Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
If the Daytona 500 is any indication, it should be a season of commotion and competition, just the antidote NASCAR needs.
The good news at Daytona: the fastest car and driver, a classic good guy Wisconsinite, won the race on the last lap. Although everybody knew the rain was coming, Matt Kenseth typically didn't make his move in Turn 1 until he knew he could make it stick. He now has a Daytona 500 trophy, even though the race fell 120 miles short of the scheduled distance, to go with the last ever Winston Cup trophy presented in 2003.
Kenseth is so low key one wag suggested that maybe NASCAR might not accept him as the Daytona 500 champion. Would the sanctioning body change the rules and invoke wipers and rain tires in the future to make sure in the future the winner was accepted as legit?
This, of course, was in reference to NASCAR changing the points system to the current Championship Chase after Kenseth's one-win championship season in 2003 was relatively boring and he was not regarded as the legitimate title holder.
In truth, the points system change resulted more from new sponsor Nextel (now Sprint) coming on board and the arrival of Brian France as the CEO of NASCAR as well as several boring seasons prior to Kenseth's title.
Kenseth laughed off the question about the wipers and rain tires. "I'm not going to think any less of the victory," he said. "A lot of races get won and lost like this. We raced almost 400 miles. We were in the right place at the right time. We had our car as fast as it needed to be."
During the off season after his championship in 2003, Kenseth became a more guarded, less happy-go-lucky personality due to the criticism about how he won the championship. These days, he's learned to roll with the punches, such as the difficulty he's had on road courses or on restrictor plate tracks. Last year, he failed to win in the first full season of the COT chassis.
"It was actually starting to weigh on me more than I thought," said Kenseth of the 2008 season. "We struggled all week (in Daytona) until yesterday when we got the car to handle good. It's not like I had a bad feeling about (race day). It's just that we haven't been a serious contender for the championship for a few years. We've been able to win a race here or there, didn't win any last year.
"Just to be able to put it together and actually win the Daytona 500, I don't feel like I'm the best really at plate racing," he continued. "I feel like a lot of times I make mistakes, which is really frustrating. I don't get my car in the right place at the right time. To be able to put it all together and win the race is pretty overwhelming."
If Kenseth gets more approachable with victory, Jack Roush remains as restive as ever. He talked about getting ready for this week's race in California and mildly scolded rookie winning crew chief Drew Blickensderfer that it had taken him 20 years to win the Daytona 500 as a car owner, saying, "I don't know if Drew deserves this." Roush later said he would be "black and blue" from pinching himself, because he found the victory so unbelievable.
However one might choose to celebrate, winning at Daytona evidently beats the alternative. After being on his best behavior all week, Tony Stewart began fuming when a blown tire wrecked both Stewart Haas Racing entries on Saturday and he was still all "Smoke" at the end of the race, claiming nobody would draft with him. That usually means the car isn't handling very well in traffic, which is what he and Ryan Newman were working on when a Goodyear tire let go.
At the middle of the biggest fray was Dale Earnhardt Jr., the guy who can generate more interest than any others, win or lose. Other than Elliott Sadler, who lost the lead shortly before the rain began to fall, Earnhardt Jr. was the biggest loser at Daytona.
He lost the fight with Brian Vickers at Turn 3 in the incident that wiped out most of the race's contenders and left only Kenseth among the quick. It was, however, one of them racin' deals, where Vickers made a legitimate blocking maneuver that came a little late given Earnhardt Jr.'s head of steam, both literal and metaphorical.
The incident came after Earnhardt Jr. got lost on the pit road twice and penalized once. Ultimately, his performance gave little credence to his championship ambitions, but at least he got his lap back and finished four positions ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, the three-time defending Sprint Cup champion who was never a factor and last on the lead lap.
Even though Sadler couldn't hold the lead, Richard Petty Motorsports received a shot in the arm with two cars finishing in the Top 5, including a "podium" for A.J. Allmendinger, not long after Kyle Petty gave the new team a shot in the leg, dissing it as no relation to Petty Enterprises.
Given the bitter comments of Petty the younger, and the ongoing frustrations of Dale Earnhardt Jr. after his split with the team formerly known as Dale Earnhardt Inc., it can be said with no hint of sarcasm or irony that evidently it's not easy being the son of a seven-time champion. The expectations are always too high and the professional fulfillment probably not always satisfying even on successful days at the track. Yet, the feelings of entitlement seem to remain.
At the risk of going too far on a tangent, Petty the younger hit a plateau with his competitive career that was built on winning at Rockingham in cars built by Gary Nelson. Once he lost the handle on winning at the Rock, Kyle lost the handle on winning. At Daytona this year without a ride for the first time in his career, Kyle complained that the paint scheme and number he used in his first professional victory, an ARCA race at Daytona, had been purloined by the Richard Petty Motorsports team for Allmendinger's car. How sad on so many levels that it would make Petty so bitter.
With Earnhardt Jr., the overwhelming success of DEI on the big tracks at Daytona and Talladega in the early 2000's resulting from a solid engine and chassis program eventually was caught by the competition. Absent a dominant car, Earnhardt Jr. has experienced his share of troubles, even though he's currently on a championship team at Hendrick. In his case, unlike the younger Petty's, there's no doubting the effort.
So now it's on to the long tracks like California, the intermediates like Las Vegas and Atlanta, then the short tracks like Bristol which ultimately determine the title.
If you hadn't noticed by now, drivers from the "Big Four" of Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing dominated the laps led category and victory lane during Speed Weeks. In a year of no testing allowed by NASCAR, it seems they have better computer engineers.
There's always room for an upset, but at Daytona it was dark horse Sadler who was upset.
"I'll not soon forget getting passed for the lead in Turn 1," he said, "and the rain starting to fall in Turn 3."
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.