<
>

New car does bang-up job at Daytona

2/8/2009 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Two wrongs finally made a right in my book Saturday night.

If there must be restrictor-plate racing, then the new car is the boxy armored car to do it in.

That was confirmed more than ever in the Bud Shootout, won by Kevin Harvick, who rolled into Victory Lane in a battered Chevrolet that looked like it had been in a short-track brawl.

"I don't think the old car would have stood up to it," Harvick said of the beating he gave the No. 29 from early on in the Shootout. "We hit the wall pretty good there in the beginning of the race, and it tore the left-front fender off and split it at the seam. We were able to get that fixed" during the intermission after the first segment.

"This car is tough," he said. "If you can keep all the fenders and all the tires going in the same direction, and the nose on it, you've still got a chance."

He counted up the poundings.

"I think we hit the wall a couple of times. I hit the 16 [Greg Biffle] as he wrecked. So it was an eventful night."

With the old car, the slightest dimples in the contact of plate racing could throw off the aerodynamics enough to cost a driver a win here.

But the ugly, boxy, clumsy, much-maligned -- by drivers and fans alike -- Car of Tomorrow, or new car, or Car of Today … well, it just takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'.

Most illustrative was Biffle's Ford, which was knocked into the infield twice and still survived to wreck a third time, finally succumbing to a slam into the wall.

Jeff Gordon knocked Biffle loose the first time, and Jimmie Johnson's car nailed Biffle in that same wreck. Gordon's car sustained some front-end damage, and Johnson's car hit squarely on its nose into Biffle's side.

But both Gordon and Johnson motored on, strongly enough to be factors to the last lap, though Johnson finally wrecked out at the end.

Jamie McMurray, who finished second after leading going into the green-white-checkered overtime, moved up trying to block Harvick.

"I thought I was far enough up toward the wall that he couldn't fit through there," McMurray said.

But in his Panzer -- er, COT -- Harvick barreled right on through and made the pass.

"I figured we'd just see what happened," Harvick said with a contented smile.

Harvick took the lead with little more than a second or two to spare, just ahead of a wreck that broke out in his mirrors -- Casey Mears knocked Johnson into Denny Hamlin -- froze the field for keeps on the last lap.

Other than acknowledging its safety features, I've been as harsh a critic of the new car as there has been. And about 90 percent of readers I hear from despise the thing.

But maybe we should cut the ugly duckling some slack, because it is the second wrong that makes the right.

I've always criticized plate racing for creating an artificial show -- the racing is close only because drivers can't get away from one another with their stifled engines.

And if the all-time maestro of plate racing, the late Dale Earnhardt, loathed it and always said "this ain't real racin'" whenever he won one of the things, that was enough confirmation for me.

But if you're going show-biz with plates rather than racing for real, you might as well go totally show-biz with a tank that's up to the four-wide door-slamming and the bump-drafting, and enhances the aerodynamic pushing, shoving and pulling that is the fan appeal of plate racing.

(The Earnhardt camp may not agree, because defending Shootout champion Dale Earnhardt Jr., who'd hinted at having the strongest car at times, got turned at a bad angle by Paul Menard late in the race, so that Earnhardt's car did suffer race-ending damage.)

Even McMurray thought the way he lost was "cool," compared to what the old car would and wouldn't do here.

"The leader is kind of a sitting duck with this car, which is cool, because you can pass him," McMurray said. "In the other car, with a green-white-checkered, I don't think you'd have seen a pass, because you couldn't get the shoves and pushes you can with this car."

In yet another twist with this car, McMurray felt he lost mainly because, ironically, he didn't get on his brakes enough.

"When you're the leader, you're getting pushed so far out front that you have to drag the brakes a little bit so that you don't get too big of a gap between you and the pack. Because you know they're going to come, and you can't even move up to block them because they're coming so fast.

"It's hard, when you come to the white flag, to drag the brakes. And I just let those guys get too big of a gap on me."

There was four-wide racing at times, with so much door-banging that at moments it almost appeared drivers had their elbows out the windows, shoving one another aside like roller-derby skaters.

Harvick's team owner, Richard Childress, said the show was "definitely worth the price of admission," but the trouble was, by my estimate, only about 30,000 paid to see it.

Daytona's 110,000-seat fronstretch grandstands were about 25-30 percent full. The 60,000-seat backstretch grandstands weren't even open for the Shootout.

But that's not necessarily a forecast of the economy's impact on attendance throughout next week.

Shootout crowds have occasionally been light through the years, for several reasons. Because the race is somewhat isolated from the brunt of Speedweeks -- Thursday's twin 150-mile qualifiers through Sunday's 500 -- attendance for the Shootout is largely local.

Not until the out-of-state fans get here next week will there be a clear indication of the recession's impact on Speedweeks -- although the Daytona 500 still isn't sold out yet.

But for those who can afford to come, a maligned car design and an artificial kind of racing just might combine to make it worth the price of admission next Sunday.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.