NASCAR Sprint Cup: 7 Lessons We Learned at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona
Tempers flared, frustrated drivers vented their feelings over the radio and a first-time winner reached Victory Lane at the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night.
David Ragan garnered most of the headlines by earning his first career Sprint Cup victory in his 163rd series start (teammate Matt Kenseth pushed Ragan to the win, anyhow). But that was far from the only action on the track.
Here are seven lessons we learned under the Daytona lights.
Restrictor Plate Racing Is Now 95 Percent Boring
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Thanks to the two-by-two style of racing, the action at Daytona and Talladega has been reduced from scintillating, edge-of-your-seat excitement to simply counting down the laps until 10 to go.
Sure, the last few laps are as exciting as anywhere. But that doesn't make up for three hours of boredom.
In previous years during restrictor plate events, fans never knew when the "Big One" was going to happen, as the cars roared around the track in massive packs throughout the race. With the advent of the new style of restrictor-plate racing, the most common wreck is one driver inadvertently dumping the car he's blindly pushing around the track.
Commentators and NASCAR public relations personnel can try to advertise the racing as more exciting than ever, with more leaders and more passes for the lead. But is that what fans want? Parity to the point where taking the lead is virtually meaningless?
I don't think so, and unless something creative can be done (Hint: That means simply ordering the drivers not to bump-draft isn't an option, as NASCAR found out a couple of seasons ago), the ratings will reflect a disillusionment with racing at Daytona and Talladega.
Dale Jr. Isn't a Lock for the Chase
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With a 19th-place finish following a last-lap wreck in the Coke Zero 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has fallen to seventh place in the points after being as high as third just three weeks ago.
In the last three races, Junior has finished 21st, 41st and 19th. He is just 36 points ahead of Ryan Newman in 10th place and 39 ahead of Hamlin in 11th.
He's still in decent shape to make the Chase, but it's far from a done deal. Winless on the year, Junior could use a victory or two to help assure him of a wild-card spot if he slips outside the top 10 in the points.
Of course, a win would also help solidify his position in the top 10, not to mention end his three-year winless streak, give renewed faith to his legions of fans and...well, you get the point.
Restrictor Plate Races Are Still the Best Bet for an Underdog Win
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Even with the weird two-car drafting strategy being employed for the entire race for the first time, one thing remains unchanged in restrictor plate racing: There's a good chance for an underdog driver to break through for the win.
Be it Brad Keselowski at Talladega in 2009, Trevor Bayne in this year's Daytona 500 or David Ragan snaring his first career win Saturday night, the two-car draft has produced first-time winners.
Opinions differ as to whether or not this is actually a good thing. Some fans complain that restrictor plate races are a crapshoot that de-emphasizes driver skill. Still, it's always a refreshing sight to see a new winner in victory lane, something that did not happen in 2010.
The Wild Card Is Already Creating Excitement Leading Up to the Chase
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For the first time this season, the two drivers in position to earn the two Chase wild card spots are actual race winners: Denny Hamlin in 11th and David Ragan in 17th.
The other drivers from 12th to 20th know they could likely gain a Chase spot by winning a race, especially if Denny Hamlin is able to move into the top 10.
In addition, Kansas winner Brad Keselowski is sitting in 22nd place, just 11 points out of 20th place. With a few strong runs he could put himself in one of the wild card spots.
What all this means is that those drivers not in the top 10 in points will be fighting tooth and nail for a victory leading up to the regular season finale at Richmond, where the fans will be treated to double drama: Drivers will be fighting not just to be in the top 10 in points, but also to be one of the highest-ranked drivers with a victory outside the top 10.
Sure, it's a little bit complicated, but NASCAR's plan to put more of an emphasis on winning is already paying dividends.
The Drivers Can't Stand the Two-Car Tandem Draft
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Odds are that if you're a NASCAR driver and your name isn't David Ragan, you hate the two-car tandem draft.
"What kind of freaking move can you make racing like this? There are no moves to make. You’re just holding on. You just hold it on the mat and try not to wreck into each other. We saw how good we are at that. It was just a foolish race. I don't know. I don't know what to say."
Strong words, despite the fact that he pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to victory less than three months ago in this same style of racing. Junior particularly lamented the fact that the key to victory no longer is an individual driver's skill, as it used to be in the massive drafting packs at Daytona.
Several other drivers and crew chiefs echoed Junior's sentiments, complaining that the second car couldn't see anything and was totally reliant on his spotter and radio communications to know where to go. As Steve Addington, crew chief of Kurt Busch, put it, "This is some strange racing."
Talk About It Being Hard to Make Up Positions in the New Points System
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All season long, commentators have vaguely speculated that the new points system would somehow make it more difficult to gain and lose positions in the points.
I'm not sure how they came to that conclusion in the first place, since the new points system was really just a simplification of the old. If anything, the new system punishes bad finishes more than the old system did, as Carl Edwards found out Saturday night: He lost his huge lead of 25 points entirely, falling to five points behind new leader Kevin Harvick.
Saturday night gave tangible proof that it's quite possible to have major shifts in the standings under this points system. Look at the big movers in the points Saturday night.
As mentioned before, Edwards lost his large points lead and fell into second place. Jimmie Johnson dropped three positions to sixth despite a top-20 run. Kyle Busch jumped two positions to third, just 10 points behind Harvick.
Lower down in the points, Daytona winner David Ragan gained three positions up to 17th, and third-place finisher Joey Logano rose three place to 20th. Mark Martin fell four slots to 18th, and Martin Truex Jr. hit the skids with a five-position fall to 23rd.
2011 Is a Year for First-Time Winners
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First, the Cinderella story of 20-year-old Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500. Then, the shocker of Regan Smith winning at Darlington, arguably the trickiest track on the Sprint Cup circuit. Now, David Ragan finally fulfilling his potential with a breakthrough win at Daytona.
After seeing no first-time winners in 2010, it's refreshing to see a new cast of characters making a name for themselves. Bayne, Smith and Ragan are all young, talented drivers. They have bright futures ahead of them in the sport and can help NASCAR connect with the younger demographic it covets.