NASCAR returns to fateful Daytona

July 03, 2001 4:04 AM
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Daytona International Speedway is the site for this week’s NASCAR Winston Cup event. The last time we visited Daytona, the nation mourned the loss of racing’s biggest star, Dale Earnhardt. It’s hard to recollect much else from that race other than the events that eventually led to Earnhardt’s fatal crash into the wall off turn four.

The Robby Gordon incident with 27 laps to go that led to almost half the field being taken out was created because of NASCAR’s aero-package, the package that was supposed to make things safer. With 19 drivers involved, that set the stage for Earnhardt to block on the final 16 laps for the two cars he owned driven by his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Michael Waltrip. This was something we had never seen before from “The Intimidator.” By keeping the other drivers’ momentum slowed behind No. 3, Waltrip won the race, the first after 463 starts.

NASCAR’s P.R. department did a poor job following that race and has placed the blame anywhere but on themselves. By using the “safe” aero-package, it has caused the cars to be jumbled up side by side for the entirety of the three races it has been used at Talladega and Daytona. Most drivers stay pretty conservative for the large part of the race, but then start to make their moves with 20 to 25 laps remaining. It’s a sure accident waiting to happen going at those speeds three wide on the stretches while trying to make a move, much like Robby Gordon’s eagerness caused in February.

From a betting standpoint, a wager can be made on the cautions. Station Casinos posted their weekly caution total at 2½ with the under a slight favorite. This is based on the drivers playing it conservative early, especially considering the cautious nature surrounding the race. That will be the number one focal point at the drivers meeting prior to the race and no one wants to be called un-safe or dirty here.

By having the drivers bunched together all 400 miles, any driver has a chance of winning. In the two aero-package races run this season, they were won by longshots Waltrip (50-1) and Bobby Hamilton (40-1), both of whom are not threats to win anywhere. The Daytona 500 victory still remains Waltrip’s only top 10 finish this season. Hamilton, who looked good early on, plummets week after week in the standings. Only three drivers have finished in the top 10 of both aero-races this season, Hamilton, Junior, and Mike Wallace. For Wallace, those are his only top 10’s of the season and because of that, he has saved his job for at least one more week.

This is without a doubt one of the weeks to take a chance on some longshots. Throw out everything we have seen over the last month. Handicapping is a waste of time and past trends at Daytona mean absolutely nothing. The high performance engines that so many of the top teams spend millions for to gain an edge in the series don’t respond here. Some drivers have compared it to trying to speed up in a Yugo on the highway. The only edge a driver may have rests in the art of the draft, but that’s still debatable. Nevertheless, it’s still a Winston Cup race and there isn’t much more fun than betting on a race and watching your drivers perform.

So here is a scenario I have created for Saturday Night’s Pepsi 400 based solely on wishful thinking with hopes of an emotional race that, if becoming reality, would go down as one of the most memorable moments in sports history.

We have all waited for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8-1) to win a race this season. A victory would not erase the pain in his or the millions of fans hearts, but it would ease it. Only Earnhardt himself can know his demeanor in the track’s first race since his father passed. The race could go two ways. The first is that his thoughts going around turn four don’t allow him to be focused enough to concentrate on the race. The other way, and what we’d all like to see, is that he channels all his emotions and pain into this one race with the feeling his father is right next to him, guiding him through the entire 400 miles.

His focus will be there along with the “Master of the Draft” in spirit. This is of course wishful thinking, but if we want to attempt backing the selection by meaningless trends, the best one conjured up is the fact that Junior has led a lap in all three aero-races. He has led at least one lap on 12 separate occasions in those races and has led at all stages, especially late, showing that he has the ability on a consistent basis to move up from where ever he is. That is the only real backing I need to convince myself in believing the wishful thinking will come true.

The rest of the scripted scenario for the final 10 lap stretch involves all the major players from the Daytona 500, along with Jeff Gordon (4-1). Gordon hasn’t had a top 10 aero-race finish yet, but has to be included only because he’s the best there is right now. Here it goes: 10 laps to go, Michael Waltrip is leading the race with Junior drafting right behind him. The freight train closing fast is led by Gordon with Sterling Marlin (10-1) and Kenny Schrader (40-1) in tow. As they go around turn one, Waltrip moves up top in front of Gordon, propelling Junior to the lead where Waltrip then gets behind him and does his own blocking as a tribute for the final nine laps until he can’t hold anymore settling for a fifth place finish. Following the race, Junior does three victory laps, then does some unusual doughnuts on the infield grass. When the smoke clears, the number 3 is inscribed in the dirt to the fans roaring approval.

It’s pure fiction, but then again, this season has been filled with so much drama anything is possible.

Pepsi 400 notes: NBC makes its debut this week. Without even seeing the quality of their coverage, the best bet of the week is that the broadcast team of Allen Bestwick, Benny Parsons, and Wally Dallenbach will be several notches below the entertaining cast Fox used. Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds raised the bar to a broadcasting level NASCAR has never seen. Bestwick can be heard each week on MRN radio broadcasting the races. For the sake our viewing pleasure, let’s hope he loosens up.

Kenny Wallace has been dumped in favor of Mike Bliss for the remainder of the season.

This is a “No Bull 5” Winston Million race. Jeff Burton (14-1), Kevin Harvick (20-1), Bobby Labonte (8-1), Tony Stewart (6-1), and Mark Martin (14-1) are all eligible for the bonus.

Darrell Waltrip is talking about coming back for three races, Watkins Glen, Martinsville, and Bristol now that his broadcasting season is over. Let’s hope he doesn’t find a ride.

TOP 5 FINISH PREDICTION:

1)Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8-1)
2)Sterling Marlin (10-1)
3)Ken Schrader (40-1)
4)Jeff Gordon (4-1)
5)Michael Waltrip (45-1)