The 2009 Daytona 500: A Tale Of Two NASCARs
As I sat watching the opening portion of the Daytona 500 last night my mind was switching between different things.
Firstly, I was watching the ticker to keep track of a few different drivers, cursing or smiling where appropriate.
Secondly, I was actually watching the race, from a normal restrictor plate position of the edge of whatever seat I've picked for the evening.
Thirdly, I was thinking of ideas for post race articles.
Watching the race, at least before a certain point was an almost entirely positive experience. After all the doom and gloom writers had prophesied about over the off-season, the truth didn't seem nearly that bad.
The Thursday Duels had seen a pair of genuine feel good stories as Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield showed their tiny, volunteer staffed teams had the ability to run with the big names of the sport. The start of the 500 saw 43 sponsored (even Riggs appeared to have picked up a deal) cars, resplendent in multi-coloured liveries, streaming around the high banked corners like a 190 mile-per-hour rainbow towards a pot of gold.
And it was the pot of gold I was concerned about. With a quarter-of-a-million dollars reportedly up for simply finishing 43rd, and a handful of teams for whom every cent is precious the possibility of a start and park effort was a very real possibility. Over the opening laps I concentrated on the tail end of the running order as it crossed the ticker.
I half expected to see Riggs, Mayfield, or Terry Labonte listed 43rd, before the director cut to a camera showing the offending car pulling behind the wall to a guaranteed pay day.
But it never happened. Labonte was at the back of the pack, but was still running. Mayfield's trips to the pits were almost definately mechanical and even he wasn't happy to call it a day as he struggled back out on the track to turn some more laps.
I couldn't help but think our little sport was in pretty good shape. We'd been told to expect a NASCAR armageddon, but it seemed the asteroid had missed us. I was looking forward to a year of NASCAR.
Then "it" happened. An incident already so infamous it can be reduced to a pronoun, and yet you all know exactly what I mean.
After the initial gasps, and after the dust had settled, the multi-camera angled blame game began. In my eyes it was pretty clear that Jr was at fault, but of course everybody sees it different, and I've seen everything short of death threats aimed at Brian Vickers.
The general opinion seemed to be that Dale Jr should be pulled in for a penalty, especially after the precedent set by the five-lap penalty levied at Jason Leffler the night before during the Nationwide race.
Even the talking heads seemed to agree. Words like "wrong" and "uncalled for" were used. In an event so unbelievable I can't believe it I actually agreed with Sky Sports' UK based studio team.
Their tame "US sports journalist", David Tuckman, said "If Junior doesn't get a penalty, then I'm ashamed."
And ashamed he was. No penalty came, other than the fact no free pass was given (if Dale had got the free pass I would have gone out, brought a can of beer, opened it and drunk half of it, simply so I had something to throw at my TV to show my displeasure).
Suddenly, the ugly side of NASCAR reared its head. The side that you only have look at very slightly to see a conspiracy theory. The side that constantly robs America's second biggest sport of the respect it needs if it is ever to move forward, domestically and internationally. I think the post crash interview with Brian Vickers says exactly what I'm thinking.
"...typically NASCAR penalises for that, I think the 38 was penalised five laps yesterday for doing the same thing. I guess they're not gonna penalise him for it."
You only have to read slightly between the lines to see exactly what he means, and I happen to agree with it.
Their incredibly flexible rulebook is holding NASCAR back. I felt physically sick when Jr complained about the tyre-on-the-line rule, practically ordering NASCAR to change the rule. It's fine for everyone else, it has never been a problem before, but it affects Jr and it's a problem. That rule will be changed before the 52nd 500.
I have seen complaints about the fact the race was shortened due to rain. I know it's frustrating when a race gets called early, especialy a race that has become known for wild finishes, but there was nothing that could be done. If the rain was truly due for another 90 minutes then by the time the track was dried the race would have gone on too late.
NASCAR has major media obligations and when races go long they get messed around, remember the race that got pulled off a channel for the Funniest Home Videos last year.
Seeing a car in victory lane, no matter how or why they got there, is a major part of the media and sponsor priorities. If there is a constant risk that this won't be seen by large swathes of the population, then any money worries the teams have are likely to grow, which I'm sure we can all agree is bad.
The 2009 Daytona 500 truly was a tale of two NASCARs. The positive, resilient NASCAR that managed to get 43 cars on the grid for the race and still had 43 cars circulating until Joey Logano continued his introduction to many and varied walls of NASCAR.
Then there was the negative NASCAR, the NASCAR that often gets labelled the "WWE of racing". The NASCAR that rubs racing fans up the wrong way and creates more haters than it does fans.
Ladies and Gentlemen. NASCAR is back!
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