DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If the racing we’ve seen so far at Daytona International Speedway is any indication, this year’s Daytona 500 may be one of the best ever.
Sunday’s opening events, the ARCA race and the Budweiser Shootout, provided plenty of evidence that the 500 could again produce a close, exciting finish.
Both races saw wild, unpredictable conclusions. And the Shootout brought back the high-speed, big-pack racing fans demanded. Pack racing returned with a “bang” – get it?
Bobby Gerhart, who owns ARCA events at Daytona, emerged as the winner in that sanctioning body’s first race of the season.
The veteran started 42nd – due to a penalty after qualifying – and then played ideal fuel strategy to snatch the victory away from several cars ahead of him on the last lap.
Admittedly, Gerhart was helped when a few in front of him, including leader Brandon McReynolds, ran out of gas.
But his improbable victory thrilled the fans. Gerhart has now won the Daytona ARCA race eight times, including the last three in a row.
The Shootout brought back many memories – not all of them good.
Gone was the tandem drafting so prevalent at Daytona and Talladega and so reviled by many, drivers and fans alike.
Instead it was back to the old days of the tight packs, when cars raced two and three abreast, lap after lap.
But remember the “big one?” You know, that metal crunching, multicar wreck that often took out many of the top competitors?
Well, it’s back. We saw that in the Shootout – more than once.
But we also saw about 60 percent of the field decimated by wrecks and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon involved in the most frightening accident of his career.
Gordon’s Chevrolet slid and barrel rolled two and one-half times due, he said, to a lack of downforce and bump drafting. He was uninjured.
Kyle Busch displayed some remarkable skill as he twice saved his car from spinning out.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver then drove his smoking and sparking Toyota past Tony Stewart at the finish line to win by 0.013-second, the closest finish in Shootout history.
Yes sir, it was all good stuff on Sunday at Daytona.
And hopefully it will be the same in the Daytona 500.
However, there are some issues.
As thrilling as its finish was, the Shootout was still a thumping, bruising mess that tore up several cars and left one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers on his roof.
This is, again, what we have now after the tandem drafting of last season.
The two-car drafting on a roomier track isn’t what everyone – including drivers – wanted. They preferred the packs. They wanted the fields to be knotted up. They wanted the higher risk of mangling, multicar wrecks.
The Shootout had all of that but it also had the type of finish that has characterized NASCAR and made Daytona what it is.
So, to me, the ideal solution would be to have a race that features all that everyone wants and still allows most of the cars to finish.
Can that solution be found?
Frankly I don’t think there is much NASCAR can do and I am not sure it intends to do much of anything. Which, I think, is fine with the competitors. They have their preference.
“I like this racing better,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., the victim of a crash. “I think we have really made a lot of improvements and I have more of my destiny in my hands in this type of racing.”
“This is a lot more fun than the two-car stuff,” said Stewart, the defending Sprint Cup champion. “You are still going to see two-car stuff at the end of the race, I think.
“The good thing is it is a lot more fun running in the traditional pack than what we have had here in the past so I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a fun week.”
While it might be fun, it certainly can’t be fun when a driver is taken out of a race – and his car wrecked beyond repair – by being involved in a “big one.”
And that will happen in big-pack racing.
There doesn’t appear to be a solution.
But several competitors maintain there are ways the number of negative elements of big-pack racing can be reduced – and they fall on the drivers’ shoulders.
First they have to know, and appreciate, what they are getting into.
“I think the biggest problem is that in tandem racing, it has been so easy for these guys to stay attached and some of them haven’t raced in big-pack racing,” said Kevin Harvick, also involved in a wreck. “You get those big runs and things are going happen a lot faster than they used to.”
Second, they have to learn what not to do and exercise patience.
“There really is no place for blocking any more,” said Earnhardt Jr. “If a guy got a run on me I just point him to a lane so he knew where he could safely go. I would get him back if I could.”
“When the closing rate is that fast it’s hard to know where to put anybody. But I do know you can’t be blocking like hell.”
“All the wrecks in the race were caused by people hitting the left rear of the car,” said Harvick, referring to improper bump drafting. “You just can’t hit guys in the left rear. “It takes a little bit of patience and a little bit of thinking on the parts of everybody. You just have to be patient.”
Perhaps the Gatorade Duels on Thursday will be a bit saner given that drivers may have learned, or re-learned, about racing in big packs.
And it could be that the Daytona 500 is as exciting as anticipated without any mayhem.
Yeah, it could be.
But consider that in big-pack racing all it takes is one mistake, one mental lapse or a lack of patience – which will be abundant with, say, five laps to go – to create a melee.
Which is likely to happen in the Daytona 500.
“It’s a heavy race,” said Earnhardt Jr. “It’s a pretty big deal to win and there are going to be a lot of guys excited about their prospects of winning it. Maybe being 500 miles, the guys might use a little better judgment.
“But I doubt it.”