Daytona 500 Dramatics: No Shortage of Stories at the World Center of Racing

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IFebruary 13, 2010

While Valentine's lovers may be caught in a bad romance or in paradise, everyone at Daytona International Speedway is experiencing one of the more dramatic Speedweeks in recent memory.

From the mainstream media's eyes on open-wheel racer Danica Patrick's debut in stock cars to the exciting action on the speedway, there's a festive feel around the track and NASCAR world.

Drivers and teams have been a part of the most competitive races, with Thursday's Gatorade Duels producing photo finishes that could only be topped by an amazing Daytona 500 on Valentine's Day.

Fans have digested the chronicles and tribulations of Danica Patrick, who has certainly made her presence known with her amazing debut in the ARCA Re/Max Series with a sixth-place finish.

While the media paid little attention to the winner and her competitors, the fuss around the 27-year-old racing star has some validity.

Sure, she's driving for JR Motorsports, which is arguably a satellite organization of Hendrick Motorsports. Little has to be said about the success of HMS, other than the fact that they've won the past four Sprint Cup titles, three Brickyard 400s, and happen to be the home of four superstar drivers.

However, a fast car can only be successful with a great team and a driver who can draft and compete with the best in the sport.

Patrick raced wisely and competitively in the ARCA opener comprised of veterans, young guns, and average drivers who race each lap as if the white flag flies on every trip around the track. 

She's adapted quickly to the heavier cars as well as the draft, observing the ways of her peers and the terminology of stock car racing.

As she gains more experience on the track and in the draft, her confidence grows and that definitely spells trouble for her Nationwide Series counterparts for Saturday's season opener (Live, 1:30 p.m./EDT on ESPN2).

Let's not forget the other female racers who also competed in last Saturday's ARCA opener, which include Jill George, Leilani Munter, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Milka Duno, and Alli Owens. Although they were involved in separate incidents during the wild race, these tough drivers certainly have the talent and wherewithal to succeed in stock cars.

Owens had a solid shot at victory until she spun late in the going in her No. 15 ElectrifyingCareers.com Toyota Camry. Despite her incident, she was mixing it up with the leaders, poised to make a move for the win. Don't be surprised if she or any of the other female talents race their way into Victory Lane in 2010.

Munter didn't get to showcase how stout her No. 59 NextEra Energy Dodge Charger truly was in the race, getting wiped out in grinding accident on lap six. Frustrated but determined, the 33-year-old sensation looks to make her next ARCA appearance in the April race at Texas.

Cobb brought home a respectable 17th place finish in her No. 21 car, avoiding the rest of the carnage and incidents that befell her female contemporaries. While her schedule in the ARCA ranks is limited, her fill of NASCAR racing will be satisfied with a full-season rookie campaign in the Camping World Truck Series in her No. 10 Ford.

Saturday will be a day of history not only because of Danica Patrick, but also because of a rare doubleheader ticket that will certainly quench the thirsts of racing enthusiasts at home and at the track itself.

After all, it's not every weekend that the Nationwide Series has a race on the same track and day as its Camping World Truck Series peers.

That's just what'll happen with the season opener for both series. Just a bit past 1:30 p.m. EDT, the "insurance agents" take their shot at stealing the win in the DRIVE4COPD 300. Billed as the "Prelude to the Daytona 500," it could certainly serve as a foreshadowing of the dramatics that will be witnessed for the Cup gang.

Drivers to watch include Danica Patrick, as well as the intriguing family story surrounding Kenny, Mike, Stephen, and Chrissy Wallace. These four fast relatives will be competing in the opener, with uncle Rusty basking in it all as a race analyst for the ESPN2 broadcast team.

Mike Wallace certainly knows his way around this track, having won an ARCA race in 1994, as well as the fact that he is at his best at the plate race.

Additionally, he captured the July '04 race in spectacular fashion, avoiding the fracas between Jason Leffler and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to capture a last lap win.

Younger brother Kenny has certainly got to be excited for the kickoff for the NNS, looking to start his season on a high note for the No. 28 Jay Robinson Racing Chevy team.

Starting his 24th season of racing, "Herman the German" looks to improve on his top-10 points finish from last season. Perhaps this well-grounded racer will show that nice guys don't always have to finish last, going for victories and maximum points.

Rusty's son Stephen might be the Wallace relative who has a chip on his shoulder. While he has the tendency to overdrive his cars, thus resulting in several wrecks, he is a tremendously talented driver capable of reeling top-fives and 10s on a regular basis.

With his father's team aligning themselves with Joe Gibbs Racing, this newly Toyota-branded effort might knock on the door for some wins.

Chrissy Wallace is very similar to her famous uncle in Rusty, with the confidence to hold her own against the boys on the track.

With solid efforts at Martinsville in 2008 and an equally as impressive performance at Talladega last season, the 21-year-old racer said that if she beats her uncle and father on Saturday, they both have to wear skirts at the track. Talk about confidence and poise!

Unlike the Cup Series, which has a weak rookie class, the freshman class of 2010 looks very strong and stacked with checkered flags and championships in the future.

Roush-Fenway Racing has a prodigy in Colin Braun who looks to grab his share of wins in his No. 16 Conway Ford Fusion/Mustang. At the raw age of 21, the pride of Ovalo, Texas, hopes to duplicate his Truck Series success with a solid debut campaign.

Braun has a four other feisty competitors looking to take this year's Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors, including ARCA sensations James Buescher and Parker Kligerman, Truck winner Brian Scott, and Ricky Steinhouse, Jr.

In a few years, these aggressive, young lead footers will most likely be competing in high-quality Cup rides.

Following the Nationwide Series season opener, the Camping World Trucks hit the 31-degrees of banking with their kickoff to what looks to be another action-packed year (Live, 7 p.m. EDT on SPEED).

With a few invasions by Sprint Cup and NNS racers, this series looks for its homegrown talent to trade paint and deliver the most exciting racing product for 10 dramatic months.

Ron Hornaday Jr. joined the "Four Timers' Club," becoming the first CWTS racer to win four driver's titles in its 15-year history.

Joining Cup stars Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in this prestigious "club," the Californian is poised for another record and history-making championship campaign in his No. 33 Kevin Harvick-owned Chevy.

However, he has some sharks that look to strike first blood, starting with the "World Center of Racing."

Guys like Todd Bodine, Matt Crafton, Mike Skinner, Johnny Sauter, and David Starr hope that the championship will be hoisted in their hands. As to who that driver will be, the only way to know is to follow the truck action from Daytona to Homestead-Miami.

After those two appetizers, perhaps the most dramatic story around the 2.5-mile super speedway is the tremendously fast and risky racing action in the qualifying races preceding Sunday's Daytona 500. It was almost like a page from yesteryear's Daytona, with drivers jostling about in tight drafting formations.

Drivers have welcomed back the return of bump-drafting with relative ease, using the chrome horn to gain that additional speed and position around the track. With the biggest restrictor plate in use since the 1989 season, speeds have been quick and the art of drafting has been a work in progress for every competitor.

As a result, there's been some practice wrecks that wiped out the primary cars of Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Mike Bliss, and David Reutimann prior to the Duels. Those collisions worried Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, who felt that their driver was going to start and park in his qualifying race.

Worries be damned, "Little E" ended up racing the entire distance of Duel race No. 2, although his No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevy was cosmetically damaged. Still, the 2004 Daytona 500 champion has a solid shot at a second victory, as he starts from the outside pole alongside teammate Mark Martin.

As for Johnson, the four-time champion simply sucked it up and won the first qualifying race in his backup machine.

Despite the No. 48 Lowe's Chevy team downplaying their chances at a victory, don't let their guise fool you. Crew chief Chad Knaus and crew definitely have a bullet at their disposal and a driver who's aiming for a second Daytona 500 win.

Not since the 2001 season, have we seen drafting action as intense and heart-wrenching as this year's Speedweeks. Three-to-four-wide racing has been somewhat routine, with mere inches separating competitors around the narrow 50-feet-wide straights and corners.

In spite of this, the usual concerns of race penalties for going below the yellow line, or NASCAR's out-of-bounds line, and failed inspections have been futile. So far.

While "The Big One" has yet to be realized for the Cup gang, it has to certainly be on the mind of every racer who'll be duking it out on Sunday. NASCAR's loosened up the reins on the drivers, separating the men from the boys and the strong from the weak in their steel chariots.

Will the 52nd Daytona 500 (live, Sunday at 1 p.m./EDT on Fox) be equally as amazing as Thursday's Gatorade Duels? That remains to be seen, but based on the practice sessions and just how hotly competitive those races were, fans and teams are in for quite a treat.

Race winners Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne can attest to that, having seen the excitement all around them and their rear view mirrors.

There are plenty of story lines surrounding Sunday's main event, from Mark Martin's Daytona frustration to a group of hungry racers looking to eat their cake in the winner's circle.

Guys like Bobby Labonte, Clint Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, and Elliott Sadler hope their long winless streaks will end with a win, which will certainly be hard fought and earned in style.

Mark Martin's story with Daytona is similar to the Super Bowl frustrations of famed Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. Both sporting icons have been labeled as '"the greatest talent who have not won the big game."

Marino watched his contemporaries in Joe Montana and John Elway win their share of Super Bowl rings while his Dolphins faltered yearly.

They may have several postseason appearances during his 17-season career but his team managed to only make one Super Bowl appearance, in which they were soundly crushed by Montana's stout San Francisco 49ers.

Martin's frustration is similar, as he's seen his peers celebrate "Great American Race" wins from racers like Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Bill Elliott, among others. His talent is there and the cars have been generally quick, but his fortunes have been slim to none.

Even when there's a glimpse of hope, it ends up being a torturous tease and agonizing defeat. Almost as painful as the Tennessee Titans' loss against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, Martin's defeat in the 2007 Daytona 500 is brutal to watch.

Just a matter of inches separated the surefire Hall of Fame racer from tasting one of the missing links of his illustrious career, as he saw Kevin Harvick streak by him with just enough momentum at the stripe.

While he has been somewhat under the radar leading up to Sunday, don't be fooled. Having won the pole for the 500, the No. 5 GoDaddy.com team is poised and absolutely ready to give it their best shot at glory for the ageless 51-year-old Arkansas native.

Earnhardt Jr.'s story is one filled with frustration, especially with 2009. To put it in perspective, the Griswold family had better luck with their vacations, reaching Wallyworld, enjoying Europe and coming home from Vegas with a fortune.

Meanwhile, Rusty Griswold's lookalike in NASCAR had a year that would make you want to pull out all your hair. Even when the No. 88 team was in a position to win, they found more ways to lose races.

Bad pit stops, terrible racing luck, and just mediocre set-ups plagued their Impala machines from even being a factor on a regular basis.

Sunday's race may also be the final 500 for Michael Waltrip, a two-time winner of the "Super Bowl of NASCAR."

Recognizing that his driving skills are interfering with his business decisions for his eponymous team, the fan favorite hopes to come home in one piece in the No. 51 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota Camry.

Also notable are the racers who squeezed their way into the 500, like "Mad" Max Papis, Michael McDowell, Scott Speed, and Mike Bliss. Perhaps the most dramatic survivor was Bliss, who piloted Tommy Baldwin's No. 36 Wave Energy Chevy into a transfer spot.

Interestingly, the chassis driven by the former Truck and Nationwide star was the same one that made the Daytona 500 cut when it was driven by Scott Riggs.

With Waltrip perhaps moving into retirement from the driver's seat, some of the names mentioned in the Truck and Camping World ranks may be going at it in the Sprint Cup Series in just a matter of a few seasons.

Enjoy the three races, cheer for your favorites, and hope and pray that each event will be competitive, fun, but safe for all involved. Happy racing everybody, and lovers, enjoy your Valentine's Day weekend.

For the others, Happy Singles Awareness Day to all who love and follow NASCAR more than finding a date!


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