The Daytona 500 was held on Valentine's Day, but the sport didn't receive a "hole" lot of love from the media after the track's asphalt disintegrated in the middle of the Great American Race.
That's understandable given the way the situation was handled by Daytona International Speedway. Certainly, rain and uncharacteristically cold temperatures contributed to the fiasco. Was the integrity of the surface -- not paved since 1978 -- further compromised after the inside of the track spent three days under water in May? The engineers that examine the track on a regular basis apparently didn't seem to think so in further inspections.
Although problems didn't surface during last July's race, thousands of miles were logged between the Rolex 24, Bud Shootout, Craftsman Truck Series, Duel qualifiers, Nationwide Series and the Daytona 500. But any major league groundskeeper or maintenance specialist that cares for a rink or court has an arsenal of tricks in reserve to repair any mishap that might erupt. So what went wrong? Why didn't track officials fix the problem the first time around? During the first intermission, NASCAR president Brian France said the track was attempting a third different compound and that solution was expected to work. Even France referred to the situation as "disappointing for the fans and ourselves."
I have never been a NASCAR apologist. How many times has the sanctioning body promised a "back to basics" approach to racing to appease the fans and competitors and not delivered? Last year, the platform changed. NASCAR met with the teams and held fan councils. The sanctioning body listened. This year was going to be different. This Daytona was going to be different.
NASCAR opened up the restrictor plates to increase the horsepower. There were changes made to the wing endplates, wing gurney and rear shocks. The bump drafting rules were eliminated and "Have at it, boys," was the new philosophy of racing. And just when it appeared NASCAR couldn't appease the fans' desires any more, the sanctioning body announces there will be three attempts at a green-white-checkered-flag finish. For years, fans have complained when racing did not end under green and certainly offering three attempts to accomplish a green-flag finish is reasonable.
Speedweeks was off to a roaring success and NASCAR's own home track let it down. The first interruption of the race was forgivable. Fans have sat through similar situations at Martinsville Speedway and Gateway International Raceway. Tracks such as Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway have been repaved and consequently, experienced tire issues. And there have been weepers at Texas Motor Speedway, Charlotte and Auto Club Speedway -- serious enough to delay the action until the following day.
But the second stoppage was annoying. Necessary, but annoying. Jimmie Johnson claimed the pothole got him. Ditto Clint Bowyer, whose splitter broke after hitting the pothole. AJ Allmendinger led 11 laps and was running in the top 10 when he was a victim after the first patching job. (Still no explanation why his car had to be hooked to a wrecker and 'Dinger was forced to the infield care center when he didn't hit anything.)
Yes, we've all sat through rain delays in past -- outdoor sports are not immune to the elements. It just seems curious that in 2010, technology hasn't caught up with racing surfaces. Maybe it's time.
The week's best
Here are five things we learned from Speedweeks:
1) What next? --The Daytona 500 kicks off the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, but seldom is it an indicator of which teams will maintain success throughout the remainder of the year.
The last two 500 victors -- Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman -- failed to qualify for the Chase later that year. Out of last year's top 10 finishers in the 500, only two drivers went on to qualify for the Chase. Kevin Harvick, the 2007 500 winner, finished 10th in the point standings but has yet to win a points race since.
Will things be different for Jamie McMurray? He seems much more relaxed back at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Ganassi believes Mac's nature towards being a team player will blend in well with the current climate. Teammate Juan Pablo Montoya comes from a style of racing where the alpha driver rules the roost. If JP can adapt, this will be a formidable duo.
2) Crystal ball -- What does Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s second-place finish portend for 2010? After last year's 500, Sunday was a dramatic improvement. The bottom line: Junior was happy, not just for himself but for the entire team.
"It's great for our team to have a finish good anywhere no matter what," said Earnhardt Jr. "I'm happy for the finish and it validates the changes they made and the hard work they've done over the off season to get better. I just hope we can keep it up."
The next two races will offer a better indication of the No. 88 team's potential this season. Fontana has never been kind to Junior. His average finish at the track is 22nd. He's scored three top-five finishes in 16 starts on the 2-mile track. Las Vegas has been a mixed bag for Earnhardt. His average finish in the desert is 17.8, but his last two finishes are second and 10th.
If Earnhardt can post solid finishes through Atlanta, he should be able to build a strong foundation for the season.
3) Reversal of Fortunes -- While it's not likely that the Joe Gibbs Racing cars will stay down for long, it was surprising to see Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin not factoring into the race on Sunday. On the flipside, Michael Waltrip Racing placed two cars in the top six including Martin Truex Jr., making his debut with the organization and new crew chief Pat Tryson.
The most improved effort has to go to Richard Childress Racing. The organization received a wake-up call last season when the EGR cars regularly outpaced the RCR cars with the same engines. Childress had to reevaluate the program, identify the weaknesses and go to work. Given the history of RCR's speedway program, it wasn't surprising that Kevin Harvick led the most laps (41), followed by Clint Bowyer (37) and both finished in the top 10. Had it not been for the new green-white-checker rule, Harvick would have won the race.
RCR struggled with four cars last season. Don't be surprise if smaller suits this organization better in 2010.
4) Blue Oval Brigade -- Roush Fenway Racing's usual suspects -- Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth -- all finished in the top 10 on Sunday. Kenseth finished eighth in the debut of the RF9 engine but failed to lead a lap. Biffle led the most laps (27) for Roush and 16th-place finisher David Ragan also made an appearance at the point (2).
Elliott Sadler, who also ran the new Ford engine, held the point for nine circuits. Paul Menard (13th) was the top finishing Ford from Richard Petty Motorsports, but AJ Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne were strong throughout the day. Bill Elliott encountered problem in the closing laps, but the Wood Brothers entry was never a factor. As for the newcomers from Front Row Motorsports, the two entries in the race finished outside of the top 30. When Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland are reunited at California, look for the former Yates teammates to pick up the pace, but they'll have difficulty keeping up with their fellow blue oval boys from Roush and RPM.
5) Don't shoot the messenger -- NASCAR should not be judged by the Daytona 500 alone. Last year's double-file restart combined with three attempts at green flag finishes will go a long way to stimulate the racing action. To see the competition return to the drivers' hands with less interference from the tower should go a long way to improving the show.