After the Daytona 500 was rained out for the first time in its history and then its original reset start at noon on Feb. 27 was also changed due to inclement weather, NASCAR made a bold decision:
The race would start at 7 p.m., which, of course, made the Daytona 500 a night race.
Fans love night races.
So does television, in this case, the Fox network. It is almost always assured of a much bigger audience for any program that is aired at evening rather than during the day – especially on a Monday.
So Fox touted that the Daytona 500 would be a “wildly exciting event on prime time television.”
Oh, the race was exciting all right. Viewers got an eyeful. Heck, they got a double eyeful.
That’s because they got to see what will go down in racing history as the most unusual, strangest and most bizarre – pick your word – Daytona 500 ever run.
**** Anyone who saw the 500 knows exactly what made the race, uh, shall we say, weird.
While the race was under caution on lap 160 of 200, Earnhardt-Ganassi driver Juan Pablo Montoya left the pits at high speed.
Suddenly something broke on the rear of his car and Montoya crash into a jet dryer truck – on the track to perform routine cleanup –, which was loaded with jet kerosene fuel.
The truck erupted in a ball flame that burned consistently despite fire fighters’ best, untiring efforts.
Finally the blaze was contained. Montoya was not hurt and the truck driver, Duane Barnes – who was carried away from the blazing vehicle by an intrepid fellow safety worker – was taken to the infield Halifax Medical center, where he was treated and released.
A car crashing into a jet dry truck, a blazing inferno and the immediate concerns that the track had been too damaged to continue the race, all combined to make the entire episode a first at Daytona – or just about anywhere else, for that matter.
No one, again, no one, had ever seen anything like it. Even Leonard Wood of Wood Brothers Racing, who has been around almost as long as NASCAR, said he couldn’t recall anything remotely similar.
It took speedy-dry, Tide detergent, gallons of water and lots of manpower to get the track ready to race again.
The entire process lasted over two hours and four minutes and assured the Daytona 500 would not end until the morning of Feb. 28.
“I told them when I left the pits something wasn’t right and I felt a weird vibration when we were with the pack,” said Montoya. “Every time I got on the gas, it vibrated.
“So, I came back in and they checked all the rear-end and they said it was OK. I was going down the back straightaway, and I was going in fourth gear, but, we weren’t even going that fast.
“Every time I got on the gas I could feel the rear really squeezing. I got on the brakes to travel up and, while I was, I planned to tell the spotter to have a look on how the rear was moving. Then the car just turned right.”
Montoya added he heard the explosion and felt the flames, which burned his helmet. He also suffered a sore foot but otherwise walked away unscathed.
“I’ve hit a lot of things,” he said, “but never a jet dry truck.”
The incident was an unwanted spectacle that, in all probability, will have NASCAR looking for ways to avoid a repeat in the future.
**** NASCAR put out the red flag after the fiery incident and, at the time, Dave Blaney, driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing, was the leader.
Don’t think for a moment folks didn’t notice that.
Everyone was keenly aware of the supreme irony that would exist if Blaney won the race.
When Stewart Haas Racing affiliated with Baldwin, it accumulated TBR’s standing within the top 35 in car owner points, which assured a Stewart driver would qualify for the first five races of the year.
That privilege was bestowed upon Danica Patrick, on board at Stewart Haas for 10 developmental Sprint Cup races, including the Daytona 500.
While she got the free ride into the event, Blaney had to work to get his start. Which, not unexpectedly, he did. He was 24th when the green flag fell.
And then, with 40 laps to go, he was the leader.
Was this ever tantalizing. If Blaney could win it would be so ironic that he did so over Patrick. Many fans viewed it this way: The blue collar, veteran driver triumphs over one who received the fruits of his labor.
Realistically, however, that was never going to happen. Blaney was in the lead only because he had yet to make a final pit stop – which he absolutely had to do.
When the race restarted Blaney did what he had to do – he pitted under the caution. Naturally, he lost the lead. But he expected that.
“I can still hang in the pack just fine,” said Blaney, whose car sustained some right-front damage earlier in the race. “When it comes right down to it, it’s going to hurt me, but it’s not killing us. We are still in the race with it. Yeah, we’ll be fine.”
Indeed he was. Blaney finished 15th and after one race is right back to the good in the owner point standings.
Patrick, meanwhile, crashed out of the race to finish 38th.
**** Speaking of Patrick, her first Daytona weekend was, by her own description, “up and down.”
She crashed in a Gatorade Duel, won the pole and then wrecked again in the Nationwide Series event and lasted just two laps in the 500 before being swept up in a multi-car accident.
Lest anyone be quick to criticize Patrick’s efforts, it should be said none of the accidents were her fault. She did nothing wrong.
But her 38th-place finish meant that it will be up to David Reutimann, who will drive her No. 10 car in 26 races this year, to return it to the top 35 in the next four races. He’s capable.
The accident that involved Patrick was caused by Elliott Sadler’s tap on Jimmie Johnson’s rear. The contact was made on the left-hand side, an explicit no-no in plate racing.
Johnson, who has won five-straight championships, finished 42nd. Other notables involved in the accident included last year’s Cinderella race winner Trevor Bayne, David Ragan, a winner at Daytona last July, Kurt Busch and Patrick.
Things may get worse for Johnson as his Hendrick Motorsports team faces NASCAR penalties for unapproved parts found on its Chevrolet last week.
**** Few were overly surprised when Matt Kenseth won the 500 for the second time in four years and the Roush Fenway Racing driver became the first repeat winner in 10 seasons.
Throughout Speedweeks it became obvious that the Fords – particularly those of Roush – were exceptionally strong at Daytona.
When Roush driver Carl Edwards won the 500 pole, and teammate Greg Biffle qualified second, it accentuated Ford’s power.
As expected, Kenseth and Biffle worked masterfully together at the head of the pack throughout the race and were right there on the closing laps.
With Kenseth leading, Biffle made some blocking maneuvers to keep Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the way.
On the last lap, however, Earnhardt Jr. moved to the outside to avoid Biffle. The strategy netted him second place as Kenseth pulled away for the victory.
Biffle was third and Edwards ninth, which gave Roush three cars among the top 10.
“I think Greg had one of the strongest cars all week and ours was right there as well,” said Kenseth, who earned $1,589387. “Our car for some reason was a lot faster out front than it was in traffic.
“Once we were in the front it was hard for anyone to get locked on to us. We had enough speed and once we took the white flag I felt sort of OK about it. By the time I got to turn three, I saw they couldn’t get enough speed mustered up to try to make it move.”
Kenseth, however, did not enjoy a problem-free race, which became abundantly clear when, early in the event, hot water spewed from his car.
“We had a lot of problems and almost ended up a lap down,” Kenseth said. “I had my radio break and my tach break and we pushed all the water out and had to come in and put water in it.
“But the guys did a great job. They never panicked and I think they enjoyed their day more because they couldn’t hear me on the radio with my radio problems.
“When I woke up this morning I didn’t feel we could win, so this feels really good.”
**** Tidbits: Kenseth is, of course, first in points and Earnhardt Jr. is second – a good start for him and his long-suffering fans.
Richard Childress Racing put three drivers among the top 10 – Jeff Burton (5th), Paul Menard (6th) and Kevin Harvick (7th).
Joe Gibbs Racing added two among the top 10, Denny Hamlin (4th) and Joey Logano (9th).
Michael McDowell, the journeyman driver who turned emotional when he made the 500 field against the odds, finished 30th.
More important, he earned $292,175, a fitting reward for his efforts.
During the red-flag period Brad Keselowski captured everyone’s attention when began Twittering repeatedly and took various photos.
The social media loved all of it and Keselowski gained thousands of followers is a remarkably short period of time.
It was a funny episode. The question now, however, is will NASCAR join the NBA and put an end to the activity, especially during events?