It was a Great American Race that finally lived up to its name.
In its 55th running on Sunday, the Daytona 500 had everything a great American stock-car race needs to have. Mechanical perfection. Good weather. A few fan favorites running in the front pack. A sprint to the finish. It was simply a damn good race.
I’m not a guy who sets aside a majority of Sundays to watch each and every Sprint Cup Series race, but I do like to catch a few of them from time to time, especially the Daytona 500. And with sore quads from snowboarding on Saturday, combined with a slight hangover still lingering from a long, very long, Friday night in Telluride, watching some NASCAR naturally fit in with my lazy plan for Sunday.
There was a time in my life, I believe it was during the blurrier years of my college tenure, when I was a diehard NASCAR fan. I played a hell of a lot of NASCAR video games, watched a lot of races and tried to smoke Winston cigarettes from time to time. During those formative years, the driver I constantly rooted for was Mark Martin. He drove the Valvoline #6 Ford. He’s always been a great driver, but has never achieved a Sprint Cup championship to show for it. He’s also never been to victory lane at the Daytona 500, either.
So every year, despite my waning interest in the sport, I would sit down and watch the Daytona 500 with high hopes that the aging Martin would finally get his first 500 win. Every year, I am disappointed knowing that he has only a few shots left at winning “the Super Bowl” of motor racing.
With my attention focused on hoping Martin can get a win over the past few years, I have not only been disappointed by Martin’s lack of winning one, but also the lack of good racing. Instead of good racing, there always seems to be some spectacle that becomes the story of the race, rather than racing being the story, as it should be. For example, in last year’s race, Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into the track dryer, causing a fiery blaze. That was the headlining story of the 2012 Daytona 500.
In 2009, the race was called with 48 laps remaining, because of rain. That was pretty lame. In 2010, the huge pothole that developed on the Daytona track was the story. Also lame. Following the pothole incident, the track was repaved for the 2011 event. The new track and new drafting techniques were the story. The 2011 race was better but it still had a lot of distractions.
Following the crash with the track dryer in 2012, the race finally ended at about 1 a.m., Daytona time. I don’t think there were too many people still up to watch the end of that race.
The big story this year’s race could have gone in several different directions. Of course, this race was all about rookie driver Danica Patrick. She was the first woman to win the pole position in a Sprint Cup Series race, and also became the first woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500 under the green flag. It was the Danica 500, as some people are now calling it.
The race could have also been marred by tragedy following a nasty Nationwide Series wreck at Daytona on Saturday. The wreck, which occurred just before the finish line, sent one car flying into the protective screening in front of the grandstands, and debris sent dozens of fans to the hospital with injuries. Two people were initially reported in critical condition, but were then upgraded to stable condition on Sunday.
I don’t know the extent of those fans’ injuries, and I do hope they will heal to the full extent. Can you imagine if any of those fans watching the race sustained fatal injuries in that wreck? I’m not sure the Daytona 500 would have gone on as scheduled the next day. It would have not only become the story of this year’s 500, but perhaps the story of the year in racing.
I think fans and race officials alike were a little nervous going into the 500 on Sunday, everyone hoping that another wreck causing injury to fans would not happen again. And it didn’t. For the sport, NASCAR had a glorious day.
It all began with the weather. No rain and no rain delays, racing for the 500 began under perfect conditions. Why do I think the 2013 Daytona 500 was so special? It was the first time in awhile that great car racing was the story. There were a few wrecks to keep everyone in check, but mostly this year’s Daytona was about finding a way to win in 500-mile endurance race.
Drivers, for the most part, stayed in one line, fearing it would cost them to get out of the draft. This set up the question as to whether or not a driver or set of drivers would be able to take the lower groove in the final laps to race to the finish. That question was answered late in the race when some brave drivers did go for a low line, and, with about 12 laps left, it was side-by-side racing. Drivers were forced to listen to their cars and be patient with adjustments. Tire and fuel stops were important. Fans were able to watch 30 or 40 green-flag laps go by, as these drivers pushed their cars. It was a day of racing. It was not a day of huge wrecks followed by caution after caution after caution. It was a race that proved if you can hang tough for 450 miles of a race, you have a shot to win. With just 10 laps to go, nobody knew how it would play out. It was heart-pounding fun.
Danica lived up to her hype and she was right in the middle of all this great racing. She hung with the best and in the end took eighth place, after she couldn’t find any help in the final lap.
Jimmy Johnson, who was mentioned very little throughout the day, won the Daytona 500 for the second time. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished a strong second place. And yes, Mark Martin came oh-so-close in third place.
Next year, I hope to be in attendance in Daytona for the 500, and while I hope Martin (if he’s still racing) will find a way to win, I’m really hoping to see more of what I saw on Sunday – just damn good racing.