After all the drama leading up to it, the 57th edition of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 clearly lived up to the hype. While the last lap was a bit anticlimactic, the three-abreast racing leading up to it contained more than enough excitement to hold any race fan, old or new on the verge of a heart attack. While it ended under caution, a feel-good storyline was green-lighted with a first-time winner of the Great American Race, Joey Logano, hustling to the finish as the only Ford in contention, somehow keeping afloat despite long lines of Chevys and Toyotas behind him. Most importantly, there was a minimal amount of equipment torn up, just a small handful of wrecked cars after a Speedweeks that created enough shredded sheet metal to build your own car dealership.
That’s important following a weekend in which Kyle Busch’s injury, calling NASCAR’s safety record into question threatened to derail Daytona momentum. Instead, 2015 got off to a strong start for stock car racing because every quarter of this race, not just the fourth one was worth watching. While Jeff Gordon dominated Daytona’s first half, leading 77 of 100 laps you rarely felt like the cars were strung out single-file. Racing, not debris or some pit road controversy became the central focus.
To bring fans back, carrying the momentum over from NASCAR’s 2014 Chase that’s how it’s going to have to be. Catchy gimmicks, driver personalities and new rules designed to increase parity can only go so far. It’s the racing, the ability to pass, bump, make contact and push these cars to the edge that will keep someone watching television through 500 miles. No matter how much Danica Patrick yells, no matter how much Tony Stewart stomps his feet a boring race will make them flip the channel. It’s the same with college basketball or any other sport; competition, above all is what captivates people in sports.
So that’s the best thing to take away from this 500: NASCAR started off the year highly competitive. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Through The Gears we go as this NASCAR column gets revved up for another go-round in 2015...
FIRST GEAR: Joey Logano Comes Into His Own
Down the stretch of this Daytona 500, Logano appeared to have the cards stacked against him. Teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney had blown engines. No other Fords, automatic helpers for his fast No. 22 Ford were in contention. It seemed the young driver was stuck in a corner, ready to be freight trained by the Hendrick Motorsports group that clearly had the fastest cars left in the race.
The “old” Joey Logano, the one that started his career with his confidence chipped away at Joe Gibbs Racing wouldn’t be able to handle that. He’d have mentally withered under the stress, slipped backwards and made the wrong move with a plate package where one bad decision left you 20th. But this new guy? The one living up to his potential at Team Penske? He didn’t so much as blink.
“He managed the race,” said owner Roger Penske. “He was able to play fair yet knew what he had to do.”
What Logano did was simple: pick another drafting partner, head to the front, and block out thoughts of possible retribution by rivals Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick -- the latter of which got into a shouting match with him after Thursday’s Duels.
“Obviously, you think about it,” he said of past conflict. “I want to say it’s long enough that we can move on and race with each other, and we did.
“[So] I chose the 15 (Clint Bowyer) as a teammate, as someone to work with because for some reason sometimes you get two cars that match up really well. He matched up with me today. For some reason, he started pushing, and I wanted this guy behind me the rest of the race.”
The Bowyer-Logano tandem got the No. 22 to the front, and there he stayed during a green-white-checkered finish where his line was able to dart right into the lead. It was using his head, in the middle of NASCAR’s Super Bowl and one of many signs showing Logano has matured. How appropriate really, that when last generation’s driver ran his last Daytona 500 (Jeff Gordon) it was Logano, the driver potentially tagged with that label now who came out on top with his first.
SECOND GEAR: Busch Brothers Go Bye-Bye… For Now
Sunday was weird for a certain Las Vegas family, as it was the first time since 2000 the Daytona 500 didn’t include a Busch brother. For Kyle, it was watched from his hospital bed after this serious XFINITY Series wreck in Daytona resulted in a compound fracture of his right leg (similar to what Tony Stewart suffered in a sprint car race a few years back) combined with a smaller fracture midway down his left foot.
Busch wound up watching from his hospital bed, Matt Crafton subbing in and recording a respectable top-20 finish. It was more than anyone could have asked for with the Truck Series champ making his first ever Cup start, in NASCAR’s biggest race, no less.
Who knows how long the younger Busch will be out. At least his crash appears to have one silver lining, accelerating NASCAR momentum toward getting SAFER barriers installed on every inch of every racetrack. Daytona Speedway President Joie Chitwood III already pledged his track would have it, no matter the cost so no incident like that ever happens again without proper protection.
As for Kurt Busch, his career prospects look bleak after NASCAR indefinitely suspended him for a protection order entered against him. Ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll lauded the decision, one the sanctioning body held up over a series of appeals by the driver. Chevrolet has also suspended their relationship, meaning Busch could be in position to get released by Stewart-Haas Racing sometime this week. His contract gives them an out for this type of scenario; it’s simply whether he’ll choose to exercise it.
Regan Smith did an admirable job subbing for Busch on short notice. However, he wound up an uneventful 16th and was working on a one-race deal. You have to wonder if owner Gene Haas, if he does part ways with Busch will believe in Smith enough to keep the team operational. The whole No. 41 car was tailor-made for Busch, funded out of the owner’s own pocket. With no Chase bid and potentially no Busch… is he willing to keep it afloat?
THIRD GEAR: Tough Streak For Tony Stewart Continues
Tony Stewart had high hopes to break a Daytona 500 streak approaching Dale Earnhardt, Sr. status. 0-for-16 entering the race, he snuck inside the top 5 early and appeared to have a car capable of contending. But it was Stewart that also shot himself in the foot, losing control off turn 4 in a wreck that ended his chances along with fellow 500 favorite Matt Kenseth.
“When it got three-wide that particular lap it got away from me, and I got out of the gas and couldn't even get the front end caught up when I got out of the gas,” he said. “If Ryan (Blaney) wasn't there [to make contact], I still was going to hit the fence.”
Stewart now has three straight 500 finishes of 35th or worse. That doesn’t hurt in the standings as much as it used to considering NASCAR’s “Win And You’re In” Chase format but it clearly wasn’t the start Smoke expected. As every year passes, the more it seems the Earnhardt curse was passed on.
FOURTH GEAR: Hendrick’s Missed Opportunity
Most of the on-track action up front, throughout Daytona Speedweeks centered around Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. JGR, with the Kyle Busch injury lost crucial momentum but HMS rolled through the field during much of the Daytona 500. Jeff Gordon led the most laps (87) and for much of the race, all four cars found themselves inside the top 5. Late in the going, when Gordon tripped up on a restart Jimmie Johnson fought back from a pit road penalty to take control. Between those two and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., victory for HMS seemed assured.
So what happened? Each driver made crucial bad decisions on restarts. The one for Earnhardt stung the most; with 19 laps left, he made a move toward the middle that got him shuffled back to 19th. No way the No. 88 team could recover, although they clawed back to third. Jeff Gordon had a similar problem and wound up in the day’s big wreck, stopping action midway through the final lap. In the end, only Earnhardt wound up on the podium, with Johnson fifth, Kasey Kahne ninth and Gordon 33rd on a day these cars clearly ran better.
“You don’t get cars that good too often,” said Earnhardt. “You like to try to capitalize.”
HMS couldn’t do it.
*A lot of fans will disagree with NASCAR’s decision to throw the caution, freezing the field after a semi-big wreck blocked the backstretch midway through the final lap. I think the answer here is simple: NASCAR was forced to err on the side of caution. With Kyle Busch’s injury 24 hours old, how bad would it have looked if the race finished up while someone was badly hurt in that wreck? With the sport under the microscope in terms of safety, it’s just put in a position where they can’t take any chances -- especially with how outspoken the drivers themselves were about the risks at Daytona. Notice you didn’t hear any of them say, “I wish we could have finished the race under green” Sunday night.
*The best thing about Danica Patrick’s Daytona? She came home in one piece. But that’s about all you can say after she spent much of the day out of view at one of her best racetracks. Speedweeks equaled stress this year for Patrick, the 2013 Daytona 500 pole sitter who had more wrecks courtesy Denny Hamlin’s rear bumper (two) than laps led in THREE Daytona races (none). With her contact up at Stewart-Haas, questions about her future loom large and the boom of that drum will only get louder every week. A top-10 finish here, as “random as they seem” sometimes would have quieted the doubters; not to have one was a big miss.
*NASCAR’s decision to throw a red flag shortly after the Justin Allgaier wreck saved a whole lot of big teams from running out of gas; it’s easy to understand why. One just hopes it’s just a precedent they stick to going forward instead of changing their minds race by race.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.