NASCAR counts on intensified racing and a new star

Sunday’s Daytona 500 was not what NASCAR hoped the Great American Race would be. Nobody wanted four of the greatest stars – Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – eliminated by collisions.

Ideally, you would not want three of the race leaders of the day – Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. – to run out of gas as they neared the finish.

Miscalculations occurred because crew chiefs expected at least one or two caution periods over the final 50 laps. Amazingly, considering the carnage of the first 150, there were none.

“We pitted later than the guys who ran out,” said the winner, Kurt Busch, who led only one lap, the last one.

So often in superspeedway racing the winning team has the crew chief who does the best job of managing fuel. This was Tony Gibson’s day.

It might have been a more satisfying finish if Kurt’s younger brother Kyle had won. Kurt has been the subject of scorn because of accusations 2 1/2 years ago that he roughed up his former girlfriend.

This was a driver looking for redemption. You could say the same for the entire sport of stock-car racing. The Wall Street Journal, hardly known for alarmist reporting, recently blared this headline: “NASCAR Has Hit the Skids.”

Stories have abounded about attendance and TV ratings falling 50% over the past ten years, and Monster Energy paying less than a third of what Sprint paid to inscribe its name on the championship cup.

What’s needed is a young star who can capture the trendsetting millennial market that does not identify much with NASCAR. Sunday’s race set up well for the 24-year-old, baby-faced Larson and the 21-year-old Elliott, son of the popular Hall of Famer, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.

Chase Elliott, Daytona’s repeat pole-sitter, dodged the media after the race, which his sponsors did not appreciate. They’re hoping he’s a more consistent presence next weekend when the troubled series moves to his home state of Georgia. Elliott tweeted reassuringly: “We’re looking forward to getting back at it in Atlanta.”

While Elliott skipped out, Kyle Busch, 31, was speaking out.

He blasted Goodyear for a tire that lost air and caused him to crash into the car of Junior Earnhardt, the most popular of drivers. The last thing anybody wanted was Earnhardt, 42, wrecking in his return after missing a half season with concussion. The good news: he was not reinjured in Sunday’s demolition derby.

At least the second-place finisher, Ryan Blaney, was taking everything in stride. “If wishes were fishes, the world would be an ocean,” he cheerfully observed.

For many racing fans there was a sense of letdown – or perhaps it was relief — as the elongated five-hour marathon was wrapping up.

The winner was well known, if mostly for wrong reasons (not just domestic violence but also numerous spats with teammates and sponsors), but his closest followers were no-names. Blaney, A.J. Allmendinger, Eric Almirola, Paul Menard have combined for three wins in 942 Cup starts.

Still, this was anything but a snoozefest. There was constant bumper to bumper and three-across action. There were frequent spinouts and clouds of dust, the last one caused by Busch churning up the infield with a post-race celebratory burnout.

NASCAR boss Brian France continually tinkers with the sport, and he’s drawing mixed reviews for his latest innovation: three-segment racing. By inserting a couple more re-starts, he brought more closely bunched cars, more wrecks and more caution periods — eight for the day.

As much as France tries to speed up the event and stop it from being an “endurance race,” this Daytona was ALL about endurance. Of the 40 cars that started, half of them failed to finish. The damage to 35 of them amounted to millions of dollars. It was entirely fitting that with 30 laps to go, the rear-view mirror on Kurt Busch’s Ford fell off.

Daytona is one of the least predictable of sporting events. It’s the first race of the Cup season, so there are new crews, new cars, new rules, often a new champion you’ve never heard of and won’t hear from again. Derrike Cope. Trevor Bayne. There was almost Ryan Blaney, who made his 55th start and might have had his first victory had he too not run out of fuel.

“The unpredictability of the Daytona 500 is always there,” Busch said on NASCAR Race Hub. “But it seemed like there were more circumstances that were popping up this year, with the segment breaks, the cars’ lack of downforce and tire-grip level, and then the mirror breaks off at the end.”

He won the race by using the fallen mirror to his advantage.

He narrowed his focus on what was ahead instead of what was behind. He relied on his spotter to inform him of danger to the rear.

He saw the broken mirror as “an omen, because I’m not gonna have to look in it anymore. I’ve gotta drive defensively and take advantage of other people’s mistakes.”

One thing that makes car-racing enthralling is its many storylines about somewhat nefarious characters.

Consider Tony Stewart, who was accused of, though never charged, with homicide, following a racetrack death in 2014. Six years before that, Rolling Stone magazine had labeled him “NASCAR’s nastiest driver.”

He was also one of its most successful drivers. But he never won the Daytona 500 in 17 years of trying. He had to wait until his first year of retirement. Stewart-Haas Racing owned the Ford-powered vehicle that Busch steered to victory lane.

Busch wants us to believe that at 38 he’s matured, that he’s happily married after dealing with his anger issues, that he’s a better driver, better teammate and better man than he was 2-3 years ago.

And he sees the sport around him reviving, with the intensified side-by-side racing of the segmented format providing plenty of visuals. And he sees the rise of a new giant, Chase Elliott, once he grows out of being the Heartbreak Kid. Elliott had ten top-5 finishes as a rookie last year, but no wins.

“The kid’s gonna be a superstar,” Busch insisted.

NASCAR can only hope.

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