- Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR
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As any Cup Series racer will tell you, it's time to start thinking about Fontana and getting on with NASCAR's "Regular Season." They'll also tell you that after a dozen days of Daytona Speedweeks, it takes at least that long to shake the sand out of your ears.
With that in mind, let's take a look back at the best and worst of the 51st edition of the Great American Race and all that surrounds it.
The Budweiser Shootout is usually an overhyped dud (little known fact, Dale Earnhardt won the Shootout/Clash six times, and he hated it). However, squirrely racecars and an overanxious gang of drivers led to a solid hour of madness, ending with an out-of-nowhere victory by Kevin Harvick.
"I don't know how it looked on TV, but that was the most exciting Shootout I've seen here at Daytona in long time," said fourth place finisher Jeff Gordon.
As usual, Mr. Four-Time, we agree with you.
Best Race, Runner-Up
Ever since the Truck Series showed up at Daytona in 2000, they have not only put on some of the best races in Daytona history, but some of the best events in NASCAR history. In two hours we had 15 lead changes among 12 drivers (the 500 had nine and nine in two hours, 51 minutes) and Todd Bodine's margin of victory was .249 seconds. In every Truck race that's finished under green (seven of the 10 races), the difference between first and second has been three tenths of a second or less.
The ARCA event that preceded the Shootout on Saturday looked like a race being run by a bunch of kindergarten students playing a stock car game on a Wii.
Worst Race, Runner-Up
Pole qualifying isn't really a race, but the fact that Daytona and Talladega actually charge fans money to watch three hours of restrictor plate qualifying should be investigated by the people who are looking into the torture methods used at Guantanamo.
Matt Kenseth may have won the big race, but Harvick served notice that he's ready to finally make a run at the Cup with his stunning Shootout win and runner-up finish in the rain-shortened 500. Says Happy: "If that last caution had come out one lap later I think we're celebrating our second Daytona 500 win."
Dale Earnhardt Junior finished 18th in the Shootout, seventh in his Duel 150 and wound up 27th in the Daytona 500 after receiving two pit road violations and causing the biggest wreck of the night. Bad week.
Worst Week, Runner-Up
Joey Logano finished dead last in his first 500 after a wreck. Welcome to the big leagues, Sliced Bread.
Best Victory Lane Celebration
Gordon's victory in the first Duel 150 snapped a losing streak so long that he really hadn't been able to celebrate with daughter Ella in Victory Lane. As soon as he climbed from his car, he dodged the TV camera and went straight for her, to which she yelled, "Daddy!" If watching that didn't make you smile, then you probably enjoy slapping ice cream cones out of children's hands and setting people's Christmas presents on fire.
Best Hotel Freebie
Every Inn on the Daytona Beach was giving away free copies of Speed Dating, one of Harlequin's NASCAR themed romance novels. The storyline: accountant Kendall Clarke assesses risk for a living, but goes against her natural instincts and falls for racing hotshot Dylan Hargreave. There's even a cameo by Carl Edwards, whom our heroine stumbles upon while trying to sort out her relationship with Dylan, and he immediately begins doling out romance advice—"A good woman might have to push a little bit to get what she wants." Kendall takes his advice and gets her man. But sorry ladies, there's no Fabio-like portrait of Edwards on the cover.
Worst Hotel Freebie
There was a stack of flyers in the lobby of the Quality Inn promoting the grand opening a club called Ruby's and a book signing by "Malik Yoba, star of 'NY Undercover'" … scheduled for April 7, 2006.
Best New Paint Scheme
Jeff Gordon's DuPont ride has finally made the transition from rainbow to bad-ass, thanks to his new super-dark blue paint job wrapped with old-school hot rod flames.
Worst New Paint Scheme
It's not that Jeff Burton's 31 Caterpillar ride looks bad … it's just that I can't look at it without thinking about his big brother Ward.
Best Press Conference
Keith Urban made a stop in the Media Center to answer a few questions about doing a pre-race concert and ended up doing an impromptu set for the assembled writers and reporters. "It's my first time playing a press room," quipped the Aussie before launching into America's "Sister Golden Hair."
Worst Press Conference
The NASCAR on FOX broadcast team stopped by on Thursday morning to chat about the upcoming season, but the session was dominated by FOX Sports Chairman David Hill, who wouldn't stop talking about his new 3D animation vignettes "The Adventures of Digger and Friends." Digger, in case you don't know, is the groundhog who lives next to the in-track camera that FOX installs beneath Turn 4 each weekend. Hill is a certified television genius, but his plans for Digger seem more like a plan to sell t-shirts and stuffed animals than groundbreaking TV. When he nearly got into a shouting match with a newspaper writer that questioned the idea, the awkwardness was very, well, awkward.
Best Comedy Routine
On Friday, Tony Stewart stopped by with A.J. Foyt, his childhood hero and the man whose number 14 now graces Tony's new Cup ride. The two made like Abbott and Costello and had the Media Center rolling.
Best Press Conference Line
When asked to explain his longtime assertion that Stewart is just like himself, Foyt replied, "Well, excuse my French, but he's known to be an a**-hole sometimes."
Next Best Press Conference Line
When asked for the title of his favorite NASCAR movie, Urban—knowing that wife Nicole Kidman met her ex Tom Cruise while shooting Days of Thunder and that Cruise was in attendance as the pace car driver—stated flatly, "Cars."
Parking Jason Leffler for five laps after he wrecked Stephen Wallace in Saturday's Nationwide Race could turn out to be NASCAR's version of Bud Selig wondering aloud about suspending A-Rod for using steroids seven years ago. That's a can of snakes no one needed to open. Now every wreck is going to lead everyone to wonder why the punter wasn't parked … like we all did when Earnhardt was allowed to keep racing on Sunday.
Calling the 500 at 380 for rain. It poured for another two hours after Kenseth was declared the winner, and it would have taken at least two and a half hours past that to dry the track had they decided to wait it out. Finishing the race after midnight wouldn't have done anybody any good. Just ask anyone who was in attendance for last year's 21 Hours of Fontana. No one remembers who won that race, only that it took us two days to finish it. Trust me, I was there … and I have no idea.
The opening week of racing gave us plenty to ponder.