The Neverland of NASCAR. All you have to do is put a restrictor plate on your engine, think a happy thought and you can fly right alongside the multimillion-dollar fleets fielded by Hendrick, Roush and Childress. With horsepower out of the equation, dreams come true with shocking regularity at Daytona International Speedway on the first weekend of the NASCAR season.
But this year’s edition of Speedweeks won’t be remembered for a Cinderella story; instead, it will be recalled for the nightmare scenario that unfolded on the final lap of Saturday’s Nationwide Series race.
A vicious crash sent rookie Kyle Larson’s car hurtling into the catch fence where it disintegrated just feet away from hundreds of fans. Parts of Larson’s car, including a tire and the front suspension, ended up flying deep into the grandstand, sending several fans to the hospital.
The opinions have been flowing freely since the incident on Saturday. NASCAR maintains that the fence did its job, pointing out that nobody was killed in the accident. On the other hand, several drivers were among the chorus that insisted fans don’t sign up for being put in harm’s way.
The important thing to remember is that the pursuit of safety doesn’t have a finish line. It’s an ongoing process that requires track owners to study every incident and put money in the hands of engineers so they can think of creative solutions to advance the cause of making sure everyone — drivers, crew members, officials and spectators alike — can walk away from the track each weekend with their health intact.
That’s what happened back in 2009 when Carl Edwards had a similar wreck on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway. The folks at DIS took notice of that wreck, which resulted in injuries to spectators, and reinforced the catch fence at their own facility. Who knows how many lives that proactive move saved on Saturday. My guess is similar ingenuity will result from this incident, helping the sport further its pursuit of safety.
On to the racing. There’s no way around it — a glance at Twitter and Facebook on Sunday evening told a tale of a fanbase not impressed with this year’s edition of the Daytona 500. Single-file racing prevailed, and nobody outside of Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed frisky enough to attempt a big move on the final lap. The new Gen-6 car, which debuted Sunday, took a lot of the blame.
But there were several factors that caused the race to unfold the way it did. Certainly the rules package had a lot to do with it as a lack of rear spoiler made pack racing a tough proposition. Expect to see some adjustments by the time the series rolls into Talladega later this spring for the next plate race.
Another factor was the mix of drivers near the front as the final laps ticked away. Plenty of plate-race aces were either sitting behind the wall or limping around in damaged race cars. Guys like Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth usually approach the final lap of a plate race like a riverboat gambler. Greg Biffle, Mark Martin and Michael McDowell? Not so much.
Finally, the specter of Saturday’s wreck was still fresh on the minds of every driver in Sunday’s race. Martin admitted during the post-race interview that he felt sick to his stomach when he woke up to race on Sunday and was relieved after the final lap played out without a repeat of Saturday’s chaos. Nobody wanted a repeat of that debacle, especially on the sport’s biggest stage. To say human nature didn’t play a role in the tame finish would be foolish.
Plain and simple, Sunday’s race won’t go down as a classic in the mind of anyone outside of Jimmie Johnson, Rick Hendrick and the MRN announcers who called the last lap like Dale Jr. was trying to replicate his father’s famous pass in the grass.
It will be remembered, however, for Danica Patrick’s eighth-place run, the best finish by a woman in the history of the event. Patrick’s run undoubtedly gave a boost of confidence to the sport’s most scrutinized driver, and on a weekend largely devoid of the old Daytona magic, Danica’s performance was the closest thing to a Cinderella story we had.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.