A pothole that delayed the Daytona 500 nearly two hours surely had NASCAR officials scratching their heads, wondering how much criticism they would have to endure until fans forgave, if not forgot, the incident.
Last year, NASCAR fans and media members complained about boring races, thanks in large part to the new, safer car. The car’s boxier shape and rear wing made passing harder, allowing the lead car to essentially run away from those behind it. Personally, I logged a lot of hours sleeping in 2009 due to boring races. Nothing kept me engaged or interested from start to finish. I knew that if I, a diehard NASCAR fan, fell asleep, then the casual NASCAR fan changed the channel.
So, NASCAR made several changes to the rules to make races more appealing to fans. During the season, they moved from single-file restarts to double-file. In the off-season, they decided to eliminate the bump drafting rule, make three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish, and change from a rear wing to a rear spoiler, all in the interest of improving the racing.
Then, in the biggest race of the year, NASCAR had to deal with something they couldn’t have foreseen: a track surface at Daytona International Speedway that couldn’t hold itself together. Up to that point, the racing was decent. There were several lead changes, and no one car got too big of a lead. But, the benefit of improved racing was nearly wiped out because of the pothole.
As track crews scrambled to fix the problem, both NASCAR and track officials had to be in a state of shock. As seconds turned to minutes, and minutes turned into an hour, they had to feel like they were in a bad dream in which they were standing in front of their high school class in their underwear. What a bad day to wear Spiderman Underoos.
After a delay of more than an hour, the field went back to racing. But, early into the run, cars were shooting off sparks as they went over the patch. Shortly thereafter, chunks of the surrounding pavement were coming up, forcing NASCAR officials to stop the race again. “This can’t be happening,” I’m sure at least one of them thought.
Forty-five minutes later, the drivers went back to racing. The pothole set up a 40-lap sprint to the finish, similar to the Bud Shootout. Officials hoped (and prayed) that a wild finish would make up for the pothole delay.
On lap 199, NASCAR’s prayers were answered: Bill Elliott and Joey Logano crashed in turn 3, setting up a sure-to-be thrilling green-white-checkered finish. One lap later, Kasey Kahne and Robert Richardson Jr got together, bringing out the caution.
Under the old rules, the race would have ended under that caution, thus enraging those fans who kept watching the race despite the long delay. But, the new rule meant there would be another attempt at a G-W-C.
When the green flag flew, NASCAR officials had to be nervous. They didn’t want a third attempt at a G-W-C because that would raise the likelihood that the race would end under caution.
What they got, however, had to exceed their expectations. Dale Earnhardt Jr, who ran up front early, but hung out mid-pack for most of the race, was running 10th. As most race fans know, when Dale Jr performs well, NASCAR performs well because Jr Nation tunes in when he is running well, and they tune out when he is not.
A top 10, after Dale Jr’s tumultuous 2009 season, would have sufficed for most Jr fans. But, over the final two laps, Dale Jr drove like a man on a mission. He drove like The Intimidator. He made it three-wide on the front stretch, pushing Clint Bowyer clear of Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick. He followed Bowyer low, pushing him past Martin Truex Jr in turn 1. And, when Bowyer went high to get behind leader Jamie McMurray, and Greg Biffle went low, Dale Jr squeezed his car between to the two of them to move into second. I, like many of Jr Nation I suppose, was screaming at my TV, “Come on, Jr. Come on, Jr.” Fans at the track were on their feet, cheering. And while NASCAR officials have to appear unbiased, I’m sure that several of them were thinking what I was screaming, “Come on, Jr.”
Dale Jr wiggled as he made his way through Bowyer and Biffle, which prevented him from having the momentum to pass McMurray cleanly. So, he settled in for a second-place finish.
Jr Nation, which makes up a large portion of NASCAR fans, was pleased with his finish, and therefore more likely to talk about his 10th-to-second run instead of the two-hour delay because of the pothole.
Jamie McMurray’s emotional win was certainly a feel-good story. And several fans were happy that he won. But, Dale Jr’s finish allowed fans to feel good about McMurray’s win. Had Jr finished 22nd, the joy of McMurray’s win would have been offset by the disappointment of Jr’s finish for many fans, which would make them more likely to focus on the negative (pothole delay) instead of the positive (McMurray’s win).
Don’t get me wrong, the pothole fiasco is still fresh in people’s minds. But, Dale Jr’s finish coupled with McMurray’s win helped change the reaction to one of jokes rather than anger. And for that, NASCAR certainly breathed a huge sigh of relief.