Running on `E’; Earnhardt Wins Everything But 500

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

 

In 45 years of racing at Daytona International Speedway, the Daytona 500 has never been rained out. Sunday’s edition was shortened to just 109 laps, however, when heavy rains that had threatened the speedway all day finally put a halt to the proceedings for good. The race had been halted by showers earlier in the day, but track officials were able to dry things out and restart the event after a delay of more than 90 minutes.

Sunday’s second rainstorm - which lasted into the early hours of Monday morning - ruined what might have been a fairy tale finish for driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt had dominated Speedweek to that point, having won the Budweiser Shootout the previous Saturday, along with his Gatorade 125-mile qualifying race, and the NASCAR Busch Series “Koolerz 300.” Junior drove the dominant car again Sunday, but came a-cropper when a $2 alternator belt failed, robbing his car of electrical power and costing him two laps on pit road for a new battery. He got one lap back on a restart following the first rain delay - hauling teammate and eventual winner Michael Waltrip to the front with him - and was poised to restart on the front row again had the race been able to resume a second time.

Had Earnhardt been able to regain his second lost lap, all bets would have been off on him winning the Daytona 500 and accomplishing an unprecedented Speedweek sweep.

Sunday’s race was only the fourth Daytona 500 not run to its full distance. In 1965, the event was stopped by rain after 332.5 miles, with Fred Lorenzen awarded the win. The next year, Richard Petty took the checkered flag when rain fell just two laps short of the posted distance. Petty took a second abbreviated victory in 1974, when the race was shortened to 450 miles by the mideast energy crisis.

Despite the rain, Sunday's race still captured its fifth-largest television audience ever, according to
the Nielsen Media survey. A total of 29.4 million viewers watched FOX TV’s coverage, which ran more than four and a half hours, despite featuring just over two hours of actual green-flag racing. The race was on pace to beat last year's NBC telecast by an estimated four percent, until the first rain delay occurred and viewership dropped.

While some have questioned NASCAR’s decision to make the race official after 109 laps, the sanctioning body’s own written procedures required them to do so. NASCAR rules state that if a race is rained out prior to the halfway point - actually halfway plus one lap, or lap 101 at Daytona - it must be run the next clear day. Once “halfway plus one” is reached, however, the rules state that the race must be declared official. Bending the rules, even for a race as important as the Daytona 500, leaves NASCAR open to charges of favoritism, and also sets a questionable precedent for similar situations in the future.

Had NASCAR not elected to accelerate Sunday’s start time by 23 minutes, the entire question would almost certainly have been rendered moot.

"We knew it wasn't a matter of if it was going to rain, but when," said Fox Sports President Ed Goren Sunday. "We did everything we could to get this race in." The decision by NASCAR and its TV partner to start the race early saved more than 200,000 race fans - not to mention thousands more drivers, crewmembers and media representatives - from having to rebook lodging and travel plans for a Monday night departure; one of the biggest northeast winter storms in modern history.

NASCAR made the right moves Sunday. They moved up the start, dried things out quickly after the first rain delay, then made a decisive call when the rains came again and the radar showed no chance for a restart.

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Following his win in the first Gatorade 125-mile qualifying race, Earnhardt Jr., sounded off on what he sees as a lack of cooperation by the drivers on his late father's former team. Junior publicly questioned whether Richard Childress Racing’s Robby Gordon, Jeff Green and Kevin Harvick are too selfish to work together as a team, the way he, Waltrip and Steve Park have at Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

"They've got a volatile situation over there," said Junior. "Last year, they worked against each other and didn't complement each other. Jeff and Harvick were too competitive with each other at times. You've got Richard Childress over there busting his (butt) for years to get what he's got, and I don't think those guys appreciate …the opportunity they have in his cars."

While not pleased with Junior’s comments, Harvick and Gordon lent credence to the claims in Sunday’s 500, bickering over their in-car radios, with Childress as moderator.

“Nobody will line up with Robbie, because he keeps darting back and forth and won’t stay in line,” complained Harvick, prompting Gordon to snap, “tell Kevin to drive his own car.”

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Short (Track) Subjects…

… The powers that be in Detroit are clearly nervous about Toyota's announced plans to invade NASCAR Winston Cup racing.

"If another manufacturer wants to come in and compete, (we) have to look at what they're bringing and how to address the new competition," said General Motors spokesman Doug Duchardt last week. “When Toyota comes into a series, they come in with a well thought-out plan. They are a patient company that will take their time and grow this, (but) there are a lot of things in stock car racing that you have to learn and work around. I'm sure they'll have a proper plan to address all those things before they step up. In Formula One and IRL, they are properly funded, and I'm sure that will be the case here.”

The GM and Ford teams are concerned that when Toyota arrives in Winston Cup, the Japanese automaker will do so with a mammoth surge of advertising and publicity; similar to what they have done in IRL and Formula One. As a result, Detroit could elect to funnel some of its racing budget away from the teams and into marketing and public relations. Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal writer Bill King reported this week that Toyota will begin advertising during the truck series races on Speed Channel this year.

…Again this year, the best race of Speedweek belonged to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, where veteran Rick Crawford won a frantic, final-lap, three-wide battle for the checkers. Crawford lost the lead in turn two of the final circuit, then fought back in the final turn to nip Travis Kvapil by 0.027-seconds - about six feet - with Robert Pressley another four feet back in third. Finish-line photos of the trio were eerily reminiscent to those of the first Daytona 500, when Lee Petty bested Johnny Beauchamp in an equally close, three-wide finish.

"We're driving a Ford pickup, and this is a Dodge (sponsored) race, so now we're the major of Truckville," said Crawford in Victory Lane, stealing a line from Dodge’s own television commercials.

…Rusty Wallace went from a frontrunner to a backmarker in mere minutes late last week, when NASCAR officials discovered that the carburetor in his Miller Lite Dodge had been illegally altered. Wallace’s Roger Penske-owned team had massaged the walls of the four venturi - the air ducts that channel air through the carburetor to the motor -- to increase air flow, thereby making more horsepower.

Wallace was banished to the back of the pack for the start of Sunday’s Daytona 500, and was also assessed a monetary fine.

…”Crash of the Week” honors at Daytona went to Ryan Newman, whose ALLTEL Dodge flipped wildly through the tri-oval grass after contact in turn four in Sunday’s 500. "Disney World doesn't have one of those rides," quipped Newman, who walked away uninjured despite finding himself with a two-foot long chunk of infield sod in his lap at the end of the crash.

…Phoenix International Raceway President Bryan Sperber moved his track to the top of the list of contenders for a second NASCAR Winston Cup race last week, saying he has asked NASCAR officials if PIR could “potentially be considered” for a second event in 2004. “The answer,” said Sperber, “was yes."

With help from government and civic groups, Kansas Speedway is also pushing hard for a second Cup date in 2004. Speedway President Jeff Boerger told SpeedReading last week that he also made his case to NASCAR last week, urging them to move a race from one of the circuit's older tracks - Darlington and Rockingham have been mentioned as possibilities - to Kansas.