Posted By Pete Pistone
There was a story book ending in Sunday's 53rd running of the Daytona 500 but it wasn't the one most were thinking about this week. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't able to win "The Great American Race" on the 10th anniversary of his father's death. However a dream did come true for young Trevor Bayne who in his second career Sprint Cup Series start went to victory lane in the sport's biggest race. And Bayne did it behind the wheel of one of NASCAR's most iconic rides the No. 21 Ford of the Wood Brothers, who haven't had a car in victory lane since Elliott Sadle r turned the trick at Bristol way back in 2001.
The 20-year-old Bayne survived a crash-filled event that featured the two-car tandems that have been the story of Speedweeks 2011. The drafting phenomenon made the race a topsy turvy affair from the drop of the green flag with pairs of drivers taking turns jockeying for position at the front of the field. That led to a race record 74 lead changes among 22 different drivers.
But an unfortunate by product of the tight racing was another race record 16 caution flags, many for multi-car accidents that took out a laundry list of pre-race favorites many of them in a 17-car early pile-up that saw the likes of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Michael Waltrip, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth swept up in the carnage.
But as the garage area filled up the tenacity on track built to a fever pitch as the laps wound down and in a mad scramble to the checkered flag in the second green-white-checkered finish attempt of the race. Bayne, who impressed the entire garage area all week and proved to be a valuable drafting partner despite his drafting inexperience, shoved his way to the front of the field to put his name in the record books.
Although not a complete artistic success with the multitude of crashes and cautions, overall the race will be remembered as exciting - different, but exciting. And the close finish plus feel good story of a young driver like Bayne winning stock car racing's Super Bowl should give NASCAR a jump start to generate more interest this year and maybe stem the tide of sagging television ratings and attendance, although selling tickets wasn't a problem on Sunday with nearly 200,000 people packing Daytona on a gorgeous February afternoon.
Some people like to believe the Daytona 500 is just one of 36 points races for the Sprint Cup Series each season but they'd be wrong. Sunday's race was a perfect example as to why.
Behind Bayne the next on the list of drivers who might get a "Who's He?" response from non-NASCAR fans is the veteran Gilliland, who piloted the upstart Front Row Motorsports entry to a third place finish. Giililand burst onto the NASCAR scene in a big way a few years ago when he drove an independent ride to victory in a Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway, parlaying that victory into a Sprint Cup career. A third place finish in the Daytona 500 might have already made Gilliland's season a success.
The veteran driver hooked up with the JTG Daugherty Racing team this year replacing Marcos Ambrose and set out to prove to some to some doubters he was not washed up. The two-time Sprint Cup champ came out of the box strong with a fourth place finish on Sunday.
He wasn't able to pull off the Speedweeks sweep and follow his Budweiser Shootout and Gatorade Duel win with a Daytona 500 victory. But a fifth place finish on Sunday was still a solid performance and Busch along with crew chief Steve Addington have established themselves as a potent combination that might be right in the thick of the championship battle this year.
A pre-race pick by many to win on Sunday (including me), Gordon was swept up in the early race melee and just like that his post Steve Letart e career got off to about the same start with new crew chief Alan Gustafson . Gordon has to find a way to shake the bad luck that has been haunting him of late. He certainly had a strong car during Speedweeks but even a front row starting spot wasn't enough to find his way back into Lady Luck's good graces.
The five time champion's quest for a sixth straight title got off to a rocky start when he was also caught in the "Big One" earlier in the race. Johnson's 27th place finish wasn't as bad as previous Daytona 500 finishes but there's no denying "Five Time" is starting 2011 in the hole.
Dale Earnhardt Jr .
Completing the Hendrick trifecta of disappointment, Earnhardt appeared to be in contention to make a run at winning the race on the tenth anniversary of his father's death - an accomplishment that would have certainly generated one of the loudest cheers in NASCAR history. However it wasn't meant to be as a flat tire in the closing laps forced Earnhardt to pit road and out of the mix for the win. The upside is the Junior-Letarte combo platter clicked this week but the reality is Earnhardt has now gone 94 races without a Sprint Cup win.
(Choice communications between drivers and crew chiefs)
"I don't know where I'm going!" - Trevor Bayne after winning and trying to find victory lane.
"The racing out here is chaos." - A.J. Allmendinger
"Thank God that $&@!# 7 car is pitting!" - Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I was pushing Dave and he started changing directions in the corner." - Michael Waltrip after accident with teammate David Reutimann
"Im watching these guys ahead of me playing bumper tag." - Jeff Gordon
On a scale of one to five "Pistone Pistons" I'll give Sunday's Daytona 500 a four. Believe me the rating wasn't anywhere near that high in the opening laps when the tandem racing kicked in almost instantly and then a giant wreck took out what seemed like half the field. But as things moved on and the drama increased as well as the racing action, this Daytona 500 started to climb its way toward possible classic status. Bayne's win in a thrilling finish is a great story and NASCAR should be very happy about the way the season has started, especially after the memories of last year's "Pot Hole 500."
DOWN THE ROAD
The real season now begins next week with a trip to Phoenix International Raceway, a track that is completely the opposite of Daytona. PIR is a flat, one mile oval that has characteristics closer to a short track than a superspeedway. But the momentum of the 500 will make the trip out to the desert interesting.
|More NASCAR coverage|