Daytona’s Speedweeks are where the new story lines for each Sprint Cup season are to begin, and this season has been no different with the exception of the biggest story line which wasn’t written until the last lap of the 500 went into the record books.
Daytona is the place where feuds begin, favorites are tabbed for greatness, and some drivers even leave town already fully entrenched on the sport’s hot seat.
Daytona didn’t let us down this year as Speedweeks turned out to be nothing more than a Dale Earnhardt Jr. love fest until the final laps of the 500. The “Great American Race” was being billed all week long as the showdown between Hendrick Motorsports with its dream team of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. going against Joe Gibbs Racing led by Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, but somebody forget to tell Penske Racing that it had only a supporting role at best in the outcome of the race.
Instead, when the checkered flag finally waved in the balmy night air of Daytona Beach, the teamwork of Penske’s Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch enabled Penske to claim his firstever 1-2 finish in the Cup Series. Like so many Daytona races in the past, the winner would never have held the Harley J. Earl trophy over his head if it wasn’t for another driver pushing him across the finish line and for Newman, his teammate Busch deserved to help host the golden anniversary edition of the trophy as he glued himself to Busch’s rear bumper on the last lap.
Newman and Busch weren’t the only two drivers teaming up on that last lap as Gibbs’s Stewart and Kyle Busch showed why their operation is one of the favorites to win the title this year. The two drivers mimicked Newman and Busch by going head to tail with each other on their way to the finish line. Their efforts weren’t good enough for the win, but they did cross the finish in third and fourth place, solidifying their spots as two of the drivers to beat this season.
Newman’s win put on hold for at least one week all of the news concerning Chevrolet’s and Toyota’s expected domination of the sport this season. Newman’s win in a Dodge was also a win for the other teams in the garage. By that I refer to those teams fielding Dodges and Fords and having to watch as the Chevrolets and Toyotas dominated all of Speedweeks leading up to the 500.
The Dodge win may also be a positive stamp on NASCAR’s new car that is being used at every stop on the schedule this season. Most drivers will be quick to tell you that the car, formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow, was a handful to drive on Daytona’s high banks, but the car is somewhat forgiving as we saw driver after driver save his car after getting in trouble. The car also allowed plenty of passing and even took us down memory lane as we were treated to several of the old slingshot-type passes that we used to see before the advent of the horsepowerrobbing restrictor plates now mandated at Daytona.
As exciting as Daytona was, it’s time to move on to the second stop on the schedule at California Speedway and begin the task of accumulating those precious Sprint Cup points. The Chase for the Championship format forces teams to begin looking at points sooner as the field that actually runs for the title is trimmed down to a dozen drivers after the 26th race of the season. Even with all of its glamour and excitement, it is sometimes hard to remember that the points awarded at Daytona are the same that will be awarded this weekend at California and at every other stop on the schedule. The only difference is that at Daytona sometimes a team is more willing to gamble for the win and take its eye off the title chase than it is at the rest of the stops of the schedule. That’s just the nature of the beast that racing at Daytona in February has become. It is definitely our sport’s greatest race and a great way to kick off the season!
Pit pass: Beginning this weekend at California, all teams that are not locked in the top 35 in owner’s points will qualify as a group at the end of qualifying on Friday. This week and for the next three races, the top-35 teams will be set according to last year’s owner’s points.
Race Preview – Event: Auto Club 500. Track: California Speedway (2-mile D-shaped oval, 14 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: Feb. 24, 4 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Matt Kenseth.