Commentary

A big Daytona letdown?

Updated: February 25, 2009, 4:15 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Speedweeks '09 was the longest and most exhausting, yet most productive, of my 11 beach jaunts to date. As I stood slumped at the US Airways check-in counter Monday afternoon following the 17 car's Daytona USA induction -- the Daytona 500-winning car always gets a one-year stay at the museum -- a gorgeous young woman approached me, guns-a-blazin', hand-on-hip, lips crinkled, madder than Rosie Perez when Billy Ho lost the dough.

She'd sat there all day in the grandstand to see her man, Junior, win the Daytona 500.

She'd screamed in glee when he surged to the lead and screamed in confusion when he missed his pit stall and screamed in concern when he wrecked a bunch of cars and screamed in nervousness when he slithered through the mayhem.

He was destined to win, prepared to pass all comers. It was fate. Then Mother Nature put him in the wall, and this, er, gorgeous young woman was now screaming in frustration about it -- at me.

She felt robbed. I let her explain herself for several minutes, until she requested, in no uncertain terms, affirmation that NASCAR had called the race entirely too early.

My rebuttal lasted roughly five minutes. I'll get to that in a moment.

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Dozens of folks in The Six shared her sentiment. Some, in fact, used all caps. My Daddy used to do that when he was hell-bent to make a point, so I figured it'd behoove me to pay attention.

MARTY,

YOU REPRESENT A CLOWN SHOW. NASCAR IS RIDICULOUS IN THE WAY THEY CHANGE RULES AND REGULATIONS ON THE SPOT. THE LEADERSHIP REMINDS ME OF A THIRD-WORLD COUNTRY.

AS A 61-YEAR-OLD MALE WHO CAME TO NASCAR 10 YEARS AGO AND ATTENDED RACES -- 2-3 A YEAR UNTIL THREE YEARS AGO -- I CAN'T GET THE CORRUPT TASTE OUT OF MY MOUTH.

IF BASEBALL PLAYS 162 GAMES A YEAR, AND THE LAST-PLACE TEAMS ARE PLAYING EACH OTHER, THEY WILL WAIT THREE HOURS FOR A RAIN DELAY. BUT NOT THE POWERS TO BE AT NASCAR. A RACE WITH THE TRADITION OF DAYTONA SHOULD BE RUN ALL 500 MILES, EVEN IF YOU COME BACK ON MONDAY.

WITH THE WEATHER LOOKING OMINOUS ON SUNDAY, START THE RACE AN HOUR EARLIER. PEOPLE DON'T LIKE ALL THE POMPOUS CEREMONIES EACH WEEK. I'M DONE FOR THE YEAR, BUT I STILL REALLY LIKE YOUR STYLE, KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK.

-- MAC, TAMPA, FL

I feel your pain, Mac, but respectfully disagree with part of your argument. Here's the five-minute rebuttal I offered the cute airport girl.

1. First of all, you have every right to feel cheated -- the finish was anticlimactic for the paying fan and the television viewer. But …
2. NASCAR was right.
3. It called the race roughly 10 minutes before 7 p.m. ET, having lost the track. (That's racing jargon for "It's damn wet out there, and the entire track is soaked.")
4. It takes roughly three hours to dry a track as big as Daytona International Speedway, meaning that had the rain stopped immediately and not restarted, the green would have dropped sometime near 10 p.m.
5. I left the track at 11 p.m., and the rain hadn't stopped.
6. Restarting the race Monday morning creates a completely different set of circumstances -- different track tendencies, temperature, sunshine, etc.
7. Team logistics, such as hotel rooms, travel, etc., were already secured.
8. Teams had to get back to North Carolina, unload/reload and be gone to Fontana by Tuesday. (What's that? Change the schedule?)
9. Matt Kenseth made a great point Monday morning during the car induction -- everyone saw a great race, even though it was finished under caution. Why? All 43 teams knew the weather was coming, and the drivers were racing as though their hair was on fire to get to the front.

To me, there's really no debate here. Again, you guys have every right to feel deflated, especially after the past several finishes at Daytona -- Harvick/Martin in February 2007; McMurray/Busch in the summer of '07; Newman/Busch in February 2008 and Edwards/Busch this past summer. That's what we've all come to expect, not a decision to call a race 15 minutes after it begins to rain.

Biggest race of the year or not, NASCAR made the proper call in the moment. And the comparison to other sports doesn't fly, either. Baseball is playable in damp or drizzly conditions with little to no effect. And once rain stops, you can immediately begin play again.

Race in damp or drizzly conditions, and you put drivers' lives at stake.

And again -- this is a critical difference -- in racing, you can't immediately resume competition.

Now, the late start time is a different story, entirely.

Marty,

I'm just as disappointed as everyone else here. Sunday was a joke. But the one thing that irks me the most is this. I have no problem with their calling the race when they did. What I have a problem with is throwing the green flag at 3:42 p.m. on a day when the evening hours are calling for a 60 percent chance of rain.

I understand that it's the 500, which means big prerace spectacle and all that jazz. But honestly, if I had paid money to go to the race, and the race ran into the rain because of a Keith Urban concert, I would've rioted.

If I'd wanted to see Keith Urban perform, I would buy a ticket to one of his concerts. NASCAR has moved races up to attempt to beat rain before, but not for the biggest, most prestigious race of the year? Gimme a break!

I will give NASCAR credit, though. It finds way after way after way to royally [tick] me off. And yet, for some reason that even I can't understand, I keep coming back … for now, at least.

-- Jordan, Pikeville, N.C.

I share this particular frustration, but I'm naive and I'm old-school. When I was a little boy, the deacons sprinted out of church to get home in time for the green flag. They'd count the offering plate later.

It used to be a noon start every Sunday. With new-era NASCAR TV, i.e., 2001, came later start times. And they keep getting later and later and later. Before long, there will be evening races and night races. Later start times make a substantial difference in ratings, which in turn affect advertising dollars, which in turn directly affect the bottom line.

Selfishly, I know this: When I'm home watching the race on TV, I like later start times and love night races. It means more beers with the boys. But when I'm working, I hate late Sunday start times.

I'm told that once they set the green-flag time, print tickets and complete the track schedule, wiggle room for the start time is minimal. Like, six to eight minutes, tops. It's a bit rash, but NASCAR also could face legal ramifications from fans if they don't start the race when the ticket says they will.

So, ultimately, we can complain until we're blue in the face, Jordan, but we have to live with it.

Song of the week: "Better Believer," Dierks Bentley. I feel like that a lot. Listen to it, you'll understand.

Side note: I received an advance copy of Eric Church's new album, "Carolina." Dude's the best writer in Nashville, as far as I'm concerned.

Marty,

Kyle Busch fan here. Shrub got screwed when Junior wrecked all those cars. You must settle a debate between me and my friend, who likes Matt Kenseth. Who is really at fault? Junior or Vickers? And do you believe, as I do, Kyle was going to win?

-- Sam Ruffin, Vegas

Blame ultimately falls on Earnhardt, Sam. I've not spoken with him since Sunday night, but I'd venture to say he knows that. He turned right -- right into Vickers. There was room behind the 83.

You know what would've been cool? If Junior just came up and said it -- "Yep, I was tired of it. I dumped him."

That would have only further endeared him to his people.

That's not to say Vickers didn't play a part, too. He certainly did, and doesn't get off scot-free. He did what he was supposed to do -- block. NASCAR never cites drivers for purposefully forcing other drivers below the yellow line. Why not make a move like Vickers made?

Junior and Vickers were racing for the lucky dog, and the rain was coming. BV's supposed to block, it's the nature of the beast. But to remove him completely from the wreck equation is probably inaccurate.

As for Busch, yes, he'd have won, Sam. He led 88 laps and was cruising before the Big One. I asked him point-blank after the race how confident he was he'd have won, and he told me without hesitation, "100 percent."

I believe him.

More on the Big One, this time from Junior Nation …

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am an avid reader of your column, and quite enjoy the perspective that you provide to your readers. I have been reading press commentary since the crash on Lap 124 of the Daytona 500, and the vast majority of the blame has come down on Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wrongly so.

I believe that the following points should be considered in analyzing the incident, and was hoping you would bring them to light:

1. Replays of the moments immediately preceding the crash show that Dale Jr. had a strong run on Brian Vickers and made up 5-6 car lengths on him before he dropped out of line to attempt his pass.

Vickers had no way to defend that pass legitimately, and on a superspeedway, any attempt by Junior to slam on the brakes and avoid being driven below the line would also have caused a large crash. This amounts to bad superspeedway driving etiquette.

2. In the aftermath of the Tony Stewart/Regan Smith finish at Talladega in the fall of 2008, NASCAR made it very clear that on superspeedways, the yellow lines were to be treated as walls. Hence the new double-yellow-line rules at Daytona this year.

Vickers' move was thus a blatant and illegal attempt to drive Junior off the track, which he did to some effect, pushing him well off the racing line and nearly onto the grass.

3. In making his block, Vickers hit Junior. This is at least the second time that Vickers has made a serious misjudgment at high speed on a superspeedway. Recalling the Vickers/Johnson/Junior fiasco at Talladega in the Fall 2006 race, it was Vickers there who misjudged his surroundings on the back straight and hit his fellow competitors.

While Junior is well known for his precision on restrictor plate tracks, Vickers does not enjoy the same record of achievement or reputation among his peers.

By taking the three points raised above into consideration, I think it becomes clear that a combination of bad etiquette and poor driving by someone with a history of imprecision at high speeds were all factors that led to the crash.

-- Jonathan Stone, Hometown Unknown

Again, Vickers is partly to blame, Jonathan. But he didn't do anything anyone else wouldn't do. Matter of fact, he did exactly what he was supposed to do, given the current dynamics of plate racing.

Everyone blocks. Everyone has to. And if NASCAR isn't going to disallow them from running someone down into the grass, why wouldn't they? Again, the 88 and the 83 were racing to get back on the lead lap. That's an important variable.

I asked NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton about the yellow-line rule Sunday night, about the inability to advance position below it and the predicament it creates for drivers.

He told me simply that if the line hadn't been there, all those boys would've been piled on the inside wall down the backstretch. He's right.

Marty,

I have no doubt that in the future, Joey Logano will be a great driver. However, there is a lot of pressure on this kid. What happens if he falls out of the top 35? If he starts missing races, will Home Depot start pressuring JGR to put someone else in the car so they can make races?

It is tough economy out there, as everyone knows, and Home Depot has a big investment. How much patience will they have with this kid?

-- Chuck, NYC

Plenty of patience, Chuck. Depot signed up for a reason -- potential. They believe in the kid. Rumors flew all over the garage in the fall that there was concern about his readiness, but Joe Gibbs Racing and Depot are adamant they never wavered.

[+] EnlargeJoey logano
AP Photo/Glenn SmithJoey Logano discovered that plate racing at Daytona can be hazardous.

Granted, Depot also paid JGR a lower sponsorship-dollar figure when Stewart left. Why wouldn't you? That's just smart business.

Don't read too much into the Speedweeks performance. Logano is immensely talented and seems largely immune to the pressure. He did a very good job down there. Plate racing is an amazing skill, but much of it is friends and luck -- and Logano had neither.

In the Shootout, he never got started. In the Duel, he was calculating and finished very well. In the 500 he, again, never got started. (Thank God for SAFER walls and the HANS device. That wreck was huge.)

Don't forget, too, Chuck, that he showed up at Daytona having zero plate experience in the Cup car. None. Driving the Cup car rather than an ARCA or Nationwide car is the difference between your Honda Odyssey and your daddy's GTO.

Marty,

I was on top of the garage at Daytona last week when you were up there talking on TV. You put on makeup in front of all the fans! I have proof!! Come on, Marty! First the suit, now makeup? What gives?

-- Randy Pollermo, Westlake, Ohio

Part of the deal, Randy. HD is rude.

That's my time for this week. Keep 'em coming, Six. Time for the No. 1 with dry wheat toast at the New River Grille.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.