Daytona 500 Countdown: The Super Bowl of NASCAR
As a NASCAR crew chief is apt to do, I'm making a change in the setup, and going to change what I was planning on writing about today. After reading Ken Kooiman's piece titled "Super Bowl? Get Real!" I was about to jump into the discussion between the author and NASCAR Community Leader Kelly Crandall regarding the difference between the NFL's and NASCAR's Super Bowls.
However, I found that my thoughts on the discussion were growing into something I felt was worth a stand-alone article. So here goes...
I have been watching the Daytona 500 for 30 years. That would go back to the first live flag-to-flag coverage on CBS that put NASCAR on the national map. The thrilling last-lap battle and crash between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough is a memory that is seared into my, and indeed many, racing fans' minds.
Richard Petty would drive by the melee and fend off Darrell Waltrip to win the race—his seventh Daytona 500 crown—a record that stands unchallenged to this day.
I have been a student of racing since before that fateful day, and followed it intently ever since. So I have a pretty firm grasp on the history and magnitude of this race. At the same time I've watched a lot of NFL football in my time, and many a Super Bowl
So in regards to those who may question the differences between the two events, please allow me to bring some perspective you may not have considered.
In the NFL, everyone has a shot at the Lombardi Trophy when the season starts.
In NASCAR, everyone has a shot at the Harley J. Earl Trophy (awarded to the winner of the Daytona 500) when the season starts.
In the NFL, only the two teams that survive the season compete for the trophy in the end. This list will have been narrowed from 12 teams that qualified for the post season.
In NASCAR, only the cars that survive 500 miles compete for the trophy in the end. But it's more than two competitors. This year some 57 cars are attempting to make the race, but only 43 will.
Speaking of teamwork—it takes a complete team effort to get to the Super Bowl, and an even bigger one to win.
In NASCAR, it not only takes a complete team effort to get into the race, but to survive against 42 other teams and win the race. Even wild cards...like Arizona, for example, can come from behind to contend for victory with good strategy and teamwork (see Derrike Cope).
In the NFL, if a player fumbles the ball it can cost his team the game.
In NASCAR, if a crewman fumbles a lug nut (much smaller than a football, mind you), it can cost his team the race.
In the NFL, there's a two-week buildup to prepare for the game.
In NASCAR, the teams are preparing for the race immediately following the end of the previous season, and spend 10 days at the track getting ready.
The obvious difference is that fans of only two teams have a rooting interest when the NFL's Super Bowl comes around. Who were Redskins, Cowboys, or Patriots faithful supposed to cheer for last weekend?
In NASCAR, fans of all the teams have a rooting interest when the Daytona 500 comes around.
In fact, fans of guys who have retired have a chance to root for their driver this year. Bill Elliott was voted the most popular driver in NASCAR year-in, year-out in the 1990s. He's not only going to attempt to make the race, but was fastest in practice for the pole position on Saturday!
Add to Elliott names like Geoff Bodine and Derrike Cope—all three past 500 champions, and Terry Labonte—1984 and 1996 Cup champion, who will all attempt to make the race.
James Hylton is 74 years old...Seventy-four! He is going to attempt to qualify for the race.
Guys who have retired in the NFL come out and stand around for the coin toss.
NFL players, such as 40-year old Kurt Warner, are questioned about their ability to still play and compete in the game, much less lead their team to the Super Bowl.
NASCAR drivers may not win the race in their career, but at least they get the chance to compete in it. The late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. finally took the trophy in 1999 at age 47, after 20 years of trying and coming up short.
Finally ask a NFL player what he wants to do in his career, and the answer more than likely will be to hoist the Lombardi Trophy after winning the Super Bowl.
Ask a NASCAR driver if they could win either a championship or the Daytona 500, and the answer more than likely will be the latter.
Mark Martin might well be the best example of this...finishing second in points four times during his storied career—he resigned himself to not winning a title. But in 2006 a momentary lapse at the end cost him the Harley J. Earl Trophy by less than three feet.
The 1999 Tennessee Titans may understand not winning the Super Bowl of NASCAR when you spell it out that way.
Will 53-year-young Bill Elliott put the Wood Brothers famous No. 21 on the pole for the 51st Daytona 500? Check back Monday when I'll examine the outcome of qualifying, and look ahead at who needs to do what to make the race on Thursday.
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