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NASCAR’s long road begins




 

 

To say that the Daytona 500 is just another race is like saying the Super Bowl is just another football game. Sure, it awards the same amount of points as the other 35 races on the schedule, but after a weeklong buildup to the seasonopening green flag, no other race on the schedule comes close to duplicating the atmosphere created at Daytona in February.

This year the excitement on the track was kicked up to another level when NASCAR decided to take the gloves off the drivers and let the outcome of the race once again fall in their hands and not so much by what the rulebook states. That philosophy fits perfectly at a place like Daytona with its old, worn-out, bumpy racing surface that dictates that a driver get up on the wheel and be ready for a long day of give and take on the track.

That is exactly what took place on Sunday as the old, worn-out track made for a heck of a long race but in the process produced a record-setting 21 race leaders with 52 lead changes.

Racing at Daytona with the horsepower-robbing restrictor plates is an artform that more and more drivers seem to be acquiring. Gone are the days when you could pick the winner from just a handful of drivers before the green flag waved.

Every manufacturer now races with the same aero package. NASCAR has mandated that all of the cars fit a common template that restricts how much gray area with which a team has to work when trying to lower the drag and increase the downforce of a car. That has really evened the playing field and, with the larger restrictor plate NASCAR gave the teams for Daytona, the outcome of Sunday’s season-opening event was more in the hands of the drivers than it had been for quite some time.

Even with all that the drivers had at their disposal Sunday, it came down to how they worked the draft and which drivers were willing to help each other. Jamie McMurray would have never won his first-ever Daytona 500 without the push he received from Greg Biffle. The two were longtime teammates at Roush-Fenway Racing before McMurray was released at the end of last season.

McMurray was the ninth different 500 winner in the last nine years and set a new record for leading the fewest laps by the winner. The previous record was four and he beat that by only leading the final two laps.

It was the first race for McMurray with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and not only was it his first win in the 500, it was the first-ever win for EGR. McMurray took over the ride vacated by Martin Truex Jr., who left to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing this season. McMurray had driven for owner Chip Ganassi before he went to Roush-Fenway racing so it was a reunion for the two and one that looks like it may pay off as he joins teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who made the Chase last season for EGR.

PIT NOTES:
Don’t get too excited about Jimmie Johnson’s 35th-place finish in the 500 and his chances to notch his fifth consecutive title. During his first championship season in 2006, Johnson won the 500 but since then he has limped out of Daytona each season. In 2007 he finished 39th, in ’08 he finished 27th, and last season he finished 31st, but each of those seasons he went on to win the title. This team with crew chief Chad Knaus at the helm seems to enjoy having to overcome a little adversity each season and now as the haulers head to California for next Sunday’s race, the team finds itself 132 points out of the top spot.

NASCAR’s new policy on ending a race under green provided a great finish on Sunday. No longer will there be just one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. There will be up to three attempts to finish the race under green, and Sunday’s race benefited from the rule change as it took two attempts to get to the checkered flag. The change did extend the length of the event from the scheduled 200 laps to 208 laps. That could be a problem at some of the fuel mileage tracks such as Michigan, where the winner usually has enough gas just to make it to victory lane after the race. The change could force crew chiefs to rethink their fuel strategy at some tracks.

Race Preview — Event:
Auto Club 500. Track:
Auto Club Speedway (two-mile D-shaped oval, 14 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: Feb. 21, 2 p.m. TV:
Fox. Radio:

MRN. Defending champion:
Matt Kenseth.

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