The week leading up to the Daytona 500 is such a huge buildup to the race that in many ways when the checkered flag finally does wave on Sunday it has a certain sadness to it. Even though it is only the first race of a long and sometimes grueling 36- race schedule, every other race after the 500 is just another race.
Every driver knows that he only gets one chance each season to win the biggest prize in all of racing, and there is no guarantee he will even get another chance the following year. That was never more evident than on Sunday when Matt Kenseth climbed out of his car after being announced the winner.
Kenseth will never be confused with some of the other drivers that wear their emotions on the sleeves of their driving uniforms. Matt is one of the most laidback drivers in the series, but his show of emotions after NASCAR stopped the race for a Florida rainstorm that literally hung over the track all day long on lap 152 with him in the lead, gave us a glimpse of what a win in the 500 means. The tears were rolling down the Wisconsin native’s face as hard as the rain pelting down on the windshield of his yellow and black Ford.
A win in the 500 is no doubt a defining moment in any driver’s career, but Kenseth has been putting together a Hall of Fame-type career since he began full time in the series in 2000. In 2003 he won the title by 90 points over Jimmie Johnson, but he was so dominating during the summer and fall months that NASCAR was left with an end of the season that had come up way short on excitement for both the fans and those in the sport.
His 2003 season as it turned out was so good that NASCAR announced the following season it would be introducing the Chase for the Championship. This was NASCAR’s way of trying to ensure that there wouldn’t be a repeat of a driver dominating the series like Kenseth in the seasons to come.
The new Chase format was the talk of the off-season after his championship run, and in some ways robbed him of the respect he had earned by doing what it took to claim the title. He has yet to win a second title but it is not because he hasn’t been in a position to do so. He might have won his title under the old point system but he has shown that a second title is not that far away as he has made the Chase every year since its inception in 2004.
The win was the 17th of his career and it snapped a winless streak that goes back to the season ending race of 2007 at Homestead Miami. The win was also made all the more remarkable as sitting on top of his pit box was a rookie crew chief in Drew Blickensderfer.
PIT NOTES: Very few organizations arrived at Daytona with the same lineup of drivers, teams and sponsors that they ended with in 2008. One such operation was the newly-organized Richard Petty Motorsports that came about when Gillette-Evernham absorbed Richard Petty’s fledgling operation. While this wasn’t expected to be one of the stronger operations to unload at Daytona, they may have had the best 500 of any of the multi-car operations. Petty’s Elliott Sadler finished fifth followed by Reed Sorenson in ninth with the team’s marquee driver Kasey Kahne finishing 29th. All three of those teams came to Daytona locked into the starting field as each finished in the top- 35 in owner’s points last season. The real surprise for Petty came from A. J. Allmendinger, who had to drive his way into the field in one of the Gatorade Duel 150’s. Allmendinger was able to take his success in the Duel and put it to good use on Sunday as he finished third, which gave Petty three cars in the top 10 and definitely something to build on as the series goes to California’s Auto Club Speedway. It will not get any easier for Allmendinger this week as now he will only have one chance to make the show as the Daytona 500 is the only race on the schedule that gives a driver the chance to actually drive his way into the starting field. The remainder of the schedule sets its field by the top 35 in owner’s points and the fastest times posted by the remainder of the field. This season’s owner’s points will not start being used until the sixth race, which is the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville.
Race Preview — Event: Auto Club 500. Track: California Speedway (two-mile D-shaped oval, 14 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: Feb. 22, 3:30 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Carl Edwards.