Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rearview: Daytona 500

The Daytona 500 is in the books. The fans have waited over three months for the superbowl of stock car racing, and as Matt Kenseth and crew celebrate their victory in the 51st running of the Great American Race I am left with an empty feeling.

I have made my living in the sport for nearly a decade, but when the engines fire for the Daytona 500 I am still nothing more than a fan. I look forward to it all winter, and I still feel the butterflies when I wake up on race morning.

I'm not disappointed because Kenseth isn't a deserving winner. He is. He drove a cautiously aggressive race (he did, after all, take the green flag in 43rd and last position) and put himself in position to make the winning move as weather came in to shorten the race with 120 miles yet to race.

I am disappointed in several things that in my mind tarnish the image of my favorite sport.

First and foremost is the quality of the broadcast.

Just three weeks ago, we were treated to one of the most thrilling Super Bowls in the history of pro football. The broadcast not only showed the compelling pictures of the game, but the commentary was delivered in a sharp, professional manner. It was expected that the viewers would have some sort of basic knowledge of the game. There were no amateurish cartoons in the pre-game show, and that same cartoon didn't make repeated appearances every time the NBC crew used some gimmicky camera angle.

I tuned in to the Daytona 500 pre-race show looking for information and updates on the race. Instead, I saw a silly cartoon, a mediocre musical act, and repeated clowning by the on-air personalities.

The race started and the action on the track brought back the warm and fuzzies that were lacking in the pre-race show. But how many times do we need to see that gopher? Sure Fox has turned it into a marketing gimmick to sell T-shirts, but enough is enough. Every time the in-track camera is used is way too much.

The silly cartoons and the buffoonery from Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond were nothing once Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made contact with Brian Vickers and started a 10-car crash as the race reached the 120 lap mark.

The lack of critical analysis by the booth, particularly Darrell Waltrip, is inexcusible. Earnhardt may be the most popular driver in the garage, but when he makes a mistake he needs to be called on the carpet for it. Particularly when the mistake takes out 10 other drivers. And on top of that, Jason Leffler was penalized five laps for a similar incident the day before. Waltrip alluded to the incident, but never made mention of what happened or how the driver involved was penalized. As fans, we deserve forthright and honest analysis not unabashed cheerleading.

It's basic journalism. Provide the viewers with the facts. As a former driver Waltrip is uniquely qualified to offer insight on what is happening on the track. Yet he chose to give Earnhardt a pass without any analysis at all.

Boothmate Larry McReynolds said it was "wrong" but he too put the kid gloves on when dealing with Earnhardt.

Finally, Dick Berggren spoke to Earnhardt during the rain delay and asked him what happened, and Earnhardt didn't shy away from responding and even spoke about other mistakes he made throughout the day.

I thought it was humorous that Earnhardt admits to being on the line on his pit stop - which draws a one-lap penalty - yet he thinks there should be a change made. It's a black-and-white rule. Either your on the line or you're not. Earnhardt was clearly on the line, and it doesn't matter if it's one inch or 12. The one-lap penalty was deserved. But the question does need to be asked: if Jason Leffler deserves a five-lap penalty for causing an incident, why doesn't Jr. draw the same penalty?

I am also disappointed that the Fox-mandated start time to the Daytona 500 prevented us from seeing the full 500 miles. The weather patterns in central Florida have been the same since Daytona International Speedway has been in existence. Rain is often a factor around 6-7 P.M. this time of the year. Yet this is the time that Fox wants for the final 100 miles of the race. The days of seeing the Daytona 500 winner take the checkered flag in the glimmering Florida sun are apparently long gone and that's a shame. The race needs to start either at 2 P.M. or at 7 P.M. I prefer an earlier start because if weather is an issue it gives them time to get the track back in shape and we can see the full 500 mile distance.

Joey Logano had a rough SpeedWeeks. Want to bet the next time someone gets loose in front of him and checks up that Logano will chose making some contact rather than spinning and taking himself out?

At one point, just before the rain delay, Richard Petty Motorsports had three of the top four positions on the track. Elliott Sadler led with Reed Sorenson second and A.J. Allmendinger in fourth. Sorenson was shuffled out of the draft and Sadler was overwhelmed by Kenseth's charge to the front but Allmendiger did a great job to come home third. Hopefully the team can secure funding to allow him to run a complete season. It's obvious that he has found his comfort level in stock cars.

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