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A grandma tunes in to watch ‘that girl’ at Daytona

Published February 25, 2013

My friend, the late Art Wright – Arthur L. Wright to his friends – had a favourite expression.

When commenting on something that didn’t particularly excite him, be it a house party he’d attended or a month in his life, he would describe it as being “largely uneventful.”

I think if Art was still around – he died in 1979 – he would use those words to describe Sunday’s Daytona 500, much of which was made up of racing cars following each other around and around in one great, long, line.

Even the crashes – there were only two – were largely uneventful, as compared to some of the ka-boomers we’ve come to expect from NASCAR over the years.

In the end – and yes, the last lap was very exciting and even my pal Art would have been on his feet cheering – Jimmie (Five-Time) Johnson managed to hold on to the lead and score his second Daytona 500 victory, with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. second and Mark (the Ageless Wonder) Martin in third.

Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski was fourth, Ryan Newman fifth, Greg Biffle sixth, Regan Smith seventh, Danica Patrick eighth, Michael McDowell ninth and J.J. Yeley tenth.

Drivers thought to have had a chance of winning the classic – Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards – were eliminated from contention either by crashes or mechanical gremlins.

For a detailed race story, with full results, click here.

That Johnson won is no surprise. He has won the Sprint Cup championship five times – in a row, actually – and although his record in this particular race has been abysmal the last six years, he won it for the first time in 2006 so has been to Victory Lane in Daytona before.

The big surprise – for many people – was the performance of Danica Patrick, who started from pole but was widely expected to fall back and maybe, maybe, finish, now that she is finally racing full-time in the Big League.

But Patrick held her own the whole race and only inexperience and the selection of the wrong partner going down to the checkers kept her from scoring a podium finish.

The Sprint Cup competitors now move on to Phoenix and the contrast will be telling. Daytona is a big, wide, high-banked, 2-1/2 mile restrictor-plate speedway while Phoenix is a mile-long oval that’s narrower and fairly flat – just the sort of place to separate the men from the boys, and maybe the girl.

NOTEBOOK JOTTINGS

– Although there were 28 lead changes recorded at the start/finish line, a bunch of them took place during a succession of green-flag pit stops that you don’t often see in Sprint Cup racing.

So there might have been lead changes but they weren’t noticeable.

For instance, Patrick and Jeff Gordon led the field down for the start. Gordon managed to get up in front of Patrick and Kyle Busch fell in behind her and they went round and round like that for 28 laps before NASCAR threw a caution because of debris on the track.

When was the last time you can remember a NASCAR Sprint Cup race going 28 laps without a lead change and the first three cars were in the same order the whole time?

– I made a notation in my book at this point: “Very conservative race.” My pal Art would have said it was “largely uneventful.”

– Brad Keselowski illustrated why he is the Sprint Cup champion. On Lap 137, in a crash that involved Trevor Bayne and Edwards, Bayne and Keselowski got together and Bayne spun, collecting other cars in the process. Keselowski looked to be on the verge of losing control but managed to straighten his car out and to keep going. A lesser-talented driver would have lost it and it would have been game over. But not Keselowski, who not only kept going but was in contention for the win right to the very end.

– I thought the TV show was okay. Dave Despain, on his Wind Tunnel program on SPEED Sunday night, said the technicians and the announcers had all done a wonderful job. (Of course, FOX was the presenting broadcaster and SPEED is owned by FOX so what would you expect?) But as I said, I thought it was okay.

But a friend of mine, who shall go nameless, did not. He was not impressed, at all. Far from it, in fact. Here is what he wrote to me after the telecast:

“After months of waiting, we saw the worst broadcast and almost as bad a race that has ever started the NASCAR season. Race? I use that term very loosely, since it was only a race from the last 15 laps to the finish and even then, many of the regular contenders had been eliminated.

“I am so totally outraged and appalled at the blatant favoritism towards Danica. I’m convinced it broke some broadcast standards, as low as they may be. As if that wasn’t enough, that low standard was only matched by the infuriating number and length of commercial interruptions, mostly without the ‘side-by-side’ image. Three laps of on-track was followed by five laps’ worth of interruption all day long. It must have set a new record. Even the broadcast image quality was crap.”

I suggest this guy is not alone in his criticism.

Before we return to the “Danica 500,” however, I have one other observation.

– I have always considered auto racing to be an individual sport. I know, I know: everybody calls it a team sport but, frankly, I have always considered the “team” aspect to be secondary to the individualism of the driver.

I have now officially changed my mind – at least so far as racing at Daytona and other restrictor-plate speedways is concerned because without a “drafting partner,” be it a teammate or a buddy, you are unable to do anything. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

This was illustrated perfectly on Saturday near the end of the Nationwide Series race. Brad Keselowski was running near the front of the pack and his Penske teammate, Sam Hornish Jr., was way, way behind. He’d “lost the draft” and was helpless.

This is what Keselowski heard over his radio: “Feel like going back and rescuing a teammate?” Although he was given a choice of saying no, the team wanted him to give up his position and to drop back to where Hornish was and then between the two of them they would be able to catch him back up so he could go racing.

And that’s what happened. Keselowski waited for Hornish and then the two of them drafted their way back into contention. They did this so well, in fact, that Keselowski was going for the win when he was blocked by Regan Smith and that move triggered the pileup that saw Kyle Larson’s car come apart and injure all those spectators.

Hornish? He finished second in that race behind Tony Stewart. But without Keselowski and the draft, he’d have been nowhere.

– Okay, let’s get to Danica Patrick.

She won the pole, she was in the top ten all day Sunday and usually in the top five, she led five green flag laps (the fans in Daytona were all standing and cheering when she took the lead for the first time), making her the first woman to do that in Sprint Cup competition and her eighth-place finish was the best finish by a female.

Tommy Kendall said on Wind Tunnel that her performance didn’t surprise him, that he’d told Tiger Woods’s agent back in 2003 that she would change motor racing in North America and that her top ten finish would give “the haters” reason to reconsider their bias.

I wish he hadn’t used the word “haters.” I happen to be a fan of Danica Patrick and I think she is going to go on to become a great NASCAR driver (I love how pissed off she was that she’d only finished eighth – as others have also pointed out) but I also have respect for people – and I have friends who feel this way – who don’t like the constant promotion and think she is doing more harm to the sport than good.

I don’t think the word “hate” or “hater” is appropriate. Maybe they dislike her, maybe they resent her, but I don’t think they “hate” her. At least, I hope not.

NASCAR, of course, knows a good thing when they see it. She is a star and when you have a star you exploit it. I suggest when the TV ratings come in for this Daytona 500 that they will be among the highest, if not the highest, every recorded.

And I’ll tell you why.

Sunday night about 6 p.m., my wife was talking to her mother, who is the grandmother of seven.

“So what did you do today, mom?” she asked.

“I watched the Daytona 500.”

“What? You don’t like racing. You’ve never done that before. Why?”

“I wanted to see how that girl would do.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, illustrates perfectly why the spotlight these days is always on “that girl.”

I ask you: what are NASCAR and the TV announcers supposed to do?

Pretend she isn’t there?

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