Disappointed in the lack of
side-by-side racing in Sunday’s Daytona 500?
Don’t blame NASCAR’s new, Generation 6 race car.
Much of Sunday’s 2013 season opener was spent in single-file formation, with drivers huddled passively against the outside SAFER barrier, logging laps, playing it safe and attempting few – if any – passes. A number of drivers expressed unhappiness with the race’s “better safe than sorry” tempo, with Jeff Gordon complaining via in-car radio, "I think we're fast enough to get past a lot of these cars. If (someone would) step out with us, we could make it work."
Eventual second-place finisher Dale Earnhardt, Jr., sang a similar tune, telling crew chief Steve Letarte, “Nobody wants to go with anybody.” Clint Bowyer groused in a midrace Motor Racing Network radio conversation, “I’m getting antsy. I keep asking (crew chief) Brian Pattie, `Can I go yet? This is boring!’”
And yet, no one broke from the rank and file until the final 20 laps, when a ho-hum Daytona 500 suddenly turned into a no-holds barred nail biter. Finally off his leash, Earnhardt busted out the first in a series of scintillating three-wide moves, catapulting his National Guard Chevrolet through the middle of a snarling pack of race cars en route to his second runner-up Daytona 500 finish in the last four seasons.
While Junior hammered away in Daytona's dangerous middle groove, Jimmie Johnson staked claim to the supposedly unworkable inside line, gathering up a handful of drafting partners and overhauling leader Brad Keselowski in the last of 28 lead changes on the day. Johnson held off his hard-charging Hendrick Motorsports teammate by a car length at the line to claim his second career Daytona 500 victory, and even he executed his post-race victory burnout, unhappy fans clogged social media with complaints and demands for major rule changes.
“Why couldn’t they do THAT all day long,” they asked. “Why were the first 180 laps so boring?”
The answer has nothing to do with rules, and everything to do with intent. The final 20 laps of Sunday’s race proved beyond all doubt that NASCAR’s new car can compete side-by-side, if the drivers elect to do so.
So why did they wait so long to release the hounds Sunday?
In the aftermath of a savage Nationwide Series crash that rained debris into the grandstands and sent more than two dozen fans to area hospitals a day earlier, a certain degree of discretion was perhaps understandable. Veteran Mark Martin gave voice to that sentiment, saying, “I was happy we were able to race and not have a huge accident.”
In Victory Lane, Johnson indicated that the scarcity of parts for the new, Gen-6 cars may also have played a role, saying, "When we were running single file, we were just trying to get to the finish. We've all crashed so much. I believe a lot of competitors wanted to get to the last pit stop and then race for it, instead of tearing up their equipment."
Bottom line? The drivers could have raced harder yesterday, but chose not to. Blame the pilot, not the airplane
Earnhardt attempted to calm the fan base after the checkered flag, saying, "The car is doing everything we hoped it would do. The package is really good. The (track) surface is still relatively new. If we had the old surface with this car, it would have been an incredible race, people sliding around and wearing tires out.
A minor rule change may ultimately be in order, but a better, more competitive attitude on the part of the drivers will help even more.
When the desire was there Sunday, the drivers could race.
They just needed a little more “want to.”