Just like many aspects of everyday life, auto racing can come down to being in the right place at the right time.
So it went for Matt Kenseth in Sunday’s Daytona 500. With rain threatening to shorten The Great American Race, the Wisconsin native and former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion managed to take the lead moments before Aric Almirola’s spin into the backstretch grass on Lap 146 brought out the eighth caution of the night.
Six laps later, the race went under the red flag as the wet stuff started to hit the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. At 6:49 p.m. ET, NASCAR called the race (which went official at the halfway point of Lap 100) with Kenseth as the winner. For him, it was the end of a day that saw him start in the rear of the field, charge up the scoring pylon, stay in contention and pull the trigger when it counted.
Although the race was shortened, a last-lap pass decided the outcome of the race. Utilizing a major push from Budweiser Shootout winner Kevin Harvick, Kenseth managed to get by Elliott Sadler in between Turns 1 and 2 with 54 laps to go. Moments later on the backstretch, Almirola’s No. 8 and the No. 9 machine of Kasey Kahne made contact, which sent the former spinning away and brought out the yellow flag that effectively ended the race.
NASCAR president Mike Helton said in a message that was passed along to viewers by the FOX Sports announcing team that the rain was to continue until 10 p.m. ET and that due to the high humidity at DIS, the earliest point for re-starting the race would have been around 11 p.m. ET. With that in mind, the race was called.
But couldn’t NASCAR have waited a little longer? While it’s true that many of the fans at today’s race had to head home for school and work the next day, DIS’ lighting system should have emboldened NASCAR to at least wait longer than the 17 minutes it took from the red flag (6:32 p.m. ET) to their calling of the race.
Even though many people would be trudging to their workplaces and classrooms in the morning, I think they would have appreciated a longer effort by NASCAR in waiting out the rain.
As a result, the 500 was robbed of a chance at a great finish. Instead, this year’s edition of the race will have a massive wreck triggered by NASCAR’s biggest star as its signature moment.
On Lap 124, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers were both one lap down but were 1-2 amongst the cars in that position. In NASCAR, the first guy one lap down automatically gets a free pass to return to the lead lap should a caution flag come out — thus, when Earnhardt attempted to go to Vickers’ inside, Vickers came down to block.
Unfortunately for Vickers and seven others (a group that included three-time defending series champ Jimmie Johnson), Earnhardt came back up and clipped Vickers’ No. 83 car in the left rear to send him spinning into the pack around them on the backstretch. The resulting “Big One” ruined several contenders’ chances of victory, including that of Kyle Busch, who led a race-high 88 laps and was in the lead draft when the incident sent him and his No. 18 machine in the wall.
“Just some guys having some bad days, not doing their best out there, and they made their bad day our bad day,” Kyle said to Fox Sports after the wreck. “It’s just unfortunate that two guys got together that were a lap down and fighting over nothing.”
It’s also unfortunate that NASCAR may find itself in another pickle about how it treats Earnhardt, the sport’s top draw. On Saturday, Jason Leffler was penalized five laps for a similar incident in the Camping World 300 for the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Earnhardt was not penalized for his role in Sunday’s melee, something that an upset Vickers mentioned in post-race comments to the media.
After seeing numerous replays of Earnhardt’s incident as well as video of Leffler’s, I’m still not sure about who’s in the right. Earnhardt may have been trying to get back behind Vickers after he got blocked (which itself was a risky move), but in my eyes, there’s also a lot of similarity between the twin crashes. Maybe NASCAR thought Earnhardt had suffered enough earlier, when he was penalized one lap for having his right front tire on the outer boundary of his pit box when he stopped for service under yellow.
You can check out the clips of both on the Orlando Sentinel’s NASCAR blog and judge for yourself if Junior’s getting special treatment from the powers that be.