After the preliminary warm up races at the season opening Daytona meeting – the Budweiser Shootout won by Kevin Harvick and the Duels 1 & 2 won by Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne respectively – it was time for the opening race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship itself. NASCAR’s season always opens with the race that is the jewel in its crown. This year the jewel was a flawed diamond.
Mark Martin led the field to take the green flag and get the 38 race season under way. By half distance, 100 laps, fifteen different drivers had led the race, such is the nature of Daytona or any other of the superspeedways come to that. It was everything a restrictor plate race could be but that was all about to come to a crumbling halt.
Jimmie Johnson told his crew after suffering a cut tyre and damaged wheel, “Looks like we may have a hole, we may have a red flag here. Looks like a big piece of the track came up.” It didn’t sound possible at first but he was right, a chunk of tarmac half a metre long had lifted at turn two. NASCAR had no option other than to red flag the race on lap 122 with Clint Bowyer leading. The cars lined up on pitlane, the drivers waiting patiently for the repairs to be made. Eventually commom sense prevailed and the drivers were allowed to get out of the cars.
The stoppage lasted one hour and forty minutes – a huge gap to fill for television audiences around the world. With the pothole patched racing resumed but just 39 laps later the red flag was shown again as the hole opened up again. Three different cures were tried before the track was good enough to race on again after an additional forty-five minute delay. A total of two and a half hours of delay within a race lasting three hours and forty-five minutes meant the afternoon race was going to have an evening finish.
After the race Robin Braig, president of Daytona International Speedway said, “We’re the World Center of Racing. This is the Daytona 500. This is not supposed to happen, and I take full responsibility. We can come back from this. We know how to fix it. This is hallowed ground. We understand that. We accept the responsibility.”
Plans to repave the Speedway over the next few years were hastily brought forward and the job was started immediately after the July race there. In the next few days Goodyear will have teams at Daytona tyre testing and giving the new surface its first workout.
Back to the 500 race and it was to end under new green-white-checker rules which had been introduced a few days earlier. In an attempt to banish the soul destroying sight of races finishing under yellow flags with the cars lined up following the pace car around NASCAR introduced the g-w-c rule a few years ago. Briefly, once the incident that caused the yellow flag within the last two laps of a race has been cleared a green flag will be shown to restart the race followed by the white flag one lap later to signify the start of the last lap and then, all being well, the checkered flag the next time around.
Fine tuning of the rule now meant that if a yellow flag was shown between the green and white flags then the g-w-c would be aborted and tried again when that incident had been cleared. There would, however, be a maximum of three attempts at the g-w-c. And if for any reason a major incident happened after the white flag the yellows would be shown and the result taken at the point the caution was thrown.
A three car collision on lap 195 caused a caution which lasted three laps. Thirty-odd cars were now lined up for a two lap dash to the checkered flag. As so often happens on the superspeedways, with over thirty drivers all hoping to gain places or getting into a winning position something has to give and on the last lap three cars crashed at turn 3 bringing out another caution and triggering the g-w-c rule. After the restart three more cars tangled and so another g-w-c was tried on lap 206 and finally we had a winner two laps later.
Jamie McMurray had led just two laps all race, the lowest ever for a 500 winner, but they were laps 207 and 208 and that was all he needed to score a much needed win. At the end of the 2009 season as the Roush Fenway team were mandated by NASCAR to reduce from five cars to a four car team McMurray was the one they released despite him winning a race that year. He was taken back by former team boss and Chip Ganassi and couldn’t hope for a better start to their season.
Closing hard on McMurray racing toward the checkered flag was Dale Earnhardt Jr. causing his legion of fans, Junior Nation, to rise to its feet in unison. He had been in 22nd place on lap 198 when the two lap dashes started and somehow found his way to a fraction short of the winning spot in just six laps.
McMurray and Earnhardt’s positions at the top of the points table were to last just seven days. And from the next race at Fontana, California through to the end of the season just the three ultimately title protaganists, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin would share the top spot between them.
But we most certainly haven’t heard the last of Jamie McMurray who had a habit of coming good for the really big races as we will see as this season review continues.