It had everything NASCAR could have possibly wanted. From start to finish, it was thrills, chills, spills, and a sense of wildness that only stock car racing under the lights at 190 miles per hour can give. It was the Wild One, the Big One, the Spectacle, and the drama-filled Event the governing body could’ve hoped for.
And it was a colossal, inexplicable disaster.
Regardless of what happens in the ratings and in the news, the 2012 Daytona 500 will forever be remembered for what it wasn’t, not for what it was. People woke up this morning possibly not knowing and possibly not caring that Matt Kenseth won his first race of the season and his second Super Bowl of Motorsports. They woke up and probably didn’t care that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. put on a memorable display of driving that nobody saw in years as he muscled his way to a second place finish despite not having a true drafting partner and essentially outracing teammate tandems at the end. And they probably didn’t care that most of the drivers who led a chunk of laps finished in the front, racing hard against each other for positioning, including defending series champion Tony Stewart, who finished 16th after leading two laps.
NASCAR instead will find die-hard and casual fans waking up to Youtube the crash by Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmie Johnson, two spectacular affairs that wiped out most of the hype surrounding the event. And in the process, they’ll reveal a massive hole in their competition and reputation that’s going to be very hard to repair.
The stock car circuit spent much of the week hyping the arrival of Danica Patrick to the stock car world. The darling of the open-wheel racing world, it was a major coup for stock car racing when she decided to take her talents, both behind the wheel and as a marketable face, away from the IZOD IndyCar Series and into the NASCAR circuits. Running a full-time Nationwide Series and a part-time Sprint Cup schedule, her hype was in full effect with questions about how well she’d run and just how good she could be with the proper equipment under her.
Danicamania continued through Speedweeks when she posted fast qualifying times in the Sprint Cup and won the pole for the Nationwide race. But there’s one thing NASCAR’s marketing department and the casual fan completely forgot – running in traffic is completely different from running open laps around a wide race track. And the weekend, which Danica was supposed to own to some extent, turned into a complete disaster because she simply doesn’t know how to drive a stock car, yet.
That was coupled with the washout from Sunday and the inevitable time change to 7 PM on Monday. At first glance, that time change looked ingenius; a midday start on Monday would’ve robbed NASCAR of valuable television ratings and sponsorship revenue. Due to weather elements and good old fashioned know-how (like how there’s a debris caution late in a race despite nobody actually seeing any debris), NASCAR turned the Daytona 500 into primetime, national television that was largely unopposed by a marquee matchup. There was serious potential for this one to be more memorable than previous years, especially with the return to pack racing as opposed to the two-car tandem that dominated and arguably ruined last year’s event.
But for NASCAR, Danicamania came to a crashing halt on Lap 2, along with the chance to have all its superstars running up front all night. When Jimmie Johnson wrecked, Danica slammed into him, and two of the most marketable names in NASCAR went right out the window with it. The night seemed to have that feel, with relative unknowns dominating in place of the largest names. There was no Kurt Busch, no Jeff Gordon, no Danica, no “Five-Time” Jimmie, and the man dominating the race wasn’t Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, or anyone else of that nature.
So it wasn’t the biggest shocker when the race, for all intents and purposes, ended with 40 laps to go. That’s when Juan Pablo Montoya spun out because something inexplicably broke in his car, putting him directly into the jet airplane engine dryer used to blow debris off the course. The ensuing explosion was something out of a movie, and the lasting image was the burning jet fuel streaking down Turn 3 and engulfing the SAFER barrier on that wall.
It took what would’ve been a pack primetime finish and pushed it back by at least a couple of hours. By the time the race finished, most of America’s media hubs had gone to sleep, well after midnight. It was won by a guy who didn’t dominate the race, one of the circuit’s “boring” drivers. Kenseth, by all accounts, is a good racer, but he’s not the volatile personality or marketable talent like the Busch brothers or an Earnhardt. And even though most of us lost out on an exciting finish to the race, we felt like we saw the most important parts.
As of Monday afternoon, the top pictures from the Daytona 500 aren’t of Matt Kenseth hoisting a trophy but of Danica Patrick slamming into Jimmie Johnson and of Juan Pablo Montoya finally hitting something other than another car or the wall. A scary moment turned drama into reality, and it sucked some of the life out of what could’ve been a cool event. Daytona on a Monday night was surreal as it was, and while most of the race was a score and success, the ending rates it as a disaster.
NASCAR bases itself on drama of cars bumping and banging, racing to the finish line as fans stand on their feet and scream. It’s the celebration at the end, as those fans continue to scream as a driver ruins an engine and the grass. The drama of restrictor-plate racing magnifies that to about 1,000x, and that’s what NASCAR can hope for. They need a finish like when Kevin Harvick passed Mark Martin at the end of the 500 under the lights as cars wrecked behind them. The fans stood up and cheered as cars finished on their roofs, on fire, shredding pieces of themselves against the wall. They need a finish like when Brad Keselowski sent Carl Edwards airborne at Talladega.
What they don’t need is a finish at 1:30 AM on a Tuesday, with the lasting image being a track cleanup truck smoldering as jet fuel spills down to the grass, after a car broke and rocketed right into it. It was a disaster weekend because of what was happening, it started to salvage itself, and then it was what it was.
NASCAR returns to Daytona in July. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.