Crazy-silly Daytona 500 thrills, chills
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A stunned 20-year-old Trevor Bayne had just taken the checkered flag in Sunday's Daytona 500 when an equally stunned crew chief Steve Letarte approached Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the garage.
"Man! I've seen everything now!" Letarte said as he interrupted Earnhardt's inspection of the car he wrecked on the first green-white-checkered restart.
Letarte went on to tell Earnhardt how David Ragan was black-flagged for moving in front of Bayne before the start-finish line on the second green-white-checkered restart.
He then explained all the other craziness that occurred over the final two laps of a crazy day before Bayne did the craziest thing and put the Wood Brothers into Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway for the first time since David Pearson in a wild 1976 finish with Richard Petty.
Earnhardt smiled and shook his head.
It was that kind of day.
It began with impatience that saw about half the field, including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip, taken out before the race was 30 laps old. It ended with impatience that saw Ragan make a mistake that might have cost him a career-changing win and Earnhardt get collected in yet another multicar wreck.
As exciting as it was at times, as dramatic as it was at the end, this tandem racing raised as many questions as it did expectations.
Earnhardt was clear on what he thought about it before the first green-white-checkered, radioing to Letarte, "This racing sucks."
He didn't back off that stance as he surveyed the damage to his car.
"This type of racing, man, it's not very good because I can't see where I'm going when I'm pushing somebody and I think that caused most of the wrecks," NASCAR's most popular driver said. "We don't need to be shoving each other all the way around the racetrack, and we can make cars where they don't have to do that.
"We need to make them where they run 197 [mph] by themselves, in the draft without any help. But we probably won't see that."
Earnhardt, as he's been saying throughout Speedweeks, says NASCAR needs to bring cars back here to test and find a way to eliminate two cars being able to push each other all the way around this 2.5-mile surface. He has suggested the restrictor plates be made larger, arguing the higher speeds will make it tougher to stay linked because the cars will be less stable.
He may have trouble convincing Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, who was pleased with the results.
But is this buddy racing really what NASCAR wants?
"Hopefully, we don't quite approve of what we saw," Earnhardt said. "It's a good product and it was a great race and we had a great winner, an awesome ending, but we have awesome endings to all the races -- even the boring ones.
"I think we can do better, and I think NASCAR understands. Hopefully, we can make some good things happen, put some testing together. Going this slow, getting run over, getting pushed around ... don't like that."
He gets no argument from Pearson, who before seeing his familiar No. 21 paint scheme return to Victory Lane said, "I don't like it. It's not really drafting. It's just pushing each other. And it's dangerous. I don't care what anybody says, it's got to be dangerous. If the front car wiggles and he's still against them he's going to spin him out."
We saw that -- over and over with only 20 of 43 cars on the lead lap at the end.
Not everybody will agree that this is bad for the sport. Tandem racing creates strategies and plots that add a degree of excitement not seen in most races. It demands the mental toughness that the so-called greatest drivers in the world shouldn't mind exercising for two to four times a season.
"My head hurts," second-place Carl Edwards said. "I don't know if it's from dehydration or stress."
The stress was high on all at the beginning. Perhaps that's what created the impatience at the start. Drivers were fearful that if they didn't find a good partner early and push their way to the front they'd be left behind.
"That's true," Gordon said. "For those first 10 cars, yeah, that makes sense. And when the field thins out that makes sense. But on restarts when they're two- and three-wide, to be that intense at the start of the Daytona 500 ... it's a long race. That's the part I don't quite understand."
This type of racing, man, it's not very good because I can't see where I'm going when I'm pushing somebody and I think that caused most of the wrecks. We don't need to be shoving each other all the way around the racetrack, and we can make cars where they don't have to do that.” -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Neither does Waltrip , involved in two incidents in which the driver he was pushing -- Kyle Busch the first time and David Reutimann the second -- lost control moving along his bumper with other cars around.
The second on Lap 29 sparked a 14-car melee that made the garage busier than concession stands around the packed facility.
"I hate it when you have to be so aggressive early, and maybe you don't," Waltrip said after seeing his bid to win a third Daytona 500 on the 10th anniversary of his first end. "You can see [by all the wrecked cars] waiting around would have been a good idea.
"It's crazy. Damn, it's hard. You're just so focused. You're watching your temperature gauge. You're watching the car ahead of you. You're wondering what's up ahead. You're wondering who is catching you from behind. There are just so many things happening mentally, it's almost impossible to keep up."
It wasn't easy for crew chiefs, either, who spent as much time adjusting to all the changes NASCAR made to slow the cars and prevent them from pushing for long periods of time as they did on setups.
"To me, it's not necessarily racing when you have to have somebody with you stay up there," said Greg Zipadelli, Joey Logano's crew chief. "If I finished in the top 10 maybe I would feel different about it, but to me it was the same old deal ... more than half the field was tore up."
Nobody was more torn up than Ragan, standing between two toolboxes dealing with his huge mistake that wouldn't have happened under the old-style plate pack racing.
"A year ago, you wouldn't have worried about [moving down]," he said. "You could have floored it and gone as fast as you can. You've got to have that valuable partner 100 percent of the time.
"It was pretty wild. We tried to stay out of it most of the race. There at the end it was wild and crazy. Hopefully it was good for the fans. It was crazy from where we were sitting."
Waltrip may have put things in perspective best -- a scary thought -- as he sat on the hood of his car and surveyed about $100,000 of damage.
"Listen, listen, listen," he said. "We started doing this in the '80s with the plates. It was one style. And then it was the next. And then it was the next. And every one of them in the media didn't like it.
"This is the way we race. And people are totally driving their ass off to win the greatest race in the world. It's intense. It's action-packed. If you're a car owner it's a little bit frustrating. If you're a fan it's over the top."
No arguments here.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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2011 Daytona 500
The 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is on the horizon, with a new racing surface greeting competitors heading into a new season of hope. It all begins Feb. 20 at Daytona International Speedway.