By Will Martin
You’ll hear the talk about certain sports seasons being a lot longer than they need be. Basketball season goes for eight months with an NBA Finals at the end. The NFL for roughly seven months with the Super Bowl being the grand daddy of them all. No argument there, either. Fans of the Grand Old Game will talk on and on about how Opening Day (in most cases) shall commence in the sunshine and tender mildness of spring…only to leave you in the cold when the Fall Classic comes around in late October.
Then of course that season that runs for nine months. Even going head to head with the NFL for over half of their season before closing it down in mid November. It’s funny that this month in 2001, I made the move to Texas after a 20 year go around on the West Coast. Auto Racing of the NASCAR Sprint Cup variety.
Leading off with the Daytona 500.
The very day I arrived-February 18th 2001- was the day we lost Dale Earnhardt. It happened at a race in Daytona Florida. I remember my first three weeks driving around North Texas it seemed every vehicle had a #3 pennant flapping in the Texas wind. Since that date I have gotten quite schooled on the history and the magnitude of that very race.
Referred to as ‘The Great American Race’ and also as ‘The Super Bowl of Stock Car racing’ the race has been run 55 times with this Sunday being the 56th time. The first 53 races were run on the third Sunday in February AKA Presidents Day Weekend. 2012 and 2013 we saw the Daytona run its course on the 4th and final weekend of February. The month that it has always been run.
Part of the prestige, the folklore, and interest for this leadoff race is due to the size of the purse awarded and of course some incredible television ratings that make a run at what the Indy 500 will attract three months later.
Now the race itself shall play out on a 2.5 mile track. 200 times around gets you to 500 miles. There have been a few instances where bad weather caused a shortage of a complete race. If half of the race has been completed then-much like 5 innings in baseball-the Daytona is deemed a complete race. Refer to 1965, 1966, 2003, and 2009 for further specifics.
Winning the Daytona has certainly been a nice reminder of what can follow if a racer is to enjoy a championship season with the wins, races, and points. Jimmy Johnson has been beyond dominant in six of the last seven years with victories at the Daytona in 2006.
Many people are picking Jimmie Johnson to win this race again and proceed to become the third racer of all time alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as seven time champions. For Johnson the time off leading up to this weekend was a welcome respite as his mind was on anything but racing.
“Since the banquet, not much thought [went to winning a seventh title],” Johnson said. “At the banquet, and some of the stories that were around it and the questions that were asked, my mind was much more present with it. But I got into the off-season and relaxed and let go of racing and it was really nice to get into January and not have racing on the brain at all.”
“So, I haven’t put a lot of thought into it. It’s a huge opportunity that we have, obviously, and I feel like we will be able to get a look or two at it as this year goes on and the next few years go on. It would be awfully cool to get it done. But it’s been out of my mind for a couple of months.”
Fans always want to talk about seeing a Super Bowl win back to back years or ditto for baseball or basketball. Seeing what Jimmie Johnson (48) did on the TMS track here in Ft. Worth last November convinced me of his drive and focus. To know he has won six of the last seven years speaks to a level of racing that indeed qualifies as rarified air. 2013 alone produced six wins, 16 Top Fives, and 24 Top Tens.
Rookie racer Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 Coors Light pole for Sunday as he will drive in the #3 car. A first since 2001. Of course there’s also that little spat between Danica Patrick and Richard Petty that’s been in the news all week. Racing fans also wonder how Tony Stewart is going to do coming back from injury.
Will racers like Matt Kenseth (20), Kevin Harvick (4), Jeff Gordon (24), or Dale Jr. (88) have a say in the outcome of the race? With so many intangibles at play anything is possible as a slew of good drivers hope to impart the winning and mystique to everything that pertains to the Daytona 500.
With Dale Earnhardt, Jr. having finished runner up three out of four years no need to remind #88 about the importance of where to be as this Grand Daddy winds on down.
“As far as trying to win one of these races, or not run second again, I think we need to be up front,” Earnhardt, Jr. stated in the Daytona International 500 media center. “We’re not far enough toward the front. When we’ve run second, we’ve come from third or fourth or fifth or sixth those last few laps.”
“You’re not going to win the race from back there. You might run second, but you aren’t going to win. You need to be leading the race. I would much rather be leading the Daytona 500 inside of five laps to go than be anywhere else.”
Earlier in the week there was an issue with accidents and crashes as qualifying continued. Any concerns about that on Sunday?
“I think just saying ‘500 miles’ changes everybody’s demeanor and everybody’s approach to that race,” Earnhardt, Jr. explained. “Those wrecks in practice definitely surprised me and surprised a lot of people, and I hope it’s just a product of a lot of cars trying to get out of the draft, cars blending in and cars put in a bad position that they couldn’t get out of.”
For the last eleven years I have either watched the race at home or at work in the bar. One constant remains when the Grand daddy is going on. The final 25-30 laps you can hear a pin drop as fans listen to the announcers discuss whose car looks to be strongest, which team appears to have the upper hand, and what racer will best handle the conditions at hand.
The last ten laps you are sucked in and unable to breathe as you see how the race plays itself out. You will also have new rule changes in effect for 2014 to create more balance and excitement. Last year Danica was in the pole and finished 8th. A rookie won the race back in 2011. This Sunday at noon (Texas Time) the 2014 season for racing-NASCAR Sprint Cup-shall commence and continue to go for 36 weeks. There will be many angles, plots, story lines, and outcomes we didn’t see coming.
In the end on Sunday night Jimmie Johnson will come out ahead after a furious rally by Dale Jr. and Matt Kenseth. That’s my take. The weekend of NCAA Final Four in Arlington will be offset by the fun that shall happen April 6th at Texas Motor Speedway with the debut of Big Hoss TV.
Think Texas, and think huge, just like the 56th annual running of the Daytona.