The 54th Daytona 500 – A Most Unusual Race

It’s hard to imagine any Daytona 500 more unusual than the 54th-edition completed late Monday evening/early Tuesday morning.

Delayed a total of three times by Mother Nature and the gods of Fire, the event concluded with a rousing dash to the checkered flag where Matt Kenseth grabbed his second Daytona 500 title.

The debate about where this race fits in with the lore of the Daytona 500 began before the green flag ever flew. The event had great anticipation because of new technology – fuel injection – and the return to pack, not pushing racing.

Toss in Danicamania – revved to a fever pitch especially after her huge 500 qualifying race crash and later pole-winning performance for the Nationwide Series – and NASCAR was on just about everybody’s radar headed into Sunday’s event.

Then it rained.

Sunday’s wet blanket buzz kill would actually prove to be an advantage when additional rains pushed the 500 into prime time Monday evening. Now, the race would have its own platform instead of sharing Sunday’s television audience with the NBA All-Star Game and the Oscars.


Amazingly, the grandstand was full Monday night, a true testament to the loyalty of NASCAR fans. They didn’t have long to wait for action as pre-race favorite Jimmie Johnson crashed after completing just one lap. Johnson’s wreck would have been less dramatic had Patrick not – well behind the incident – pinballed into two other cars sending one of them sliding hard into the driver’s side of Johnson’s now fully stopped racer.

Amazingly, the television announcers chose to praise Patrick for only getting slightly involved in the wreck. The also gushed all over her driving through a pair of spinning cars in the grass – where the driver had no control at all thanks to drenching rains that made the grassy infield areas a 180 miles per hour slip ‘n slide.


The early on-track and TV-booth silliness eventually gave way to a solid race only to have it literally all go up in smoke when Juan Pablo Montoya slid into a track services safety vehicle outfitted with a jet dryer.

The subsequent explosion set off a scene one unlike anything this reporter has ever witnessed at the racetrack. The giant fire that ensued led to amazing acts of heroism as we first watched a track worker run up the banking to remove the driver of the safety vehicle from the carnage and then from the firefighters who braved to within feet of the sure to blow inferno.

It was spellbinding. Not just to those of us who are race fans, but also to the rest of the world as well as NASCAR began trending heavily on Social Media outlets like Twitter. This was no reality show – a giant explosion at the Daytona 500 was so surreal that it jumped to the top of everybody’s what’s happening now list.

Like everything else in NASCAR, the moments of exhilaration soon gave over to more hours of waiting for the race to resume. One can only wonder how many places went out and bought big boxes of Tide Tuesday morning after seeing how effective the detergent was in cleaning up a fuel spill of epic proportions.

Finally, the race took the green flag, survived two more giant wrecks in the final laps, and came to a conclusion with Kenseth grabbing his second Daytona 500 trophy.

The end was a welcome sight as nearly 40 hours of staying engaged with this year’s 500 was all about any mere mortal could take. For us, having good buddy Kenseth win was the perfect ending to another amazing chapter in one of stock car racing’s most storied events.

While there’s no way of telling where the 2012 Daytona 500 will rank in terms of all-time events, there’s no doubt the odds of having another anything like it are pretty much a lock.

In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing.

On to Phoenix.

Odds ‘N Ends –

Was extremely happy to see Terry Cook spot the winner, John King, in the Truck race Friday at Daytona.

I had the good fortune to spot for Cook throughout the 2007 Truck season. One of the division’s all-time good guys, Cook has taken his time behind the wheel and turned it into a second career as a team management/driver coach/spotter at Red Horse Racing.

Always great to see your friends win anything, but when good buds like Terry Cook and Matt Kenseth go to Victory Lane at Daytona, that’s something very special.

No Fumar –

This year’s 500 at Daytona marked the last time fans will be able to smoke in the main grandstands. Starting with the Cup race at DIS later this summer, fans will only be allowed to smoke in ‘designated areas.’

Two things struck us odd here.

First, if ever there was an indicator that stock car racing is no longer just a ‘cigarette and beer’ conclave, this ruling is it. That ship sailed a long time ago, but this decree seals the deal.

The second thing is that the edict only applies to the grandstand areas and not the garages or infield FanZone. We can understand of not knuckling the open-air FanZone, but smoking in the garage areas – where the real flammable stuff lives – should have been outlawed a long time ago.

Last Call –

The fact that several competitors were able to buy their way in or rely on past accomplishments to gain a starting spot in this year’s Daytona 500 is troubling to us.

While those who secured spots in the race acquiring points accrued by another team/driver last season were completely in the current rules, this is in our view outside the bounds of spirit of competition.

Earning something is an accomplishment, buying something is a transaction. Those who bought there way in this year’s Daytona 500 didn’t earn it, plain and simple.

Additionally, gaining a spot in what is arguably the most important event of the year because of a race or championship achievement accomplished as much as two decades ago is a total sham.

That’s like telling every previous Super Bowl winner that they are automatically entered in the NFL Playoffs the following season.

That said, we’d like to see a total revamping of the Daytona 500 qualifying system to include no guaranteed Top-35 spots, no acquiring of points not earned by your team/driver from the previous season, and no past race/champions provisionals.

In short, let everyone take a lap in qualifying, lock in the top two for the front row as you do now, and let everyone else race for the top-15 in each of the Gatorade Duels. Now with 32 cars locked into the race, take the remaining 11 spots and award them to the cars still not in the show based on the time they posted in qualifying.

Everyone then has the same chance and is playing on the same level field both competitively and financially. New drivers have the same chance to make the race as Dale Jr., Jeffy and Jimmie while new sponsors have an opportunity equal to those of Budweiser, Mountain Dew and Lowes.

Not only is this a completely fair system, but it will also scrap a totally convoluted Daytona 500 qualifying process that even people in the sport have difficulty understanding.

Last year, a revamp of the NASCAR championship point system not only brought clarity to the process, but more excitement for competitors and fans alike as well. We’re betting long overdue changes to the Daytona 500 qualifying rules will accomplish the same.

Getting rid of the current system cronyism and replacing it with an equal footing set of rules gives the fans the best and most competitive event possible.

That is what should be the rule here. Not who can buy their way in or who did something special a long time ago. That just doesn’t seem right to us.

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