We've learned a lot; we'll know more soon
There's a lot worth talking about coming off the Daytona 500, but one thing Rusty Wallace isn't going to question is the finish of the race.
The first race is over and things start settling down in Nextel Cup.
Here's my interpretation of the things I saw in the Daytona 500 and what we might expect to see in this weekend's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.
Harvick is the legitimate Daytona 500 winner
The finish at the Daytona 500 has been going back and forth in my mind all week.
You look at it this way as a driver: You want to win the race. With cars crashing behind them, there's a point where Kevin Harvick was leading, a point where Mark Martin got back in the lead and then the point where Harvick got back out front and crossed the finish line that way.
It's controversial. A driver wants to say to himself "I won the Daytona 500 legitimately." I think Harvick can go home and say exactly that. First, NASCAR awarded it to him. Second, Harvick can tell himself that if nobody was wrecking behind him, that if nothing had gone wrong, he still was going to win the race.
The wreck had nothing to do with him passing Martin. Harvick should have no trouble telling himself he won that race. He didn't win it on a technicality. If Martin won the race, he would have won it on a technicality.
I keep coming back to the fact that had the wreck never occurred, Kevin Harvick was going to win the race.
With both leading at different points as the cars were spinning behind them, the only proper call is the one NASCAR made, and that was to let Harvick and Martin race to the finish.
What we learned at Daytona
The biggest statement you can make after Daytona is NASCAR isn't going to tolerate cheating.
There is a new precedent. If you do cheat, we are looking at fines bigger than anyone ever imagined. Crew people have to think about their livelihood. They risk being thrown out of NASCAR if they're caught. How do you tell your family -- your kids -- "Hey, dad cheated and is out of work and now we're broke."
That's a tough position to be in.
Look at Larry Carter, who used to be my crew chief. He was over at Michael Waltrip Racing to be crew chief for David Reutimann until leaving just before thiss season started for Roush Fenway Racing. Waltrip Racing, of course, was at the center of the cheating controversy at Daytona with the substance found in the intake manifold of Michael Waltrip's car. Carter was Waltrip's crew chief last year and this year he was supposed to be all over the Waltrip garage.
He could have been involved in all that scandal, and I can tell you Carter came out of a crystal-clean program at Penske Racing. But still, he easily could have been involved in the Waltrip scandal. Maybe he loses his job if he stays. That's pretty scary.
It's a new day in NASCAR. New fines and penalties. Really a different way of looking at the sport.
Also interesting at Daytona, Robert Yates Racing appears to be back. Not just because David Gilliland and Ricky Rudd started on the front row but those two also spent a lot of time near the front during the race. Wrecks at the finish put a dent in Rudd's showing, but Yates performed well.
I also was surprised by the aggressive driving in the last 50 laps.
I think Jack Roush said it best. He was asked what he thought we'd see in the last few laps and he said, "It's going to get expensive."
He was dead right when he said that.
Tires don't have enough grip
This might be a little controversial and the folks at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company are my friends, but they have to get a handle on these tires.
Goodyear makes great tires, one of the most durable tires on the planet, but I believe it's gone too far with the durability in NASCAR.
It's come at the expense of grip. They always have been really bad that if a tire shows it's close to wearing out too fast, they just go make it harder. Now the tire is awfully hard.
A lot of people have complained about it. There needs to be enough grip in the tires that these drivers can control the cars. The tire at Charlotte last year was way too hard. The tire at Daytona this year was way too hard. There's a lot of wrecks because there isn't enough grip. It's not all Goodyear's fault, but it needs to take a hard look at getting more grip back into their tires. Goodyear has gotten too conservative.
It's going to be very different this week. Daytona is its own style of racing. Now we're off to California where it's all about downforce. Then it's off to Las Vegas with a brand new track no one has raced on yet. Everybody has tested there, but we're looking at three races in a row completely different.
California is a snapshot of who will look good on the high-downforce tracks.
It's about downforce and horsepower and some obviously will perform better than others.
I expect to see Kasey Kahne -- and the Dodgers -- run really well. I expect to see Jimmie Johnson do well and Jeff Gordon have a resurgence. I expect Kyle Busch to be good, too. He's got a lot of wildness left in him, but he's getting better and better.
I think teams that struggled last year with the soft-spring front setup -- the coil-bind setup -- used at California will have trouble this year. So much time is spent on testing for Daytona that the soft-spring setup just doesn't get tested out.
Harvick has said California's one of his worst tracks, but I think he has this kind of setup figured out now.
California will be a good look at what the downforce races might look like, but that track is slick and it's a different shape than most, so it won't be a true example of what we can expect the rest of the way. When will we really know what we've got? Atlanta on March 18.
Surprises good and bad
Martin's Ginn Racing U.S. Army team was a great surprise.
To be there fighting for the win at the finish was a great achievement. Typical Mark Martin, being conservative and not sticking his nose in a dangerous place early in the race and then fighting for the lead nearer the end.
Jimmie Johnson was on the other end of the spectrum.
He didn't qualify well, didn't race well and didn't finish well. He ran into the wall all by himself coming into Turn 2. Again in Turn 2, this time in the middle lane, he spun out all by himself.
He never got any rhythm at Daytona -- finishing 39th -- and I never saw that one coming.
Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace is the lead NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch Series analyst. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at rustywallace.com.
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