Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
DAYTONA NAMES AND FACES
What is it about the familiar old names and faces that makes a starting field worthwhile? It probably has something to do with why Tom Wolfe chose the narrative voice of an old-time gospel radio preacher for his epic story about the last American hero.
Like every year, this year's Daytona 500 attempts to put lightning in a bottle by returning to that old time religion. This is not a direct reference to any formal religion or to white lightning, although that's a good jar if you can find it. (We have no qualms or worries about backsliding here.)
This year at Daytona, it may even seem like a return to yesteryear. When times are tough, nostalgia and hard racin' entertainment are what we need, just like during the very origins of stock car racing in the 1930's.
Back then, powered by hopped up flathead Fords, stock car racing broke out all over the country in places like Langhorne in Pennsylvania, the Lakewood track in Atlanta and near the future sight of the L.A. International Airport on a road circuit in the sand at a place known as Mines Field (which was named after a real estate agent).
The most famous racing sand, of course, was found in Daytona, where those worth their salt tried stock cars after the land speed demons left for Bonneville.
It is instructional that none of these locales where stock car racing was born are holding races in the exact same place at present. But there's a track somewhere near each of them hosting NASCAR's big time events. If that's not old time religion, I don't know what is.
In the case of the France family's speedway by the sea, where the issue of the rising tide has long since been replaced by the high banks, the fervor runs deep due to the 2.5-mile track's status as the first true superspeedway, the nostalgia for the beach racing and the ownership by the same family that founded NASCAR.
There are those who might quibble with the current NASCAR officials about the virtual end to democracy at the Daytona 500. If you brung it, you can run it. That was one of the original commandments. Future hall of famer Louise Smith ended up rolling her husband's brand new car in the sand after driving down from Greenville, S.C. and deciding she really couldn't stand the idea of just watching the race on the beach.
As we all know by now, these days there are backroom deals between some car owners and others with bigger bucks. These deals result in a car owner holding points in the Top 35 getting cash from another owner in exchange for a guaranteed starting spot in the field. It is a de facto franchise system where one bankrupt, or sponsorless, team owner can at least garner some return for having a car with Top 35 owner points from the previous season. A driver is then appointed to fill the seat.
It's not run what ya brung, but what is these days? There is, at least, some risk and reward involved from the previous season.
The Top 35 rule, plus one former points champion who is guaranteed to start means all but seven drivers are eliminated when it comes to getting in the field. That puts ample pressure on those who make it or not on the track. So far this year, the Wood Brothers and driver Bill Elliott, and the Yates Racing team's Travis Kvapil have raced their way in due to qualifying speed.
This guarantees that two of the all-time great Daytona teams will have a starting spot, not to mention Awesome Bill, now of Blairsville. Kvapil, meanwhile, earned back what he gave up when his points were sold out from under him.
It's always been a tough sport and rarely fair in any sort of even-handed way. Such is the racing life. It's a wondrous thing when the Wood Brothers and Elliott, who missed last year, make it back in this year. The team founded by Robert Yates, meanwhile, has its own nameplate in the field again in addition to its merger with Hall of Fame Racing. It may be a small thing, but at least tradition has not died all together.
Maybe road racer Boris Said will get a spot in the hard-to-predict qualifying races, along with hard luck Regan Smith, perennial ex-crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine or Mike Wallace in the Chevy of TRG Motorsports, a team that has won at Daytona and Le Mans in sports cars.
Give a call to any one or all. They've come down for the baptism of fire once again, including former Daytona 500 winners Derrike Cope and Geoff Bodine, long time wannabes Carl Long and Norm Benning, the two Mikes -- Skinner and Garvey -- and back-again Jeremy Mayfield.
There's enough democracy to still pull for the underdog and applaud in support despite his almost inevitable defeat. The point is not so much how the field gets set, but how it runs once the green falls for the 500. The current system still means that come Sunday there will be, in the words of Budweiser Shootout winner Kevin Harvick, "a bunch of jacked up race car drivers out there, throwing caution to the wind."
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.