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The Way It Is/ Kevin Harvick's surprise win in a very messy Daytona 500

by Gordon Kirby
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NASCAR's big show at Daytona on Sunday was everything that stock car racing's bosses could have hoped for with plenty of slamming, banging and crashing, and a surprise winner as Kevin Harvick nosed ahead of Mark Martin at the finish line. In the closing laps, many people were pulling for Martin to win after race favorite Tony Stewart got sideways and was hit in the tail by a closely-following Kurt Busch.

While having a drink before dinner on Sunday night after the race the bar tender asked if I had been to the race and if I had cheered for Mark Martin. I admitted that I had. "I think everyone was pulling for him," the barkeeper remarked. "I know his pilot and he says he's just as good a guy as he looks and sounds like on TV. Everyone says that about him and everybody just wanted him to win it at last."

Martin was left in the lead with twenty-five laps to go and until the last turn it looked as if the 48-year old veteran was about to finally win the Daytona 500 in his first start with Bobby Ginn's new Chevrolet team. But a hefty bump draft down the backstretch from Matt Kenseth enabled Harvick to steam to the front after starting the last lap in sixth place. When Kyle Busch clipped the apron, lost it and spun coming off turn four, Martin was left alone at the bottom of the track without a pusher and wasn't able to respond as Harvick stole victory at the line.

All that aside, this year's 49th Daytona 500 was a very messy race, a classic example of restrictor-plate racing at its worst. Most of the race was pretty clean, but the last fifty laps were really pretty silly by any measure. Busch and Stewart dominated the race until their incident with Busch leading the most laps and Stewart working his way from the back to the front after a muffed, mid-race pitstop.

'Smoke' was the race favorite and has also got to be this year's championship favorite although he faces a large points deficit after finishing last at Daytona following his incident with Busch. Meanwhile Busch and Ryan Newman in Penske's cars ran better than in many years at Daytona and their performances may presage more of a championship-threatening run from the team which has been a bit disappointing in recent years.

The Daytona 500 rarely, if ever in modern times at least, has provided a pointer to the season to follow and that's likely to be the case this year as well. You have to believe that defending champion Jimmie Johnson will be in the thick of the title battle again, despite not featuring at Daytona and going home without any points to speak of after sparking a late-race multi-car wreck. Also likely to figure in the championship battle is Matt Kenseth who was typically strong at Daytona only to get trapped in the race's final Kyle Busch-triggered shunt and limp across the line in twenty-seventh. So Kenseth, like Johnson, left Daytona in a deficit position with plenty of ground to make up.

Harvick has made the best start of all, of course, and at this point it's difficult to guess who else might feaure in thuis year's championship chase. Jeff Gordon was a bit of a mystery at Daytona, winning his qualifying race before getting disqualified and not featuring at all in the 500, finishing an undistinquished tenth.

I'm ready to bet that the arrival of the Car of Tomorrow is going to be a key component in which teams end up fighting for the Nextel Cup nine months from now. The logistical and technical challenges will be huge and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the more experienced drivers will have a tough time adapting to the different visual and physical feel from the driver's seat. In ways not yet clear, the CoT is sure to have a big impact on the season ahead.

By the time we get to September and the Chase for the Cup, the Daytona 500 will be forgotten and irrelevant, other than for the fact that Harvick and RCR made a great start to the season and with a little luck could be the guys to beat for this year's Nextel Cup. In the post-race press conference Richard Childress was asked to compare Harvick's first Daytona 500 victory to Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001 as an act of redemption, but Childress showed zero interest in being drawn into comment, saying simply that he was just delighted to win the Daytona 500 and provided the press room with a Carolina victory whoop.

So it was that Kevin Harvick and RCR enjoyed a grand weekend at Daytona as they swept both the Busch and Cup races and Childress enjoyed winning the Daytona 500 for the first time since the late, great Dale Earnhardt made it happen back in 1998. Harvick is an excellent racer but in many ways he's just another corporate driver, anxious to be a positive role model and representative or endorser of products. Free of personality or opinion, he evokes little emotion in many people. But that is the NASCAR way. Post-Earnhardt, everyone--Tony Stewart included!--is a team player.

Of course, there was embarassment aplenty in the days leading up to the race for manufacturers, drivers and teams as Michael Waltrip, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne were caught with illegal stuff after qualifying and Jeff Gordon was moved to the back of the field for the 500 after winning Thursday's second 150-mile qualifying race. A series of fines and crew chief suspensions were laid on, including a $100,000 fine for Waltrip's chief. Waltrip put in an Oscar-winning performance in his Thursday morning press conferenceas he apologized to everyone imaginable from Toyota to NASCAR to offending his young daughter's sensibilities and the hallowed memory of Dale Earnhardt.

As everyone knows, cheating has always been an essential part of NASCAR. From the earliest days, there have been endless stories of creative crew chiefs finding innovative ways of beating the rulebook. The more restrictive the form of racing, the more people are going to look for ways around the rules. Restrictor plate racing at Daytona and Talladega must surely be the most oxygen-starved concoction of a racing formula in the sport's history and given the financial and technical resources of the teams and the prestige associated with winning the season-opening Daytona 500 it's inevitable that you're going to run into some rule-bending.

Meanwhile, Juan Pablo Montoya had a tough start to his rookie Nextel Cup season, finishing nineteenth after crunching his gearbox during his first pitstop and running most of the race with only fourth gear. But Juan was able to show his potential when he led the second of Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races, adroitly holding off Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon until his right front wheel bearing failed.

As Juan knows by now, there's no doubt that NASCAR is the 'Big Show' and any other form of racing, Formula One included, pales by comparison in every way--car count, number of teams and sponsors, and in the acres and acres of motorhomes assembled in and around any speedway during a NASCAR race weekend. On the motorhome front, NASCAR outscores any other racing league by a factor of a hundred or more, and the fans' assembly of motorhomes are equally larger in number. There was a time fifteen years ago when CART set the standard for racing in both motorhomes and hospitality, way ahead of NASCAR and in front of F1 too, but those days are long-gone.

It's also worth noting that twenty teams made the forty-three car field at Daytona this year lead by Roush's five cars and Hendrick's four-car operation. Six teams--DEI, RCR, Evernham, Gibbs, Ganassi and Bobby Ginn--each ran three cars with four, two-car teams--Penske, Yates, Michael Waltrip and Gene Haas--and seven single-car teams filling-out the field.

Still, it was impossible not to notice that the crowd was down all week at Daytona this year. The infield motorhome area seemed particularly hard hit, and looked to be only seventy percent full. Conversations with fans at all ends of the spectrum confirm that price gouging is a common complaint. Ticket prices have climbed steadily in recent years and three-day tickets are now required for the infield and multiple ticket purchases for two or three events each year are required for grandstand seats. Typically, the surrounding hotels and motels have joined the price-gouging party for the 500 week with the result that the past three or four years have seen a surprising number of vacancies at hotels and motels up and down the beach.

In closing, I must relate that on a cold Friday night, rather than watching the Truck race I enjoyed a quiet dinner at Anna's, one my favorite Italian restaurants in Daytona Beach. As I sat down I noticed Sam Hornish at the other end of the room enjoying a quite meal with his wife, mom and dad. Hornish is starting his NASCAR career this year by running a dozen or more Busch races, but so far the defending Indy 500 winner and IRL champion is unknown in NASCARland. Not one person recognized him during dinner, but that may change over the next few years as Roger Penske moves Hornish toward an increasingly NASCAR-driven career. As we all know, it is the way of the world today.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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