Daytona From the Stands: Observations On the Fans
NASCAR fans have shown time and time again that they are some of the best in sports.
Their devotion and enthusiasm to the sport and their chosen driver goes unmatched in my opinion. When it comes to getting loud and fighting for what you believe in, I am no different then my fellow hard-core NASCAR fans.
NASCAR is my life and I won't apologize for it.
That's why Saturday night I joined the thousands of other race fans at the Daytona International Speedway for the 51st Coke Zero 400.
NASCAR fans have taken a lot of slack lately for their behavior, such as cheering when Jeff Gordon wrecked in Dover.
On Saturday as I witnessed one hell of a race and a spectacular finish, I kept an eye and an ear on the many fans around me.
Their reactions throughout the night shocked me...
It's very rare for NASCAR fans to not be displaying something that reveals who their alliance goes to.
Fans at Daytona on Friday and Saturday were no different, some going more overboard than others.
But aside from the NASCAR version of "who are you wearing," there were some other highlights among the crowd.
Just two rows in front of me an elderly woman was on her feet for nearly the entire race. She had a permanent smile on her face and fist in the air to wave her driver on.
I believe the lucky chosen one was Kasey Kahne proving that it's not just young girls or crazy woman from the All-State commercials that are attracted to the driver of the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge.
As I surveyed some more I came across a teen-aged fan that seemed more into something that was in her lap then the cars flying by in front of her.
After further investigating it appeared that she came to do a word search and then a race broke out.
Hey, I don't judge so whatever makes you happy. Maybe she was searching for the winner of the event.
I just hope she put the book down long enough to see the finish that was coming. (Pictured above).
The one thing that really struck me though was the amount of fathers and sons that were in attendance.
Not just young children with the fathers who were passing on their love of the event, but the older gentlemen and their fathers.
All of whom chose to spend their Independence Day at the "World Center of Racing."
Not surprisingly Dale Earnhardt Jr. (above) got a solid welcome. The sea of green and blue was out in full force as Daytona showed that they stand tall with Talladega as Earnhardt Country.
Teammate Mark Martin also received as warm a welcome as Earnhardt Jr. while fellow teammate Jimmie Johnson was greeted with more boos than cheers.
Seems NASCAR fans don't like the champ, and it ruins one reporters story which stated that Johnson was getting many cheers this year as fans finally have started to respect him.
Sorry Jimmie, you haven't won over Daytona yet.
The loudest ovation though, no doubt went to NASCAR's bad boy Kyle Busch. Busch was made very much aware of where he stood with the fans as boos rained down from the highest tower to the seats in the front row.
The King is Back
Twenty-five years ago on Saturday Richard Petty firmly cemented his place in NASCAR history by winning his 200th career race at Daytona in the Fire Cracker 400.
Petty was back on track Saturday leading the 43 drivers on the pace laps in a replica of his famous No. 43 Dodge from the 1984 race win.
The fans loved it and many didn't want him to leave the track but as Petty headed for pit road and the garage area, NASCAR's newest generation saluted the man that made the previous generation famous.
NASCAR's King got a standing ovation.
This past weekends event was the sixth Coke Zero 400 that I attended in person.
Sitting directly across from the entrance to pit road, I've got a great view for all the craziness that has gone on. From people having their hands frozen with their middle fingers out all night, to screaming wildly and hurling insults at other fans and drivers.
I've seen people fall on their faces as they drunkenly tried to climb over railings, and I've seen the fans that just didn't know how to handle themselves.
On Saturday night a completely different crowd attended the race.
There were no middle fingers directed at drivers who pulled a stupid move. There were no insults or fights among fans, or even wild screams hurled at drivers they just didn't like.
During accidents or cautions there was a loud echo of "oooooo" but other than those, everyone was very well behaved.
One of the great fan moments came after Mark Martin had wrecked. He spent time in the garage for repairs but as soon as he made the left hand turn to come back to pit road and revved the engine to re-enter the track, the fans cheered and applauded the No. 5 teams hard work and determination.
A disappointment occurred when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon suffered damage in the backstretch "Big One."
Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. fans, along with fans in plain clothes, all headed for the exits.
More fans headed for home when David Ragan in the No. 6 car went spinning down the backstretch later in the race which ruined the top ten run he had going.
I'll take fans leaving over acting like fools and throwing things any day and Saturday the fans got my nod of approval.
Lead Changes & 3-Wide Racing
Tony Stewart spent much of the night in the lead and just like driver introductions, Stewart was given the cheers of approval for his efforts. In all honesty, the crowd went wild whenever the No. 14 was in front.
The Subway Ford Fusion driven by Carl Edwards found his way to the front to the fans delight as did Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin also was cheered while leading.
His teammates Joey Logano and Kyle Busch were making plenty of moves all night through the field and at one point Logano made it three-wide going through the middle.
Logano made it work and picked up positions as well as picked up some fans. His solid run and excellent moves earned the fans' respect and attention for the driver that is the future of NASCAR.
Stewart and Hamlin had the dominant cars on Saturday night and as the laps wound down, everyone had their eyes trained on the front four cars that had broken away from the field: Stewart, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, and Johnson.
A debris caution with less than 10 laps to go, put everyone on edge. I could feel the mood in the crowd change, everyone knew what was coming.
A double-file restart and the one thing that I kept hearing from others around me was, "watch Kyle Busch."
As the race restarted everyone in attendance had not paid for a ticket, they paid for standing space.
The pack roared through turns three and four, Kyle Busch made a masterful move to take the lead from Tony Stewart.
This time the crowd, that wasn't standing there with their mouths hung open and wondering what the hell just happened, cheered the youngest Busch brother.
Yes, cheered him.
Through turns one and two, down the backstretch and headed for the final two turns, once again I could feel a shift in the crowd as Stewart got closer to the No. 18 back bumper.
Off turn four and just one mile from the checkered flag, Kyle Busch was suddenly staring me in the face as his Toyota slammed the wall.
The crowd erupted.
Stewart took the checkered flag, Busch took a beating and the crowd took it upon themselves to applaud the finish. No doubt there were the fans that cheered because Busch didn't win the race, but others such as myself were applauding what we had just seen.
Every driver walked away from the Daytona Demolition Derby but the fans didn't walk away or stop screaming until at least 30 minutes later.
Upon climbing out in victory lane Tony Stewart officially became the Most Popular Driver in NASCAR.
Leaving the Speedway and walking back up Speedway Blv. to my hotel on Saturday night, I was once again struck by the people surrounding me.
The Tony Stewart fans were quietly celebrating their drivers victory, not rubbing it in other fans faces, and not insulting Kyle Busch or his fans.
The Kyle Busch fans, were shockingly quiet. They weren't screaming and yelling or crying foul over the finish.
They simply walked away.
The Earnhardt Jr. fans weren't raising cain about their enemy crashing, they were too busy internally dealing with another tough night from their driver.
The fans as a whole walked away from Daytona talking about a spectacular finish, and another awesome race weekend.
But that didn't mean some weren't turning to me and saying "I was just waiting for Kyle Busch to do something stupid" or "I wish Kyle would have made it down pit road to Tony because he's one driver that Kyle wont' push around. Tony will kick his ass."
But the general consensus Saturday night was an emphatic, "Did you see that!"