Column: Earnhardt’s Daytona Experiences Are a Microcosm of His Career

Tonight, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will lead the field to green in the Coke Zero 400, starting a race at Daytona for (maybe) the final time.

But while it’s easy to foresee a future one-off run in a Daytona race at some point–his pole for tonight’s race does qualify him for next year’s Clash after all–tonight marks the final time that the 14-time defending Most Popular Driver will for sure fasten his belts in a Cup Series race at the World Center of Racing.

If this is, in fact, Dale’s Daytona denouement, what a roller-coaster ride it’s been.

The ride at the two-and-a-half mile superspeedway has been mostly good, and on some occasions it’s been great.

Earnhardt Jr. grew up coming to Daytona with his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who himself had plenty of success on Daytona’s high banks, but took 20 years to win the Daytona 500 after numerous heartbreaks.

Once he himself could drive, Earnhardt Jr. quickly became as proficient as his father at restrictor-plate racing at Daytona.  Earnhardt Jr. won the 2004 Daytona 500 driving for family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc., then after a move to Hendrick Motorsports and a mid-career slump, won the Great American Race again in 2014.

But Daytona has also been the site of the darkest moment for Earnhardt Jr., not just his career but his life.  It was here in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, battling to protect third while Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Michael Waltrip fought for the victory, which Waltrip won.

Coming back to Daytona that July wasn’t easy.  A week before the 2001 Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt Jr. drove to the fourth turn to meditate, to “make peace,” as he later put it, and to bring closure before returning to drive the track that claimed his father’s life.

Yet that Saturday night when the checkered flag fell, it was Earnhardt Jr. who claimed the victory, with Waltrip second, a reverse of their 1-2 finish in February that was never celebrated due to Earnhardt Sr.’s death.

The defining image of Earnhardt Jr.’s career has to be the celebration, on top of his white and red #8 Chevrolet in the Daytona infield, giving a bear hug to Waltrip who joined him for the liberating moment.

I can count on one hand the number of times I could hear the roar of the crowd over the roar of the engines in a race I watched on television.  The moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Coke Zero 400 in 2001 is not only one of these moments, but is the most pronounced–in other instances the roar of the engines was still obviously discernible, but here the crowd was so loud the engines were, unfathomably, drowned out to little more than a faint hum.

If he can win tonight in possibly his final Daytona start, the reaction of the over 100,000 fans in attendance may be just as remarkable.

Earnhardt Jr. also won the 2015 Coke Zero 400, making him one of 11 drivers to win the event twice.  He is also one of 11 drivers to win the Daytona 500 twice, and one of only six to win both the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero 400 twice (Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott).  In total, he has 17 wins at Daytona, including two wins in the Clash, five in Duels (Daytona 500 qualifying races), and six in the Xfinity Series.

Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona career is a microcosm of his life–he’s had big shoes to fill in the shadow of his father, and while he hasn’t statistically had as much success as his father, he’s certainly become something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. would be proud of, both on and off the racetrack.

 

Go Time for Several Star Drivers

Earnhardt Jr. is in a must-win situation over the next 10 races, as he tries to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs, but he’s not the only star who finds themselves in a tight spot entering the regular season’s stretch run.

There are 16 spots in the playoffs, with race winners getting first priority.  10 drivers have earned a playoff spot through a race win so far this season, leaving just six spots for everyone else with 10 races left before the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Richmond.  With a strong chance of additional drivers winning over the next 10 races, that bubble could get even tighter.

Established stars searching for their first win of 2017 include Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth, and all have been knocking on the door of victory lane in recent weeks.

Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have also been close, as they each seek their first career win.  Joey Logano won at Richmond on April 30, but the win doesn’t count for playoff qualification due to his car failing post-race inspection (illegal rear suspension).

While race winners are in the playoffs (provided that they stay in the top 30 in points, which shouldn’t be a problem for any current winner), everyone else is fighting for wins to lock themselves in and not have to worry about squeezing themselves inside the increasingly tight points bubble.

 

The King Turns 80

Richard Petty, “The King” of stock-car racing, turns 80 on Sunday.

Petty won 200 races and seven championships over his 35-year Cup Series career, but that’s not even the biggest reason he’s arguably the most popular NASCAR driver of all-time.

If there was ever a competitor who wanted Petty’s advice, or a fan who wanted a handshake or Petty’s iconic autograph, they have never left the track disappointed.

Even 25 years after his career ended, the model of what a NASCAR driver should be on and off the track is still very much what Petty was:  drive fast, and after you’ve won thank and sponsors the fans any way you can, whether it’s through autographs or promotional appearances.

I’ve never met Richard Petty face-to-face, but I am one of the thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of fans who has his signature.  After I wrote a set of interview questions for Petty in a third grade class assignment, a family friend who volunteered at Victory Junction Gang, a camp for chronically ill children in Randleman, N.C. founded by Richard’s son Kyle in memory of Kyle’s late son Adam, passed along the questions to The King.

A few weeks later, I got a package from Richard Petty Motorsports, with Petty’s autograph and the typed answers to my interview questions.

To this day, Petty is by far the most famous person I’ve ever “interviewed.”

Petty will celebrate his 80th birthday as he’s celebrated many of the previous 79:  at the racetrack.

Petty has been present for every Daytona 500, driving the first 34 of them before attending the most recent 25 as a car owner, and was even present at the first Cup Series race in 1949.  He worked on his father’s pit crew before driving, started 1,184 Cup Series races, and has hung around the racetrack in the years since his 1992 “Fan Appreciation Tour.”

Tonight is the 2,515th race in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history; I’d be willing to bet The King has missed less than 100 of them.

The company colors (still Petty blue) will be carried by Darrell Wallace Jr. in the #43 Smithfield Ford, starting 28th in tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.  While Dale Earnhardt Jr. is certainly the sentimental favorite, wouldn’t it be fitting for The King’s milestone to be celebrated with a trip to victory lane?

Happy birthday, King Richard.  And thank you.

 

 

 

2017 Coke Zero 400
Lineup

Row 1:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott
Row 2:  Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne
Row 3:  Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 4:  Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
Row 5:  Ryan Blaney, Danica Patrick
Row 6:  Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson
Row 7:  Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne
Row 8:  Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch
Row 9:  Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin
Row 10:  Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez
Row 11:  Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Paul Menard
Row 13:  Martin Truex Jr., Landon Cassill
Row 14:  A.J. Allmendinger, Matt DiBenedetto
Row 15:  Chris Buescher, David Ragan
Row 16:  Darrell Wallace Jr., Brendan Gaughan
Row 17:  Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon
Row 18:  Cole Whitt, Corey Lajoie
Row 19:  Reed Sorenson, Ryan Sieg
Row 20:  Jeffrey Earnhardt, D.J. Kennington

Coke Zero 400 Winners
1959 Fireball Roberts
1960 Jack Smith
1961 David Pearson
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Fireball Roberts
1964 A.J. Foyt
1965 A.J. Foyt
1966 Sam McQuagg
1967 Cale Yarborough
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 LeeRoy Yarbrough
1970 Donnie Allison
1971 Bobby Isaac
1972 David Pearson
1973 David Pearson
1974 David Pearson
1975 Richard Petty
1976 Cale Yarborough
1977 Richard Petty
1978 David Pearson
1979 Neil Bonnett
1980 Bobby Allison
1981 Cale Yarborough
1982 Bobby Allison
1983 Buddy Baker
1984 Richard Petty
1985 Greg Sacks
1986 Tim Richmond
1987 Bobby Allison
1988 Bill Elliott
1989 Davey Allison
1990 Dale Earnhardt 
1991 Bill Elliott
1992 Ernie Irvan
1993 Dale Earnhardt
1994 Jimmy Spencer
1995 Jeff Gordon
1996 Sterling Marlin
1997 John Andretti
1998 Jeff Gordon
1999 Dale Jarrett
2000 Jeff Burton
2001 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2002 Michael Waltrip
2003 Greg Biffle
2004 Jeff Gordon
2005 Tony Stewart
2006 Tony Stewart
2007 Jamie McMurray
2008 Kyle Busch
2009 Tony Stewart
2010 Kevin Harvick
2011 David Ragan
2012 Tony Stewart
2013 Jimmie Johnson
2014 Aric Almirola
2015 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2016 Brad Keselowski

A Trip to the Beach

Each February, an entire industry makes a trip to the beach.  But this trip has no resemblance to vacation or leisure.

This is a business trip; a pilgrimage for NASCAR’s competitors and its fans that marks the rebirth of a sport in a new season, and a quest for the sport’s greatest triumph.

Forty drivers and teams have not come to the beach to relax, but to race, trying to reach the sport’s pinnacle and earn its greatest reward, the title of Daytona 500 champion.

The beach has been a haven of speed for over a century.  Speed was sought on the smooth sand, practically from the invention of the automobile.  Organized races began eight decades ago, leading to Bill France sanctioning a sport in 1948.

When NASCAR outgrew the beach in just a decade, France built a new mecca five miles inland, establishing a venue that is The World Center of Racing, and the spectacle that is The Great American Race.

As NASCAR’s elite make this expedition for the 59th time, they will reminisce on the epic events of yesteryear that coax their return.

1976. 1979. 1990. 1998. 2007. Photo finishes in both the first and most recent installments.

The annals here are filled with speed, prestige, triumph, and even tragedy.  This annual occasion has seen it all, yet still gives us something new each February.

A race that has been won in fortuitous upsets by some has been notoriously hard to win for others.  Some call it a crapshoot, while others embrace the element of chance and luck the race presents.

This beach, this week, is not quiet with the peaceful rolling of waves, but features the roar of throngs of followers, exceeded only by the roar of 40 engines, racing door-to-door for the coveted checkered flag.

For all, it’s a memorable trip to the beach.  For one, it will be a monumental trip to victory lane.

 

 

Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)
2015 Joey Logano
2016 Denny Hamlin

Elliott, Hamlin Notch Duel Victories

In Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels at Daytona, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin each earned historic wins in the events which set the field for Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.

Duel 1

Chase Elliott, who won the Daytona 500 pole on Sunday, won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, albeit an unofficial one, in the first Duel, leading 25 of the race’s 60 laps.

Elliott joins some elite company with the win, as he became the first Daytona 500 pole sitter to win a Duel since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1996.  He is the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1993 to make a Duel win his first win in a Cup Series car.

And while the win is unofficial, the Duels did award championship points for the first time since 1971, with the top 10 earning points (10 for first, nine for second, etc.).  The last drivers before Elliott (and Hamlin in Duel 2) to earn points for a Duel victory were David Pearson and Pete Hamilton.

As a result, Elliott and Hamlin will enter the Daytona 500 as co-points leaders.  The last time anyone led the standings before the Daytona 500 was in 1981, in the era when a race was run at Riverside, Calif. in January, was Bobby Allison.

Winning the Daytona 500 pole and a Duel will give Elliott an opportunity to win the rare “Daytona triple crown” of the pole, a Duel, and the Daytona 500.  If he can win Sunday, Elliott would be the first to accomplish the feat since… his father, Bill Elliott, in 1985.  Fireball Roberts in 1962 and Cale Yarborough in 1984 are the only others to pull off the rare triple.

Elliott earned the win by outdueling a star-studded top seven–every driver in the top six (Jamie McMurray finished second, Kevin Harvick third, Brad Keselowski fourth, Matt Kenseth fifth, and Trevor Bayne sixth) has either won the Daytona 500 or the series championship, and seventh-place Martin Truex Jr. finished second in the Daytona 500 last year.

Duel 2

Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 champion, passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with two laps to go en route to his third career Duel win.

Hamlin won the race with very little help, as his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were in the first Duel, and only three fellow Toyotas were in the field, with none finishing higher than 15th.

Hamlin also bested the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords of Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, who finished second, third and sixth, as well as four cars in the top 10 from Richard Childress Racing and their allied teams, led by A.J. Allmendinger and Austin Dillon in fourth and fifth.

Earnhardt Jr., who had won Duels the last two years and led 53 of the 60 laps in his first competition since July, was unable to block Hamlin’s run entering turn three on the penultimate lap, and faded to a sixth place finish, though he will start second in the Daytona 500 after earning that spot in pole qualifying.

Hamlin becomes the 10th driver to win a Duel as the defending Daytona 500 champion, and seven of the previous nine have each won multiple Daytona 500s (and one of the other two is Dale Earnhardt):  Pete Hamilton (1971), Cale Yarborough (1984, 1985), Bill Elliott (1986), Sterling Marlin (1995), Dale Jarrett (1997), Dale Earnhardt Sr. (1999), Michael Waltrip (2002), Jeff Gordon (2006), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2015).

News and Notes

Corey LaJoie (Duel 1) and D.J. Kennington (Duel 2) each raced their way into their first Daytona 500 in Thursday’s Duels.  LaJoie is the son of former NASCAR XFinity Series champion Randy LaJoie, while Kennington is the first Canadian to make the Daytona 500 field since Trevor Boys in 1988.  Kennington will start 28th and LaJoie will start 31st, while Timmy Hill and Reed Sorenson failed to qualify.

Another feel-good story from the Duels is Cole Whitt, who drove to a 10th-place finish in Duel 1, and will start 17th on Sunday.  Whitt, driving a #72 TriStar Motorsports Ford that resembles Benny Parsons’ cars from the 1970s, earned one championship point, and sits tied for 19th in the standings entering the Daytona 500 (he was briefly 10th in points before Duel 2).  The 25-year-old Whitt, who has run the Cup Series full-time since 2014, has never finished higher than 31st in the season standings, although he did finish 11th in the Coke Zero 400 last July at Daytona.

     UPDATE:  With Martin Truex Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger failing post-race inspection (see below), Whitt is tied for 17th in points.

Michael Waltrip finished 17th in the 21-car field of Duel 2, and will start 3oth on Sunday.  The FOX Sports analyst and two-time Daytona 500 winner (2001, 2003) has announced he will retire from NASCAR after Sunday’s race, when he will run an “Aaron’s Dream Machine” with the car number 15, the number he drove in his pair of 500 victories.

None of the strong rookie class of Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and Erik Jones will start the Daytona 500 near the front.  Suarez, the 2015 XFinity Series champion, finished 11th in Duel 1 and will start 19th.  Dillon finished 10th in Duel 2, and will start 18th, while Jones picked up damage in Duel 2 and finished 19th, and will start 34th on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger and Chris Buescher each failed post-race inspection after their respective duels.  All three will start at the rear in the Daytona 500, while Truex and Allmendinger will lose the points they earned in their Duels.

Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Paul Menard will race backup cars in the Daytona 500 after damage sustained in the Duels, and will start at the rear of the field.

 

 

 

Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Row 2:  Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer
Row 4:  Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch
Row 5:  Matt Kenseth, Austin Dillon
Row 6:  Trevor Bayne, Danica Patrick
Row 7:  Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman
Row 8:  Joey Logano, Kyle Larson
Row 9:  Cole Whitt, Ty Dillon
Row 10:  Daniel Suarez, David Ragan
Row 11:  Kyle Busch, Michael McDowell
Row 12:  Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jimmie Johnson
Row 13:  Matt DiBenedetto, Kasey Kahne
Row 14:  Landon Cassill, D.J. Kennington
Row 15:  Joey Gase, Michael Waltrip
Row 16:  Corey LaJoie, Jeffrey Earnhardt
Row 17:  Paul Menard, Erik Jones
Row 18:  Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney
Row 19:  Chris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 20:  Brendan Gaughan, Elliott Sadler
Failed to qualify:  Timmy Hill, Reed Sorenson

Column: The Greatest 64 Days in Sports

It’s Super Bowl Sunday.  You’re reading a sports blog, so I don’t have to tell you how big a deal the Super Bowl is American sports, and American culture at-large.

But Super Bowl Sunday, to me, is more than just one big game on one Sunday in February, but is instead the start of the best nine-week period on the sports calendar.

Over the next 64 days, from today until April 9, all five of the sports I closely follow have a major event that fans anticipate for months, in a stretch of the sports calendar that puts the other 301 days of the year to shame.

Football, of course, crowns its professional champion tonight in Super Bowl LI.  Pro football isn’t necessarily my very favorite sport to watch (in fact, I prefer college football over the NFL), but I do still enjoy it, especially during the playoffs and “The Big Game.”

While I do find the Super Bowl to be somewhat overrated, I appreciate the cultural event it has become beyond just a football game.  Everyone is watching, whether for the commercials, the halftime show, or (like me) to see if the Patriots or Falcons hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the game’s conclusion.  The sheer magnitude of the Super Bowl is unlike anything else in sports; on a cultural level in America, no other sporting event even comes close.

Three weeks from today, NASCAR celebrates its own “Super Bowl Sunday” of sorts with the 59th Daytona 500.  Unlike football (and many other “stick and ball sports”), NASCAR’s biggest event doesn’t end its season, but kicks it off, as the Daytona 500 begins the 36-race marathon that is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

An event that rose to prominence in 1979 with Richard Petty’s dramatic win continues to produce thrilling racing, including last year’s photo finish won by Denny Hamlin.  Some (myself included) are more than skeptical about NASCAR’s new race format, but there is still excitement building for the 500, and it will only continue to build during Daytona Speedweeks, the 10 days of events at the World Center of Racing leading up to the race on February 26.

After Daytona, the calendar will turn to March, a word that is synonymous among sports fans with college basketball.  After the 32 conference tournaments over the first two weekends of March, the field of 68 will be set for the NCAA Tournament on March 12, Selection Sunday, and the tournament begins on March 14.

The next three weeks are a flood of the buzzer-beaters, the upsets, and simply the insane basketball that makes us all adore the NCAA Tournament.  Instead of a one-day event, the tournament spans over three weekends, with the teams that play for the championship playing six games by the time the tournament is over.

The championship game is on April 3, the same day as MLB’s Opening Day.  Fans in every sport have season openers, during which they always possess hope for the upcoming season, but this is especially pronounced at the beginning of baseball season.

Teams and fans alike will be set to go after six weeks of Spring Training, as each team begins the demanding schedule of 162 games in six months.

This season, Opening Day will be prefaced by the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial World Cup-style competition held during Spring Training, established in 2006 and most recently won by the Dominican Republic in 2013.  The United States has, surprisingly, never medaled in the event, but has quite possibly their best roster ever entering this year’s edition.

April 3, the Monday that marks the end of the NCAA Tournament and the beginning of baseball season, is also the beginning of Masters week, with the tournament rounds at The Masters beginning on Thursday, April 6.  The creation of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts is the biggest and most dramatic golf tournament of the year, set in the beautiful backdrop of Augusta National Golf Club, full of Georgia pines and perfectly-groomed azaleas, blossoming as spring sets in.

Golf, the ultimate individual’s game, is the only sport I played in high school, and therefore the one which I most identify with the players.  I’ve dreamed of playing in the Masters–and did so in the backyard many times–and now that I realize that’s probably unrealistic, I dream of driving down Magnolia Lane to cover the “tradition unlike any other” (then again, I’d like to cover all of these events some day).  Golf has four major championships, but among them The Masters stands tall.

The Super Bowl may be tonight, but even once the game is over, the fun will just be getting started.  It kicks off this great 64-day period, the most wonderful time of the sports year.

Hamlin Bucks Trends to Win Daytona 500

Sunday, in his 11th attempt, driving car #11, Denny Hamlin won the thrilling 58th Daytona 500, the first 500 victory of his career.

Hamlin picked up the biggest win of his career by coming from fourth on the final lap, passing leader Matt Kenseth before beating Martin Truex Jr. to the line by mere inches.  The margin of victory of 0.010 seconds was the closest in Daytona 500 history.

The win marked the first Daytona 500 victory for Toyota, and the first for owner Joe Gibbs since 1993 (Dale Jarrett).

Hamlin entered Daytona Speedweeks as one of my favorites, and his car showed speed all week leading up to the 500, but leading up to the race, Hamlin was not historically in a great position to win his first Daytona 500.

Consider the trends of the Daytona 500 throughout its 58-year history, and particularly over the last 15 years of restrictor plate racing (although restrictor plate racing has been around since 1988, it has been most similar to today’s restrictor plate racing only since 2001).

Last weekend, Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, a season-opening exhibition race at Daytona.  Before 2016, the winner of the Sprint Unlimited had only gone on to win the 500 five times, and had never done it since 2000 (Bobby Allison in 1982, Bill Elliott in 1987, Dale Jarrett in 1996 and 2000, and Jeff Gordon in 1997).

In fact, over the nearly six-decade history of the Daytona 500, a driver who has won any of the preliminary events during Speedweeks generally does not win the Daytona 500, but instead someone who has shown speed and performed well but not won in the Sprint Unlimited, Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying, and Can-Am Duels.

Another potential strike against Hamlin’s chances to win, at least according to the trends of the previous 15 editions of “The Great American Race”, is that he led the most laps.  While early in the 500’s history, it was common for one driver to dominate the race and take the checkered flag, Hamlin became just the third driver since 2001 to lead the most laps and win, joining Michael Waltrip in the rain-shortened 2003 edition, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014.

Lastly, Hamlin was not the leader at the white flag, but found a way around all three of the cars in front of him to beat Truex by inches.  Hamlin becomes only the third driver in the last 23 Daytona 500s to make a last-lap pass for the win, joining Kevin Harvick in 2007 (who ironically pushed Hamlin to the win), and Ryan Newman in 2008 (who, like Hamlin, passed a #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota).

Not only are last-lap passes to win the 500 rare, but throughout Speedweeks it appeared the leader at the white flag would have control over the pack, and would be very hard to pass them.

Kenseth had actually led from lap 160 of the 200-lap race until the third turn of the final lap when Hamlin and Truex got around (in fact, after Kenseth got sideways, he slowed to save his car from spinning out, and as a result fell back to 14th).  The leader at the white flag had won every stock car event so far during Speedweeks, including Hamlin, who was not hardly threatened over the final 2 1/2 miles of the Sprint Unlimited.

With a train of Gibbs Toyotas behind Kenseth, plus Truex in a Gibbs-affiliated Furniture Row Racing Toyota, it did not appear that Kenseth, a two-time 500 winner, would be touched.

After his 500 win, Hamlin told Marty Smith of ESPN that he did not intend to jump out of line to try to pass his teammates, but only moved to the outside to block a run by Harvick, who then pushed him to the win.

You might think it would be common sense that a driver would want to be leading at the white flag, but there have been years that the aerodynamic environment of the cars made passing easier, and in some of those years I have said before the 500 that I would want to be second at the white flag if I were driving in the race.

All of this being said, Hamlin winning NASCAR’s biggest event is a surprise to no one in the sport.  Hamlin’s win in the Sprint Unlimited was his third in that event, and he has also won twice in the Can-Am Duels, so he has experience winning at the World Center of Racing.

The thing about trends is that they are not always followed, as is the case here.  Three trends went against Denny Hamlin’s chances to win his first Daytona 500, but a car that was one of the favorites throughout Speedweeks, and showed plenty of muscle from the time it was unloaded, enabling Hamlin to nullify all of the tendencies above, and win by less than a foot.

With his prior prowess on the superspeedway, and his amazing run from fourth to the front, one thing is for sure.

Denny Hamlin’s name will forever be engraved on the Harley J. Earl Trophy.  And he earned it.

 

 

 

2016 Daytona 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Denny Hamlin, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 95, 45
2. Martin Truex Jr., 28, Furniture Row Racing, Toyota, 2, 40
3. Kyle Busch, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 19, 39
4. Kevin Harvick, 9, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 37
5. Carl Edwards, 10, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 36
6. Joey Logano, 5, Team Penske, Ford, 0, 35
7. Kyle Larson, 14, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 34
8. Regan Smith, 27, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 33
9. Austin Dillon, 21, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 1, 33
10. Kurt Busch, 8, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
Notables:
14. Matt Kenseth, 2, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 40, 28
16. Jimmie Johnson, 26, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 18, 26
20. Brad Keselowski, 25, Team Penske, Ford, 1, 22
36. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 3, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 15, 6
37. Chase Elliott, 1, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 3, 5

The Beauty of Daytona

The risk of speed.  The glory of victory.  The beauty of Daytona.

With speed, there is always an inherent risk.  Every driver knows the possibility he or she faces every time they turn a lap.  The level of danger going 200 miles per hour is clear, particularly on a circuit where cars run together in traffic tighter than at rush hour in Los Angeles.  The resulting accidents can be aesthetically spectacular.  Often, the drivers walk away, but occasionally they don’t.  So why accept the stakes?

Glory.  The opportunity for immortality.  The chance a driver can see his name, etched in silver, on a trophy of black stone.  A trophy where names like Cope and Bayne and Hamilton sit beside names like Petty and Earnhardt and Gordon, beneath a machine as iconic as the Firebird.  This prize is the greatest triumph a racer can chase.

This clash of peril and prestige takes place just five miles from the world’s most famous beach.  It was that beach where the search for speed began over one hundred years ago, and where a visionary had a dream in 1948 that became the spectacle we celebrate this day.  But head to that beach this morn, and it truly is the calm before the roar of this afternoon’s storm.

But in this beautiful backdrop, is the glory worth the risk?

The 42 men and one woman in pursuit of today’s prize will answer with a pronounced proclamation:

Yes.

Why?

For the risk of speed.  For the glory of victory.  For the beauty of Daytona.

 

 

Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)

2015 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
Row 2:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Crafton*
Row 3:  Joey Logano, Carl Edwards
Row 4:  Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle
Row 5:  Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 6:  Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney
Row 7:  Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson
Row 8:  Jamie McMurray, Mike Wallace
Row 9:  Landon Cassill, Justin Allgaier
Row 10:  Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick
Row 11:  Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Regan Smith^
Row 13:  J.J. Yeley, David Gilliland
Row 14:  Michael Annett, David Ragan
Row 15:  Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon
Row 16:  Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 17:  Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip
Row 18:  Matt Kenseth, Johnny Sauter
Row 19:  Trevor Bayne, Sam Hornish Jr.
Row 20:  Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 21:  Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin
Row 22:  Bobby Labonte
Failed to qualify:  Alex Bowman, Brian Scott, Jeb Burton, Justin Marks, Josh Wise, Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Nemechek
*substituting for Kyle Busch

^substituting for Kurt Busch

Top 10 Underrated Daytona 500s

The Daytona 500 is today, marking the sport’s biggest event as a new season gets underway from the World Center of Racing.  NASCAR is unique in that it starts its season with its Super Bowl, meaning that the driver holding the Harley J. Earl trophy Sunday night will be a winner all season long, no matter how well they run the rest of the 2015 Sprint Cup campaign.

Many people can recognize video of the great finishes at the 500, such as when Richard Petty and David Pearson crashed on the final lap and Pearson limped across the line in 1976, or when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison’s crash led to a post-race fist fight, and Petty came from half a lap behind to win in 1979, or when Kevin Harvick beat Mark Martin by a fender while the “Big One” happened behind them in 2007, or the photo finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp in the very first 500 in 1959.

Other images are filed in the most memorable category, from veteran drivers finally winning the 500 after years of trying, like Darrell Waltrip in 1989 and Dale Earnhardt in 1998, to Ned Jarrett doing impromptu play-by-play while simultaneously cheering son Dale Jarrett across the line in 1993 and 1996, and Darrell Waltrip doing the same with brother Michael Waltrip in 2001, although the final lap of that 500 became more remembered for a legend lost in the final corner when Earnhardt was killed.

The 500 has also produced some major upsets, like Trevor Bayne winning his second Cup Series start in 2013, or Derrike Cope slipping past Earnhardt after The Intimidator cut a tire in the final turn in 1990, or little-known Pete Hamilton won his first race at the Speedway in 1970.

Others aren’t necessarily memorable for their winners, but other circumstances, like the jet dryer explosion in 2012 in the only Monday 500 due to rain, or Danica Patrick becoming the first female pole sitter in any NASCAR race in 2013, or the aforementioned 1979 race, also known as the first live flag-to-flag broadcast of a race.

But some 500s aren’t remembered as much as they might should be.  Whether it’s because the principles involved didn’t have names like Petty and Earnhardt, or because they have simply been slowly forgotten over time, some 500s had outstanding storylines or finishes, but are never mentioned among the greatest moments in the history of the Great American Race.

Here are the top 10 underrated Daytona 500s:

Honorable Mention:  1967: Mario Andretti
While there wasn’t anything particularly special about the racing in this 500, the mere fact that one of the Indianapolis 500’s greatest champions came to Daytona and won, albeit early in his storied career, may very well have added to the prestige of what was still at that time a very young event.  This was comparable to A.J. Foyt’s win five years later, but Mario’s came first.

10. 1986: Geoff Bodine
The race was dominated by the tandem of Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine, and turned into a fuel mileage race late.  Earnhardt had to pit with three to go for a splash-and-go, but there should have still been some drama to see if Bodine could make it on fuel.  Instead, Earnhardt overshot his pit stall, then blew his engine leaving pit road.  With Earnhardt out of the picture, Bodine was able to cruise to an 11-second victory, which was owner Rick Hendrick’s first in the 500.  It was also the first of many near misses for Earnhardt before he finally won in his 20th try in 1998.  The clip of Earnhardt overshooting his pit is sometimes shown, particularly when talking about Daytona heartbreakers, by Earnhardt or overall, and is accompanied by pit reporter Chris Economaki’s line of “it looks like Mr. Bodine is gonna be the beneficiary.”

 

9. 2010: Jamie McMurray
The 2010 finish didn’t necessarily include too many big names, although Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from nowhere to take second on the final lap, but the late race battle between McMurray, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, and Kevin Harvick saw three lead changes in the last ten laps, a period which included two cautions.  McMurray’s win was in his first appearance for what was then known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (now Chip Ganassi Racing), and was a popular win in the garage as McMurray is well liked by everyone.  Earnhardt Jr. came from in the teens with a few laps to go to second on the final lap with a massive run up the middle, and caught McMurray, but couldn’t pass him, part of a stretch of three runner-up finishes in four years from 2010-13 before Junior won his second 500 last year.  This race is more remembered by some for the pothole which developed in turn one which red flagged the race twice than it is for the winner.

 

8. 2008: Ryan Newman
The 50th Daytona 500 had a special pre-race ceremony honoring all 31 former winners of the 500, but Ryan Newman joined that group later that evening by passing Tony Stewart on the final lap to win the race.  Newman had a push from teammate Kurt Busch, and Stewart blocked them at first, before jumping to the bottom with teammate Kyle Busch.  At the time the win was Newman’s first since 2005, although he has since had a career renaissance, including a second place points finish in 2014.  This race is the biggest near miss for Stewart in the 500, which he still has not won, going into his 17th career try on Sunday.  Kurt Busch has also not won the 500 in 14 tries, although he will not be in Sunday’s race due to his recent indefinite suspension for domestic violence.

 

7. 1980: Buddy Baker
Before Darrell Waltrip won his first 500 in his 17th try, and before Earnhardt won his first 500 in his 20th try, there was Buddy Baker.  He went into the 1980 race attempting to win it for the 18th time, after often having one of the fastest cars during Speedweeks, driving for Petty Enterprises, Ray Fox, Bud Moore, and Cotton Owens, among others.  He came to Speedweeks in 1979 with Ranier-Lundy, and had the fastest car, which won the pole, but blew its engine in the early going of (in my opinion) the greatest Sprint Cup race in history.  A year later he had an equally fast car, winning the pole again, but this time leading 143 of the 200 laps on his way to the victory.  The race was, and still is, the fastest 500 in history, averaging 177.602 mph.  Baker held the record for most attempts before winning the race until Earnhardt won his only 500 in 1998.

 

6. 1960: Junior Johnson
This race isn’t necessarily known as the most exciting race ever run, but it has much more historical significance than most other 500s that have been run.  This was just the second running of the race, and the Daytona track, as well as the concept of running on a 2.5-mile superspeedway, was still in its infancy.  Johnson ran the race in a car owned by John Masoni, and although he wasn’t one of the fastest cars, he discovered that if he got directly behind another car he would run faster in their air, an idea which became the concept of drafting, a staple of Daytona racing ever since.  Johnson used his new strategy to win the race, taking the lead with nine to go when Bobby Johns spun, while Masoni went on to win six races as an owner the next two years before leaving the sport.  Johnson, of course, would go on to become an icon, being inducted into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after winning 50 races, and is the winningest driver to have never won a championship, only because he never ran all of the races in an attempt to.  One other note about this race is the third place finisher was a very young Richard Petty, for the first of his 11 top fives in the 500, which he won seven times.

 

5. 1995: Sterling Marlin
In this 500, Sterling Marlin joined Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win back-to-back 500s, after winning it in 1994.  That win had been his first Cup Series win, as he became the first driver to win the first both of the first two races of his career in the 500.  But that’s not entirely why this race is on this list.  After Marlin passed Earnhardt for the lead with 20 to go and a caution five laps later, Earnhardt, who probably had the best car, pitted for tires, taking the gamble of fresh tires over track position.  Following the pit stop, Earnhardt was outside the top 10 with 11 to go, but stormed back to the front, looking for his first 500 win.  He reached second position with four laps to go, and tried as hard as he could to pass Marlin, but the Tennessean took the checkered flag, once again denying Earnhardt a 500 win.

 

4. 1963: Tiny Lund
This 500 is on the list because of its storyline.  Tiny Lund went to Daytona in 1963 to see if he could find a ride for the 500.  Marvin Panch went to Daytona to drive the Wood Brothers #21 Ford in the 500, but first ran a sports car race (what would eventually become today’s Rolex 24).  In that race, Panch was involved in a crash, and Lund, who was a friend of Panch and was watching as a spectator, ran to Panch’s burning car and pulled him out, saving his life.  Panch was injured though, and Panch asked the Woods if Lund could drive his car in the 500.  Lund did, and when Ned Jarrett ran out of gas with three laps to go, Lund took the lead, and went on to win the 500.  Lund would go on to win five career Cup Series races, before he was killed in a 1975 crash at Talladega.  The Wood Brothers would become one of NASCAR’s most legendary teams, but this was just the sixth win of their then-brief history.  They have gone on to win 98 races, including five wins in the 500, including David Pearson’s legendary win in 1976, and Trevor Bayne’s upset in 2011.

 

3. 2005: Jeff Gordon
Ten years ago a future Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon, became just the fifth driver to win three or more Daytona 500s, by winning this thriller.  The drivers at the front included Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, defending race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., and defending series champion Kurt Busch.  Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, and Gordon changed the lead four times in the final nine laps.  This was at the height of the excellent period of restrictor plate racing in the mid-2000s, and many of the best at it were in the running for the win in this race.  One underdog at the front was Scott Riggs, who is winless in his Sprint Cup career, but finished fourth in this race.  This was the fifth of Hendrick Motorsports’ eight 500 wins, and is the most recent win for Gordon, who will today try to match Earnhardt Jr. for the longest time in between 500 wins with a win ten years later.

 

2. 1984: Cale Yarborough
This 500 should be considered one of the all-time best.  Yarborough had become the first pole sitter for the 500 to break the 200 mph barrier, and he also won his qualifying race, so when he won the 500 he joined Fireball Roberts in 1962 as the second driver to win all three in one speedweeks (the only to do all three since is Bill Elliott in 1985).  There were 34 lead changes in this 500, with the best coming on the final lap.  Yarborough passed Darrell Waltrip, who was at the time still looking for his first 500 win, on the backstretch with his “slingshot” maneuver after Waltrip had led the previous 38 laps.  The move had won him multiple races at Daytona, including the previous year’s 500 with a pass of Buddy Baker.  Hall of Famers took the top three in this race, as Dale Earnhardt got around Waltrip for the second spot, and Waltrip finished third.  Yarborough became the second back-to-back winner of the 500, and gave Ranier-Lundy (which later became Robert Yates Racing and won two more 500s) their third win in five years at Daytona.

 

1. 2002: Ward Burton
Although this race isn’t talked about very much today, the entire final hour of this 500 was extremely dramatic, and had multiple key moments, making this the most underrated 500 ever.  After pre-race favorites Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had early problems, “the big one” on lap 149 took out 18 more cars.  Jeff Gordon took the lead from Kurt Busch with 24 to go, and led until a restart with six to go.  A chain reaction of cars not getting up to speed quickly caused a crash in the middle of the pack, and when the caution came out, Sterling Marlin went underneath Gordon to try to take the lead while racing back to the caution flag (they did this back then).  Gordon tried to block, and was spun across the front of Marlin’s car.  Marlin and Ward Burton raced back around, with Marlin beating Burton by a nose.  While driving around, Marlin clearly had a fender rub from the contact with Gordon, and after the race was red-flagged to ensure a green-flag finish.  Marlin got out of his car and pulled the fender off the tire, illegally working on his car under the red flag, later joking in his Tennessee drawl, “I saw Earnhardt do that one time, so I thought it was alright.” (The instance he is referring to happened under the yellow, not the red flag.)  What then played out on the broadcast during the red flag was a long discussion over the penalty for working on the car under the red flag, as well as the potential of a yellow line violation when Marlin went below Gordon (drivers can’t advance their position below the yellow line that separates the track and the apron).  Marlin was sent to the rear for the red flag violation, giving Burton the lead for the first time all day.  He led the final five laps, his only five laps led, to win the 500, one of five career Cup Series wins for Burton, whose son Jeb fell just short of qualifying for this year’s 500 this week.  It was also one of five race victories for owner Bill Davis, and the first 500 win for Dodge since 1974 (although they were out of the sport for many years).  Marlin finished eighth, and Gordon finished ninth, after both had lost an excellent shot to win the 500.  This race had it all, and Michael Waltrip, who was involved in the crash with six to go, said afterward “I’ll just tell people I spun out at Daytona with five to go, and ran fifth, and that’s all the description it needs,” and broadcaster Allen Bestwick said “We have seen our share of twists and turns over the years in the Daytona 500 but this one may top them all.”  While, other than Gordon, the drivers involved didn’t necessarily have the most success, and weren’t the most popular, the drama which unfolded in this 500 was, in some ways, unmatched, and the winner was a well liked driver like Burton, so I don’t know why this isn’t remembered among the greatest of all Daytona 500s.

 

 

Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)

2015 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
Row 2:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Crafton*
Row 3:  Joey Logano, Carl Edwards
Row 4:  Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle
Row 5:  Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 6:  Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney
Row 7:  Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson
Row 8:  Jamie McMurray, Mike Wallace
Row 9:  Landon Cassill, Justin Allgaier
Row 10:  Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick
Row 11:  Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Regan Smith^
Row 13:  J.J. Yeley, David Gilliland
Row 14:  Michael Annett, David Ragan
Row 15:  Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon
Row 16:  Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 17:  Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip
Row 18:  Matt Kenseth, Johnny Sauter
Row 19:  Trevor Bayne, Sam Hornish Jr.
Row 20:  Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 21:  Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin
Row 22:  Bobby Labonte
Failed to qualify:  Alex Bowman, Brian Scott, Jeb Burton, Justin Marks, Josh Wise, Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Nemechek
*substituting for Kyle Busch

^substituting for Kurt Busch