On Sunday, a black No. 3 car sat shining in the Daytona Beach sun, cameras focused on a number not seen in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition since the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s been 13 years since that tragic end, but closure has finally come — not in the form of an Earnhardt, but in 23-year-old Austin Dillon.
The grandson of car owner Richard Childress raised expectations with a flawless performance in Daytona 500 qualifying, launching the ghost of “The Intimidator” straight to the forefront of NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
Today, it also has 56,000 conspiracy theorists out in full force.
Dillon is the second straight rookie to win the pole for “The Great American Race,” setting a NASCAR record, as he joins 2013 “surprise” Danica Patrick. Both are high-profile stories, raising national attention for NASCAR’s biggest race at a time when rating and attendance numbers were reaching critical lows. (See: sparse crowd at Daytona for both Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited and Sunday’s Pole Day.)
The sport enjoyed a quick boost in popularity once Patrick rose to contention last February; like it or not, that’s the truth. So why not put a little extra horsepower in the No. 3, the naysayers go, so Dillon and the Earnhardt legacy make it happen all over again? The pole is little more than ceremonial, anyway, for a race where one can jump from 40th to first in just a handful of laps.
It’s sad that inconsistent penalties, last fall’s Richmond debacle and confusing rule changes have driven fans towards the brink, crazy enough to think this pole might have been scripted. They’d have a far better argument for Patrick last year than tearing this latest “shocker” to shreds. Dillon, while without a plate race win in NASCAR’s lower series, has still been impressive at the sport’s big superspeedways. He was top-5 material on the white flag lap of last fall’s Cup race at Talladega before the typical melee ensued; his No. 3 sat on the pole for Daytona’s Nationwide Series race last July, and finished fifth. The RCR outfit he runs for was lightning quick in January testing at Daytona, posting top times that carried over straight to the beginning of Speedweeks.
If Dillon were some random guy at age 23 driving top-tier equipment, fans would be celebrating his accomplishment, not questioning it. Unlike Patrick, there are results on paper (he’s the defending Nationwide Series champion) and there’s arguably more pressure on his shoulders. Dillon carries the weight of the family business with big-time sponsorship while driving for a team that finished third in last season’s championship Chase. He may show charisma, but there aren’t tens of millions of marketing dollars and funny GoDaddy commercials to fuel income here in case of failure. Instead, should things backfire there comes a lifetime moniker of “that guy who couldn’t make it in the 3 car.”
If anything, Dillon’s in a lose-lose situation, with a top 10, run-up-front-all-day performance now considered a Daytona must. But when a great accomplishment gets drowned out with fans crying foul, disbelieving the sport millions follow is unfair to everyone. And the season hasn’t even begun yet.
So take a deep breath, relax, and as we go Through The Gears, give me this much: every once in a while, an accomplishment that seems too good to be true is simply nothing more than a great, feel-good story. And after all, shouldn’t those following NASCAR be smiling mere days before the sport's biggest race?
FIRST GEAR: Denny Hamlin makes a statement
Last November, in the midst of a nightmare 2013 season, Denny Hamlin salvaged something with a last-ditch win in the Homestead season finale. He’s had over two months to sit on those laurels.
He also hasn’t lost. Winning all three segments of Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, NASCAR’s exhibition race for 2013 pole sitters, it was clear Hamlin had the fastest car. Running up front or in traffic, it didn’t really matter, as the FedEx Toyota was slicing through opponents at will.
So much for having a bad back. Last fall, it seemed surgery was the only option for Hamlin to return to full health but some large-scale rehabilitation efforts leave him looking 100 percent.
“Physically, I feel like I can be better than I was before,” he said Saturday night. “I feel as good physically in the car over the course of long runs, better than I have for I can't even remember, probably rookie season maybe.”
That’s also the last time Hamlin won the Unlimited, in 2006 — a win that sparked an unlikely journey to third in series points. It’s a good omen for the future, especially with confidence high; this driver runs up front when fueled by emotion. I’d be shocked if he wasn’t in the mix for his first Daytona 500 trophy, along with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth this Sunday.
SECOND GEAR: More passing … but more wrecking?
The Unlimited got dicey after a slow start with wild, three-abreast, white-knuckle racing down the stretch. But at times, the best drivers in the world also played a very expensive game of Demolition Derby. Just eight cars finished the race, the fewest since 1987, as big names turned into bigger victims. Dale Earnhardt Jr. got hit from behind. Matt Kenseth got turned by Joey Logano. Jimmie Johnson, well, he spun out by himself. What gives? Heck, even the pace car caught on fire!
Turns out the answer is the “side draft,” where drivers get a boost of speed under the current restrictor plate rules. While similar to 2013, there’s better handling and better understanding of the air which has made it far easier to pass. But, according to drivers like Earnhardt, slower momentum combined with some “stalling out” during the sidedrafting process leads to cars unexpectedly backing up in the pack, more susceptible to bad bumpdrafts from behind or simply spinning out on their own.
Does that mean Sunday’s Daytona 500 will be a wreckfest? Well, I don’t think we’ll be down to eight cars. But avoiding the “Big One” for 200 laps would be a major surprise, I think.
THIRD GEAR: Growing pains for Stewart-Haas Racing
Stewart-Haas Racing, while running in the top 5 Saturday with Kevin Harvick, is showing early growing pains with its new, four-car operation. None posted qualifying speeds inside the top 20, including Kurt Busch who stands a small (but conceivable) chance of missing the 500 altogether with a wreck in Thursday’s Duel qualifying race. Both co-owner Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick have had engine problems, sending them to the rear of Sunday’s 500. To add insult to injury, the two of them along with Busch wrecked through the course of the Sprint Unlimited. Patrick had the most awkward result, spinning wildly to the point boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. couldn’t avoid hitting her square in the driver’s door.
It’s a long way to go between now and Sunday, with Stewart looking especially motivated to show he’s healthy. (He last raced in August before breaking his leg in an ugly sprint car accident.) It’s hard to ever count him out, or Harvick, who’s come out of nowhere to win this 500 before. But a win on Sunday seems like a tall order right now, let alone get all four cars inside the top 10.
FOURTH GEAR: Expect the unexpected
A look through early power players at Daytona brings us back to the same common theme: drivers with something to prove. There’s Brad Keselowski, second in the Sprint Unlimited and sixth in Daytona 500 qualifying. After missing the Chase last season, the 2012 champ is acting like a man on a mission. There’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., racy in the Unlimited and seventh in qualifying. He’s looking for that early win to quiet whispers about both sponsorship and the Chase. And locked in on the front row is Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing. Now driving the No. 78, a single-car operation. Last year’s Richmond victim hopes to be 2014’s miracle success story.
In all, none of the top four drivers in qualifying (Dillon, Truex, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards) have tasted victory in the Daytona 500. Add Hamlin, Keselowski, and even a Joey Logano-type to the mix and chances are we could see a first-time winner of that coveted Harley J. Earl trophy come Sunday.
Check in each Monday for Tom Bowles’ Through the Gears column, which will highlight all the events from the previous NASCAR weekend.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.