Let's clarify one thing here. I'll take short-track racing over the Sprint Cup Series any day of the week. It's why I made it a point to get to New Smyrna on a few occasions for some of the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing there. And just because I think it's too bad there aren't more fans there, or because I think the rules there could use some tweaking in the interest of more entertaining competition, it doesn't mean I think there's no reason for teams to make the trek to central Florida for mid-winter racing.
Hey, I'm more Oxford 250 than Daytona 500, more PASS 300 than Sylvania 300.
I love short-track racing for all of the reasons that I grow tired with the issues I face moonlighting as a Sprint Cup Series reporter. If Johnny Clark and Mike Rowe spin each other out racing for the win at Beech Ridge, you track them down and get emotional, colorful quotes that paint the picture for fans who can't ask those drivers themselves. But if Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch wreck each other out of a Cup race (or, ahem, practice), you're not going to get close to either of them. If you're lucky, you might get a transcribed quote sheet from a public relations rep.
Like I said, if you're lucky.
I love the racers who do their own work on the car during the week, scrape together every last penny just for a couple of tires on Saturday night and race for a paycheck so small it barely covers the fee at the pit gate.
My love of covering the everyday people in this sport is probably why I gravitate to the likes of Robby Gordon or Kevin Lepage in one of the NASCAR garages. Gordon invited me into his hauler to sit down today after Cup practice, offered me a Monster from the cooler and comfortably eased me into some fun conversations he and his team were having for what felt like half an hour.
Last September, by contrast, it took 3 full days of trying to finally get one of the Roush Fenway Racing drivers to give a local reporter 10 minutes. And we're not talking about a Roush driver who was in the Chase, either, leaving you to draw your own conclusions.
Suffice it to say, some of these guys are already "legends" in their own minds...
Maybe I'm especially tired of the lack of direction there seems to be around here. No fewer than 3 times I went to somebody tending one gate or another around the Daytona International Speedway infield looking for information, only to be told each time the EXACT same thing -- "I don't know what to tell ya'." No help, no suggestions for who might know, no further instructions.
One good thing happened. I think.
Speed 51 founder Bob Dillner came over to say hi this afternoon. That was interesting, particularly considering I've been fairly critical of some of that organization's dealings recently, as I'm sure you're all well aware.
It went like this:
"Are you Travis Bennett?"
"No, it's Barrett, but whatever."
"Oh. I just wanted to stop by and say, 'Hi.' "
And with that, he was gone. Funny, I thought, he knew who I was back in July.
I don't know what to tell ya'.
And no matter what he's racing, it's all with the same goal in mind.
The World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna Speedway has left lots to be desired.
There are some great things about the event, namely that it takes place just a few miles down Tomoka Farms Road from Daytona International Speedway. Race teams have come from all across the country to compete, and the fact that there's competitive short-track racing in February is surreal for us Mainers.
But there are some noticeable shortfalls of the event, one of the most notable being the lack of people watching in the grandstands. To be certain, the World Series is far more important to racers than it is to fans -- it's too cold at night for any self-respecting Floridians to head out to the track until nearly midnight, and it's too far away for enough northerners to come down and burn vacation time to watch a few faces they know well. In many ways, it helps you appreciate showing up for PASS race at Wiscasset Raceway or an ACT race at Oxford Plains and knowing a little something about everybody in the show.
Thursday night was a fantastic case in point. With thousands upon thousands of fans descending on the big track in Daytona, it's a great opportunity to open the gates to race fans on vacation. But instead of holding the feature event -- a 50-lap main for aguably the week's most competitive division, the Super Late Models -- for a few hours to allow fans to grab a bite to eat or time enough to get to the track, New Smyrna officials rolled that 50-lapper out at promptly 7:30 p.m.
To open the show.
No one's advocating running that event at 11 p.m., but it certainly shouldn't have been first, particularly when people are still pouring out of the Daytona infield a half-hour after that SLM feature takes the green flag.
SLM and Crate Late Models aside, car counts are disappointing, with fewer than 20 cars in the Modified divisions. Drivers and crews love time trials, small inversions at the front of the field, single-file restarts and leader protection at all costs -- it helps keep them from tearing up equipment over 9 trying nights of racing -- but it's a recipe for boredom in the grandstands.
For 42 years, New Smyrna has done the job of using its valued tradition as a draw for race teams at a time of year when most of the country is mired in the dead of winter. But in recent years, fans have been reluctant to turn out for many of those nights of racing, nights dedicated to the hardest of hard-core racers.
It's easy to see why.
Sure, Denny Hamlin's win in the 2nd of the two Gatorade Duels on Thursday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway announced to everybody that the Toyota-Joe Gibbs Racing marriage would be a strong and prosperous one. But winning a 60-lap "sprint" at Daytona and winning an actual 400- or 500-mile race on a downforce track in the middle of, say, August are entirely different animals.
The Gatorade Duel is a qualifier -- nothing more than a common heat race dressed up in lipstick and high heels. Find me one short-track racer who runs around the grandstands championing himself as a big heat race winner. Go on -- find me one...
Suggesting that Hamlin earned the car maker its first Cup Series win earlier today is nothing but poorly disguised public relations gobble-dee-guk. Toyota will get its first win, sooner rather than later, and it will be celebrated. But let's save the real rejoicing for later this weekend, OK?
If you think it's easy driving a 3,400-pound stock car around Daytona, it's because you haven't tried.
When a former Formula 1 world driving champion like Jacques Villeneuve spins out in the middle of a turn while driving by himself, setting off a 4-car crash that wipes out 2 of the 3 open-wheelers in that particular Duel, it says quite a bit. Unfortunately, the crash ended Villeneuve's hopes of getting into the Daytona 500 in a Bill Davis Racing entry prepared by crew chief and Maine native Slugger Labbe.
"The car was just a little too loose, and I got sideways quite a few times," Villeneuve said. "I knew one of those times it was going to catch me up.
"These cars aren't bad when you have the perfect set-up in the car, but when you start sliding they're a handful, mostly in traffic."
HOT LAPS: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first Duel, giving him a Bud Shootout win and a Duel win already this week. No driver has won the Shootout, a Duel and the Daytona 500 in the same year. ... In the Busch Series -- whoops, there's another dollar in the kitty -- I mean, the Nationwide Series, Kevin Lepage was 29th fastest in final practice for the Camping World 300. But Lepage was 6th out of the 21 drivers required to qualify based on their times. ... Notables who were notable only in that they did not make the show: Bill Elliott, Ken Schrader, Boris Said, Patrick Carpentier and 2-time Daytona 500 champ Sterling Marlin.
NASCAR may be willing to let drivers be a little bit more themselves this year, but that doesn't mean the PR reps have all bought in.
During a televised post-race interview on Thursday, after which A.J. Allmendinger failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 in the first of 2 Gatorade Duels, the driver of the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota was distraught. He said that it "pretty much sucks" to miss the show for the 2nd straight year, and that he had driven his "ass off trying to get back to the front to have a chance."
Exceptionally candid comments that painted the side of Allmendinger we'd heard of before he got to NASCAR -- that he was emotional and brash, a younger, hipper version of another former open-wheel driver who also hails from Texas. A guy named A.J. Foyt.
But the Toyota folks apparently think Red Bull must have some type of "vanilla" flavor due out this summer, and they wanted to introduce it this week at Daytona.
In the Toyota transcript of Allmendinger's interview distributed to the print media, the words attributed to Allmendinger were not his own. According to the transcript, Allmendinger said "this pretty much stinks" and he "ran my butt off." In neither case were there parentheses around "stinks" or "butt" to note that the quotation had been modified.
The Dodge folks could easily have played around with quotes, too -- but that manufacturer opted, rightly so, to take the high road with Ryan Newman when he was critical of another Dodge driver.
"(Dale Earnhardt Jr.) made the pass and I tried to pass him back, and (Reed) Sorenson went with him," Newman said. "Way for the Dodges to stick together there."
It was a quote that easily could have been left off that particular transcript, but given the increasingly limited access to Sprint Cup Series drivers, give Dodge credit for helping do its part to build the bridge from drivers to fans that runs through the media. It's also a side of Newman (and a bunch of other drivers, too) that people like -- they are competitive to a fault and losing stings. It's why they're good.
Hey, this sport may not always be pretty, but it's ever more important to allow these guys to be themselves. NASCAR's bought into that for 2008; now it's time for everybody else to get on board, too -- including the buttoned-up Toyota folks.
Lepage, who was asked by Doug Taylor to drive the currently unsponsored No. 61 Ford in the Nationwide Series this year, was just 44th quickest out of 50 cars in the only practice session Wednesday in preparation for Saturday's Camping World 300.
"I don't think so. I think we're one of them."
Jimmie Johnson, after winning the Daytona 500 pole, on whether he's the favorite to win next week
"I know it's there, but I don't see it. ... Everybody's still speaking to me."
Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, on whether he feels an resentment in the garage over his recent run of success in the Cup Series
"They woke up knowing what they were going to be doing next Sunday. I woke up in a fog."
Michael Waltrip, who qualified 2nd for the Daytona 500, on why his qualifying effort was more significant than Johnson's
"You look at Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer or Mohammed Ali; they helped build sports and carry sports. And I think you've got to have a superstar or a couple of superstars. ... You've got to have something to keep the fans excited and say, 'Hey, this is my man,' you know."
Richard Childress, on whether or not it's too much to expect Dale Earnhardt Jr. to carry the NASCAR torch
"Yeah, he's that good here. He's just like his dad was. He's really good on this race track and he put the thing in the right place and had his car in position to win in the end."
Childress, comparing Earnhardt Jr.'s success at Daytona to his late father's success on the same track