February 25, 2013

With everything lined up, the Daytona 500 fizzled

Commentary That looked like just one long line of cars at Daytona, whether Danica was in it or not.

It all lined up for NASCAR.

Luckily, by some miracle, no one had died in that last-lap accident at the finish line Saturday that spewed car parts into the grandstands at Daytona International Speedway.

The sun rose on Sunday with no bad news.

It was Daytona 500 day, there was going to be a woman starting the race at the very front, non-race fans across the country — even the world — were at least curious, and smiles were popping up again at the track.

“People seemed more excited about what was going to happen today,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

Even the rain stayed away. It was still overcast — the low clouds kept the Thunderbirds from their flyover — but no rain.

The Daytona 500 was about to kick off a day of TV for the nation that would finish with the Oscars.

It all lined up for NASCAR, all right.

One big line.

The 55th Daytona 500, run in the new “Gen-6” car that promised to give the drivers more control and chances to move around the track, instead turned into hundreds of miles of single-file laps.

At least Danica Patrick was near the front of the line.

But the race had none of the now-forgotten real racing action of the Nationwide Series race the day before. The Nationwide cars have different engine cooling packages and different body styles. That’s one reason they race different on the 2.5-mile super speedway at Daytona.

But over the weekend, they just raced better.

If the Sprint Cup drivers had put on the same kind of show, they might have made new fans out of the many who were likely watching their first NASCAR race.

The drivers aren’t 100 percent to blame. They want exciting races like everyone else.

“I wanted to race. I didn’t want to sit single-file on the wall like everybody was doing,” said Kasey Kahne, whose spin triggered the race’s first accident (which unhelpfully knocked out fan favorites and victory contenders Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick).

But they were left to ride in line, unwilling or unsure about falling out to try and pass. At super speedways like Daytona, where restrictor plates purposely slow down the cars, it takes help to get to the front.

But the casual fan catching his or her first race, or rare race, doesn’t know how to watch for that. The casual fan saw a line of cars. Patrick was part of it, but never moving.

Her inexperience left her unable to find a way to make a move for the victory.

And ultimately, that had to leave expert and casual race fans alike wanting more.

Earnhardt said the car raced fine.

“I thought the car put on a really good show all week. We had a really exciting Shootout, the 125s were pretty racy. The car proved at the end of this Daytona 500 that it will race and put on a good show,” he said.

So he’s optimistic.

“I thought today, for some reason, it just felt like we’re on the right track as a sport,” he said. “That’s got me really excited.”

But he’s an expert. He knew what to look for.

The casual fan saw one long line.

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