at New Hampshire for what was alleged to be damage suffered by getting a push from a wrecker that caused his car to be out of tolerance.
One couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1985 Winston, when Darrell Waltrip just happened to blow the engine (some would claim the over-sized engine) in his Junior Johnson-prepared Monte Carlo SS immediately after taking the checkered flag.
The racing itself on Sunday was a bit 1980s-ish, as well. Speeds hovering consistently around 200 mph meant that the track, which was the first to honor the stock-car mark, was once again being used for what it was designed. We saw packs break away and catch up, as well as single-file racing, not unlike the days when cars had to lift through the corner as drivers sawed on the wheel — not so much driving as they were keeping their cars from lifting off and trying to feel where the front tires were pointed. Racing at speeds which most aircraft go wheels-up, that big blade on the back has to be a bit comforting, particularly when getting shot head-on into a wall at these speeds.
Reagan Smith’s impact in his black Chevrolet was both sobering and eerily reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001. It was a testament to how far the sport has come safety-wise, as SAFER Barriers, HANS devices and any other acronym that has prevented the unthinkable from happening the last decade is one area where waxing poetic about open-faced helmets, smock dipped in some sort of concoction which was allegedly fire retardant (though most likely just Epsom salt) falls flat on its exposed face. It is nothing but dumb luck or divine intervention that prevented more drivers from dying during the 210-plus mph era of the late ’70s and mid- ’80s.
What is unique about Talladega is that it was conceived during an era when all of the tracks were different; each with its own idiosyncrasies. It’s kind of like NASCAR itself. What other track was said to have been built on a Native American burial ground, is allegedly cursed, had a driver boycott before its first race and, even though cars nearly ended up in the stands twice in virtually the same spot, routinely witnesses fans buying tickets to sit up front, right where said cars tore into fencing?
More than that, the track is as big a part of the racing story as the title bout it was hosting.
The wildcard of the Chase pulled a fast one on the front-runners and their title hopes. Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all took huge hits, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all but had their Wonka tickets punched. In the end, it wasn’t about fuel mileage or a 30-car junkyard — it came down to two teammates with no championship implications whatsoever. And no one seemed to care one way or another that no Chasers were contending for the win.
We’ve since grown accustomed to seeing wide swathes of open seating, some tracks going so far as to widen the seats to help fill up the empty spaces where fans used to shoehorn in, or going so far as to remove entire sections of grandstands. Not so in Eastaboga, Alabama.
This go ’round I took to the seats rather than the media center. Sure, I had my Garage Pass in hand but decided to watch the race with the fans. And by “the fans,” I mean fans that still have a rabid appreciation for the sport, as every single seat that was available in the Birmingham Tower was filled.
What economic downturn? Those Occupy Wall Street miscreants couldn’t hold down much more than a wet fart if their lives depended on it in comparison. They’ve got nothing on my people (particularly in the hygiene department).
There were more bodies seated, on time and ready to go than there are at my church on most Sundays. Couple that with a flyover by a pair of F-22 Raptors (including a super slo-mo pass over the backstretch that looked like it was going about 100 mph courtesy of thrust vectoring) and a Kenworth pulling a massive American flag. There was a bit of relief amongst the chaos that is Talladega that at least here, things still make sense.
It’s not often you see and feel what racing was like 15 or 20 years ago — literally. A fat, sweaty stranger mere inches from you is gross, but once the race starts and everybody is standing, there actually is a bit more room. And if you knock back a few pops, your own breath and BAC trumps anyone else’s BO. Sure, those seats might be metal and some are a bit rusty, but every one of them was filled, and it was elbow-to-elbow. And no one seemed to mind. (A side note: Talladega is in the process of redoing the seating, expanding each seat to 22” so feel free to go nuts this holiday season and embrace your inner Adam Richman.)
There is a reason why even in the midst of yet another recession, where people are careful where and how they spend what little discretionary income they have right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, that many still make time for Talladega. With all of the talk of fuel-mileage races dictating a championship and conspiring to ruin racing, Sunday was an old-fashioned superspeedway race, where two of the fastest cars ran up front all day, pulled away from the pack at the end and settled it amongst themselves.
It’s not that hard to see why people keep showing up to Talladega in droves as they always have and why its two dates continue to be the most popular of the year: