Saturday, February 14, 2009

Rearview: NextEra Energy 250

The Camping World era started off with a strong showing as the Tough Trucks of NASCAR opened their season at Daytona for the tenth consecutive season. And just like he did in 2008, Todd Bodine ended the night in victory lane. The youngest brother of 1986 Daytona 500 winner Geoff Bodine has now claimed four consecutive "plate track" victories.

As a spectator, I was on the edge of my seat virtually all night - glued to the SPEED broadcast. The pictures coming through to my television were amazing, showing just how on the outer edge of control the trucks were and how close these drivers were running at over 185 miles per hour. The Truck broadcasts are the most solid in NASCAR, with no extraneous bells and whistles, just racing. The personalities don't get in the way of the race either, save for whenever a driver receives the free pass to get a lap back and Michael Waltrip goes into overdrive shill mode for one of his sponsors. Sometimes less is more, and that is a classic example.

It was interesting to see the last lap play out the way that it did. Bodine obviously has a strong truck as he's held off last-lap charges at Daytona and Talladege the past two years to take the victory. With Kyle Busch on the back bumper on the final lap it's easy to guess there will be some fireworks but Busch has not been able to capitalize. He even said it himself on pit road following the race, he just hasn't figured out the timing on that final lap to make the pass and claim the win. Busch tried to move Bodine up the track going into turn three with a bump but what he ended up doing was giving Bodine such a strong shove that it pushed him to an insurmountable advantage. Had Busch done that the lap before, he and Terry Cook (and the rest of the field) would have had such a run on Bodine that he would have been the proverbial sitting duck. Maybe what Busch learned last night will come to good use in the Daytona 500 and/or later in the season when the Trucks rumble at Talladega.

Cook must have watched the final lap unfurl with his heart racing and his eyes wide open. Knowing that the final 100 yards is when the race has been settled in years past with a three-wide move, he had to feel like he was in the catbird seat. He was driving a chassis that had won at Daytona on three previous occasions when Bobby Hamilton Racing owned it (2001 - Joe Ruttman, 2002 - Robert Pressley, and 2005 - Bobby Hamilton) and Cook himself is no slouch on the plate tracks with now seven top-10 finishes in ten starts. Although he started his career in the mid 1980s at little quarter-mile Flat Rock Speedway, he had to feel like it was good old days as he was back in the No. 25, a number he used to win dozens of races at both Flat Rock and Sandusky Speedways. He also gave team owner Jim Harris his second third-place finish as an owner at Daytona, with Pressley finishing third (after leading the race with an eighth of a mile to go) in 2003.

The new pit rules didn't seem to affect anything at all. With teams allowed to only take tires or fuel on a pit stop, not both, it meant that teams made two pit stops during each round. It may have shuffled the running order from lap to lap as the teams stopped, but it had very little effect on the race itself. That will likely change at Fontana, and could be even more pronounced at the short tracks. I personally am not a fan of the changes; to me it makes more sense to go back to the rule that was used when live pit stops were first implemented in the series back in 1998: you can only change two tires per stop. With five men over the wall, you can still add fuel and change tires, but the tire changers would have to act as their own tire carrier too.

The high attrition rate in the NextEra Energy 250 meant that several independent teams and unheralded drivers had a good finish. JR Fitzpatrick, a rookie from Canada who had never seen a track bigger than a quarter-mile before last October, finished fourth; Timothy Peters, in a very low-dollar effort, was strong all week and finished sixth; Tayler Malsam drove Randy Moss's second truck to tenth; Chase Austin, in the new Trail Motorsport effort, was 13th; and Dennis Setzer, in a last-minute third entry for the new Racing team, drove a Dodge to 18th.

Interesting that both drivers that were pegged with passing below the yellow line during the race, Todd Bodine and Terry Cook, both finished in the top three. I have never driven a race vehicle of any type so maybe I am not the one to voice this, but I agree with Bodine's assessment after the race. The yellow line rule might have been implemented with the best of intentions, but it causes more problems than it solves. I have always thought that out of bounds on a racetrack was easily defined: the concrete wall to the right and the grass or the infield to the left. The drivers know where they can race. If they think they can squeeze up in line before making it into turn three, I say let them try. Will it cause a crash? Possibly. But as we saw, so will holding your line in an effort not to go below the yellow line. It's too bad for last week's ARCA winner James Buescher, he was taken out through no real fault of his own. He definitely proved that he's the real deal bu running at the front for much of the first half of the race.

Enjoy the rest of SpeedWeeks! The Nationwide race today is shaping up to be the calmest race of the weekend, while based on what we've seen all week in practice and the Gatorade Duel, tomorrow's 51st Annual Daytona 500 promises to be a wild race.

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