Sunday, July 02, 2017

Hot As A Firecracker At Daytona

The first half of NASCAR's debut season with Monster Energy sponsorship saw surprises galore and the second half kicks off in basically the same fashion.   For Daytona International Speedway competitive rejuvenation could not be limited to February.

Things got off to a messy start, though, as rain stopped the Firecracker 250 for the Xfinity Series after just eight laps on Friday night - leading to the bizarre spectacle of racing being interrupted by the speedway's odd decision to schedule an ultimate fighting card in the infield; intended to follow the conclusion of the 250, the fight card wound up finishing up the night while the racing resumed the next afternoon.

The wait was worth it as newcomers swerved Joey Logano out of the lead and William Byron fought off Ryan Reid, while a lot of others got the worst of it at the end.   Seeing Byron taking down the Cup guys in the Xfinity Series was a huge shot for the series, a series struggling with lack of TV money the same way the Trucks (and other NASCAR touring series) have been struggling.

NASCAR, though, still needs to work on deciding the outcome when the leaders have room to race to the flag - with writer Jeff Gluck expanding on this.

It was impossible not to feel a sense of cynicism when Dale Earnhardt Jr. - in his last Winston Cup run at Daytona - conveniently won the pole, and that isn't fair to Junior, who is not his dad and has never had the negative qualities that made his dad controversial (a fact swept under the rug for the last decade-plus by fans and media); Dale Junior is his own man and as such has carried himself with a level of professionalism that is refreshing and necessary for a sport that bizarrely obsesses itself with an ostensible lack of personality.    His Daytona effort ended with Kevin Harvick's blown tire.

Joey Logano's version of the 24 Hours of Daytona ended the same way in the 400 as it did in the 250 - in a wreck, this one with Kyle Busch, who nonetheless stayed on the lead lap to the end.   Combined with Martin Truex's involvement, and it illustrates there is a problem of lack of competitive depth for the Toyota squadron.   The Toyotas have been well behind in overall results of the three marques and with just two teams - JGR and Barney Visser's two cars - the Toyotas are suffering compared to Chevy and Ford.

Not that the Toyotas lacked power, as shown in terrific combat for the lead for Stage Two bonus points.    If Toyota had two more organizations in their fleet their depth would unquestionably benefit the entirety of the fleet.

The resurgence of Ford showed in Speedweeks and it showed again in a fittingly thrilling finish to a highly competitive race, and Ricky Stenhouse offered a sense of validation for his spectacular Winston 500 win, while David Ragan offered some validation for himself and his team.   The most brilliant drive, though, may have been Darrell Wallace Jr. - a pitiful qualifying effort turned into a solid draft to the front and suddenly Richard Petty's #43 was in the hunt, and even battling Ryan Blaney's #21 in a NASCAR Time Tunnel moment.

Kyle Larson's swerve to chop off Stenhouse can be best described as ill-advised and the result was a late red flag.   Darrell Wallace Jr. was one of the cars involved after he pitted under a previous yellow.   To rally to finish fifteenth under the circumstances isn't something to be ashamed of; it certainly showed Wallace can race - big time - and it also leaves Petty's organization with a dilemma once Aric Almirola returns - one that a rumored merger with an existing team can solve.

Also earning respect were Chris Buescher and Corey LaJoie, quietly racing to the top-11.   But the biggest validation may have been Michael McDowell, whose wildcard victory bid fell just short - an illustration of the competitive depth the sport has needed and needs to sustain.  


Some of the big picture takeaways -

Ford is the strongest brand in the series with the most depth.   Chevrolet got stronger than expected results from RCR while Hendrick is clearly no longer the juggernaut - and one has to start wondering whether Chase Elliott is improving because we're not seeing it right now - he runs good, but contention for the actual win is conspicuously missing of late.

RCR isn't the only struggling former juggernaut that has shown rebound - Stenhouse's win continues the resurgence of Roush Racing.   Now they and the other Fords have to beat the Penskes on the non-plate tracks.  

Stewart-Haas Racing appears to have slipped; while still stout SHR's fleet hasn't been the juggernaut some thought they'd be - and more and more the scuttlebutt is there will be a driver change at the expense of the inept Danica Patrick.

The next restrictor plate race won't be Talladega in October - the Xfinity Series debuts the restrictor plate and drag ducts at Indianapolis in three weeks, and suddenly an expected Kyle Busch runaway for an Xfinity Series race isn't a sure thing between the stronger drafting effect shown in testing and also the rise of William Byron into star status.  

The sport's rejuvenation in the competition is needed and welcome, but also needed is a culture change away from the circle the wagons mindset that has long plagued the sport. The recent controversy over the Truck Series created by Kevin Harvick and several others is a step in the right direction, but some dissenting analysis always remains a necessity.

So it goes with fireworks unable to match the spectacle of the Firecracker 400.

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