WALTRIP: Daytona - My Take

Well I am back from 10 days in Daytona. Speedweeks 2013 were, in my book, simply amazing. I’ve been going over my notes about what we saw and learned while we all were down there. Remember that we landed in Florida with a lot of unknowns about this season, a majority of the questions centering on the Generation 6 car.

I had made a bold prediction that Danica Patrick would win the pole position for the Daytona 500 — and she did. That set off a weeklong whirlwind of media coverage about Danica and the Daytona 500.

I realize that while Danica has a lot of fans, there are also a lot of folks who are sick of hearing about her and believe she is overrated. What she did two Sundays ago in snagging the top spot in qualifying and then following that up with the great run this past Sunday in the Daytona 500, to me solidified her place in stock-car racing.

To me, she is a race car driver, not simply a female race car driver. There is no other sport where woman compete against men and everyone is on a level playing surface. When she gets behind the wheel of her No. 10 car, that machine doesn’t know she’s a woman.

On the outside pole Sunday was the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon. Jeff is a four-time Sprint Cup champion and the series’ winningest driver in the modern era. Yet he and Danica were in virtually the same equipment, racing against each other on the same track, and by the same rules. Neither one has an advantage. It’s a level playing field.

Show me another sport were woman directly compete against men and win other than racing. Drag racing has John Force’s daughters who have beaten the guys. In the sport of stock-car racing, what Danica is doing is, well, historic. I mean it simply has never been done before.

A woman has never won a pole position in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series until Danica. Then during the race, she became the first female to lead a lap under green in Cup series history before setting a record for the highest finish by a woman in the Daytona 500 at eighth. If all that wasn’t great enough, she was there at the end of the race with a real shot to win it.

Two years ago, Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere in only his second NASCAR Sprint Cup series race and turned our sport on its ear. We all were amazed by what that rookie was able to accomplish. Now two years later, Danica Patrick has done the same thing. We are once again amazed by what a rookie driver is doing.

Like it or not, she is changing our sport. “Gentlemen start your engines” and “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity — Let’s Go Racin’ Boys” both had to change. The way we call the race had to change, as well, with her in the lineup. As I mentioned last week, veteran crew chief Tony Gibson said he has never experienced so many young girls just trying to get a glimpse of Danica in his life.

The television ratings for this year’s Daytona 500 were huge. It was one of the most-watched Daytona 500s in years. It was a great race. Jimmie Johnson got his second Daytona 500 win and the first for crew chief Chad Knaus. Amazingly, Jimmie won his first Daytona 500 in 2006 without Chad, who was on suspension from NASCAR for a rules infraction at the time.

Back in January when we had the three-day Daytona test, Jimmie and his No. 48 ran solo. He and Chad worked on their car and didn’t worry about anyone else. Their belief has always been that if they can make their car faster running solo, then it will be really bad-fast running in the draft.

They used the same approach when we came down here in this month for the start of Speedweeks. Very seldom did you see that car anywhere near the cars out drafting. In fact, we had nicknamed the No. 48 as “Mr. Lonely.”

If you look at his Daytona 500 results between his first and second wins, you’ll see his average finish is pretty bleak. Remember what happened last year? Jimmie only made one full lap in the Daytona 500 and got wrecked out (with Danica, in fact). So, many of us began to question Jimmie and Chad about whether their approach to Daytona really was that effective.

Guess what? After the performance by the No. 48 in Sunday’s 55th running of the Daytona 500, I for one won’t be questioning Jimmie and Chad about their strategy ever again. Sunday also marked Jimmie’s 400th start in NASCAR’s premier series as well as his 61st victory. Jimmie joined a very elite group of drivers to win in their 400th start —Dale Earnhardt Sr., Lee and Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dave Marcis.

Granted this was only the first race for the new car, but initially you have to believe it has also leveled the playing field for the little teams versus the big teams. Just go take a look at the top-10 finishers from Sunday’s race if you don’t believe me. You had Regan Smith, Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley all in under-funded teams bringing home a top-10 finish. That’s just great for those teams from a prestige stand point, but also don’t forget that those high finishes mean bigger purse money for them which hopefully will go a long way in letting them race more often.

After what I saw Friday night in the Camping World Series truck race and then Saturday afternoon in the Nationwide race, I’ll be the first to admit I was on the edge of my seat all day long Sunday waiting to see what was going to break loose. Speaking of Saturday, you’ve all seen the horrific crash on the last lap of the race that unfortunately injured a number of race fans as parts of Kyle Larson’s car broke apart and went into the grandstands. Race car drivers know and accept the risks. Race fans are there to support their favorite driver, support the sport and soak in the pure entertainment value. Please be sure to keep those injured fans in your thoughts and prayers for a speedy recovery.

We had a fantastic finish Sunday. For a brief moment, I thought Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to pull a rabbit out of his hat and win the race. He and Mark Martin came out of nowhere with a full head of steam and challenged Jimmie for the win. If Jimmie hadn’t cut down and blocked them a bit, we might very well be celebrating Dale Jr. as the winner of Sunday's race.

From the Sprint Unlimited race, the Duels last Thursday, and like I mentioned the Truck, Nationwide and Cup races, the 2013 Daytona Speedweeks ranks as one of the overall best in my book. The energy, excitement and enthusiasm never waned. Everyone could especially feel it on Sunday for the 500, whether you were in the grandstands, down on pit road, working the TV broadcast or even at home.

We had celebrities everywhere. James Franco was there. So was Ray Lewis. Rapper 50 Cent hung out with Mark Martin. Our NASCAR on FOX team did an amazing job, but we really had an amazing product to work with. This begins our 13th year together doing the race broadcasts and I really believe it was one of the best Daytona 500’s we’ve ever had. The ratings will sure back that up for me.

There were a hundred different storylines. Carl Edwards probably hopes he doesn’t see Daytona again for a while once you add up all the sheet-metal of his that got torn up. Kevin Harvick, driving in his last year for Richard Childress, won the Sprint Unlimited and one of the Duel races, but Sunday wasn’t his day.

The same can be said for Tony Stewart. Smoke won the Nationwide race on Saturday, but didn’t win again on Sunday. Trust me, I’ve seen this movie and I know how it ends. It took me 17 tries to get my Daytona 500 victory. It took Dale Earnhardt Sr. even longer. Tony has won everything there is to win at Daytona, except the big one.

I am excited to see this car at Phoenix this weekend and then at Las Vegas next weekend. On the 1-mile track this weekend, expect to see this new car fly. This new car is loaded with horsepower and downforce. Those are two of a driver’s best friends. Expect this car to be fast everywhere we go and expect to see new track records. Remember, they put this new car on a diet, too, as its 150 pounds lighter. Throw that into the mix and expect to hear the words “bad fast” a lot in these next few weeks.

I just really believe we are on the verge of seeing some of the greatest racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series that we have had in a long, long time. Remember, I don’t make bold predictions, I make good predictions.