Monday, February 25, 2013

Some speedy lessons from Daytona

The biggest race of the season has come and gone. And hopefully NASCAR, it's drivers and its fans have learned some valuable lessons this week. It's true that as humans we are capable of learning and changing our behavior, even if we don't necessarily want to, but know deep down it's for the best. So with that in mind, here are a few things we learned after a week of racing at Daytona.
Fans are at risk: This doesn't happen very often, in fact, it almost never happens.  But that word, "almost" is the key here. When a horrific crash on the final lap of the Nationwide race Saturday ended with big pieces, including a tire, of Kyle Larson's car catapulting into the stands, it reminds us that there is, albeit a small one, a risk for the fans. Fortunately, no fans died in the accident, and sure, NASCAR and all tracks need to check their safety standards. Are the catch fences high enough and strong enough? Should fans sit a little farther back from the track? Should there be a secondary catch fence directly in front of the first row of the stands? Should NASCAR require tires to be tethered to significantly decrease the chance of a tire going into the stands? It's not that the safety standards at Daytona are bad (the catch fence is 22-feet high), but all parties involved need to ask if those standards can be better. It's in the best interest of the fans, and hopefully that will be the first consideration here.
No more Franco: When actor James Franco gave the command to start the engines before Sunday's Daytona 500, he said, "drivers and Danica"  in reference to female driver Danica Patrick. Those of us who follow auto racing know that Danica is a driver. He could have said  "gentlemen and Danica" and that would have been acceptable. Saying "drivers and Danica'' though was a major mistake. She was even starting on the pole and there had been numerous stories written about her last week and she had been on the talk-show circuit, too. Danica is most definitely a driver. Whether you think she's a good one or not, is an entirely different matter. Which brings us too . . .
An eighth-place finish at Daytona proves Danica Patrick
 belongs in NASCAR competition.
Danica belongs: After she qualified first for the Daytona 500, Patrick admitted that was largely due to the crew having her car prepared to go fast. Sure, she pointed it in the right direction, took the right line around the famed 2.5-mile oval, but what she said was true. So the big question Sunday was how would she do at the front of the pack with 42 other drivers on the track. And if there are any doubts if she belonged, those now have to be erased. Danica definitely belongs. It might not be so much what she did, but what she didn't do that should make us take notice. She has never approached her time in NASCAR as some hot-shot know-it-all. She's always ready to take advice and makes it well-understood that she knows she is still learning. So, she didn't make  any stupid moves while running near the front of the pack Sunday. She didn't come close to causing any big accidents. She even led five laps. Sure, some more experience will teach her how to at least keep and maybe improve her position on those final laps at Daytona and Talladega, instead of dropping back five places. But if going from third to eighth in that situation is the worst thing that happened to her, then that's a pretty good drive for any driver.
Stay away from our sport: When Saturday's crash happened at the end of the Nationwide race, one of the networks to break into the coverage was CNN. And, hey, we can't blame them because if fans are hurt then it's a pretty big story. What we can blame them for is not having anyone with any idea about the sport available to talk about the situation. It was clear after about two minutes of coverage they didn't know what they were talking about. There was better and more accurate information from fans and reporters who cover the sport on Twitter than what CNN was attempting to tell us. The responsibility here just doesn't fall on the on-air personalities, but on the production people behind the scenes who don't understand our sport. It was a poor effort and those of us who have at least a decent knowledge of auto racing recognized it immediately and tuned out.
Tony Stewart understands the safety of the fans is more important  than the safety of the drivers.
Tony grows up: Yes, Tony Stewart did win the Nationwide race Saturday, but there was no celebration in Victory Lane. Stewart's first words when he exited his car were to express concern for the fans. Sure, he'll take the win because somebody has to, but he undoubtedly would have traded that victory for the fans' safety. There have been times in years past when Stewart has lost his temper and acted inappropriately, and there's no guarantee that won't happen again. But how he reacted to the situation Saturday won't soon be forgotten. Then he took it one step further by giving  the injured fans who were still in the hospital Sunday a personal visit after the Daytona 500. That's a winning move.
Youth with a machine: There were a couple of years there where one had to wonder if and when there would be a rush of young NASCAR stars that we could look forward to following in the future. That now is no longer a worry. With brothers Austin and Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson, Ryan Truex, Travis Pastrana, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Ryan Blaney racing in the Nationwide and trucks series, and even Ricky Stenhouse and Danica Patrick being regulars on the Sprint Cup scene now, and we're not just talking about their dating relationship, some new blood is coming to NASCAR and that's a good thing. We need new people to like, or hate, or whatever. How successful those drivers will be on the long-term remains to be seen, but it will be fun finding out.
No. 48 is still No. 1: It's not like we needed a reminder, but Jimmie Johnson's victory at Daytona tells us he's still the guy to beat when it comes to winning the Sprint Cup title. After winning five straight titles, Johnson hasn't won the crown the past two seasons. Along with winning Sunday, of course, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus' preparation for Daytona was quite interesting. Instead of running with large packs and seeing how the new Gen 6 car would handle in traffic, Johnson did only solo runs in practice. It seemed a bit odd, but when you do the same thing everybody else does, it's hard to learn anything different. Johnson and Knaus had confidence in their plan and they stuck to it. And like it or not, it worked. That may be bad news for the rest of the field when it comes to the 10-race Chase for the Championship in the fall.
Just another dad:  It was back a couple of years ago that an angry Joey Logano said that DeLana Harvick, not fellow competitor Kevin Harvick, wore the pants in the family after Harvick appeared to purposely wreck Logano at Pocono. Well, after winning one of the 150-mile qualifying races Thursday at Daytona, Kevin Harvick pretty much confirmed that. When Harvick went back to his RV, he found a sign hanging on the door. He was not allowed to enter as his baby son Keenan was asleep. So there was a winner of a Daytona race, still in his driver's suit, left to wait outside of his own RV. Don't worry Kevin, us dads completely get it. And if and when Logano marries and has children, he'll get it too.
The rest of the story:  Winning the Daytona 500 is no guarantee of success for the rest of the season. Of course, Johnson may well be the exception to that rule. The last driver to win at Daytona and then win the Sprint Cup title was well, Johnson, in 2006. It's almost like Daytona is it's own mini-season. The real season begins Sunday afternoon in Phoenix. We'll likely learn a lot more there, too.

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