Anticipation: The Daytona 500 is finally here

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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.



Folks, after some wrecking and maybe even a little racing, the Daytona 500 is finally here. We arrived here 10 days ago, and like every year, everybody was glad to be back at the track. But, boy, it didn't take long for that to change.

Weekend rain, races and wrecks

Last Saturday, everything got rained out and pushed to Sunday so we had the ARCA race, which was a wild one as usual. Bobby Gerhart ended up winning his second Daytona race in a row and fourth overall. We had some action there with a car turning over. Then we had Bud Pole qualifying, and it went pretty much as you would expect. Jeff Burton would have to be considered a surprise polewinner. His teammate, Kevin Harvick, had been quick in practice, but Burton ended up with the pole. Jeff Gordon qualified on the outside of Row 1. So we had two Jeffs on the front row. Elliott Sadler was a little bit disappointed that he didn't grab the pole because he had a fast car. Nonetheless, Sadler did win his qualifying race, and we'll get to that in a second. After qualifying, it was time for the old Budweiser Shootout, and a shootout it was. Holy cow! I've been coming down here for 30 years, and I've never seen a race that rough and aggressive. Guys were beating and banging on each other and bang drafting. Bump drafting went out the window in that race. They were knocking around each other, and you can always tell when there are no points on the line, just money. A lot like the all-star race in Charlotte, you end up with a wild one. And THAT was a wild one. After the Shootout, everyone wasn't so excited about being back at Daytona because when everybody got up on Monday, the papers were full of quotes from Tony Stewart saying that if NASCAR didn't get the bump drafting under control, somebody was going to get killed down here. That's alarming language from any driver, particularly from the defending champion and someone that doesn't mind mixing it up like Stewart. That comment in itself, coming from him, was an alarming statement.

Speedweeks photos

Top 5 Daytona 500 moments

Sat: Busch race

Fri.: Craftsman Truck race

Fri.: IROC race

Thurs.: Duel 150s

Wed.: Daytona practice

Sun.: Pole day and Shootout

Sun.: Gerhart wins ARCA race

Sat.: Practice/Shootout rainout

Fri.: Shootout practice

Daytona Media Day

After the race and Stewart's words, there was a lot of conversation in the garage among the drivers, crews and everybody else about what could be done. Most people wanted to work on the car. You read my article earlier this week, and here's the problem with taking the bumper supports out of the car. Granted, the teams may have beefed up the noses too much, and NASCAR may want to consider some changes in that area. I'm not saying it's not a good idea to remove the braces. But you've got to be careful of the rule of unintended consequences. If you start taking braces out of the front of the cars, and another car bangs into the nose, they'll pay the price. But everybody will end up paying the price. You'll have debris cautions and guys will run into somebody just by virtue of racing incidents. What if the cars didn't have bars in their noses anymore and somebody wanted to brake check the guy behind him to make him run into the back of his car and tear off his nose? You've got to be really careful when you start talking about removing the bars. But what you could do is exactly what NASCAR did. They laid down the law. They told the drivers, "If you bump draft, you're parked. If you bump draft, you're coming in the pits, and you'll get a penalty." They created bump zones, and in these areas on the racetrack, you can bump. Anywhere else, we'll have inspectors around the track, and if you bump another car, you'll be brought to pit road and penalized. NASCAR president Mike Helton said it with conviction, and he was firm in the drivers' meeting before the Gatorade Duel 150's. Folks, Thursday's racing was as good and clean as I've seen at Daytona. No real incidents on the racetrack. No aggressive bump drafting. The races were smooth, and everybody was happy. Everybody was alarmed on Monday. They spread a little love around on Tuesday, which was Valentine's Day, and got everybody on the same page. The 150's went off without any problems whatsoever. It was good news, and we thought, "Well, we've got that under control. No problem." Wrong!

More wrecking than racing

On Friday, it was time to run the IROC race and the Craftsman Truck race, and here we go again. The IROC race was a demolition derby conducted by a bunch of champions from several series. It looked like a Saturday night feature race at some short track. Cars were turned over. Cars wrecked each other. It was not the kind of race that you would expect 12 champions to put on. Then we moved on to the truck race, and here we go again. The truck race was as wild as they get. A lot of people were running over each other, and there were a lot of wrecks. Trucks were going airborne, and there was a big wreck on the last lap. They couldn't even see a green-white-checkered through to the finish. All of the sudden, we were almost back to the mayhem that we had earlier in the week. Before the Busch race on Saturday, NASCAR gave some more warnings, and apparently, they just weren't strong enough because the Busch race was another one of those spectacles with cars running over each other and wrecking. Tempers were flaring. People were mad at each other. Tires blew out. Mayhem! Just Saturday afternoon mayhem! Tony Stewart hung on to win it, but there was a huge crash on the last lap coming to get the checkered flag. So here we are on Sunday morning. It's time for the Great American Race. All of the things that we've been talking about all week long: tire problems, bump drafting, who can win, who's going to help who, teammates. Everything that's been going on down here for the last 10 days is all about to come to a head when they drop the flag at 2:30 p.m. ET for the 48th running of the Daytona 500.
I've been doing a lot of work for SPEED Channel, and I've talked to a lot of drivers who were very happy with their cars. Some drivers aren't. They're worried about tire wear and handling problems. The weather has been all over the place and played games with these guys from cold and rainy to hot and sunny, and it's supposed to be cloudy and overcast for the race. It should be one of the more interesting Great American Races for a number of reasons. Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't look that good in the final practice. They are making a lot of changes, and their teams must have had a sleepless Saturday night. Jeff Gordon's team elected not to even run the final practice so they're pretty comfortable with what they've got. Unfortunately for Bobby Labonte, the No. 43 car blew an engine so he'll give up his 8th starting spot to start in the rear. Elliott Sadler says his car is awesome. My brother, Michael, could win this race if circumstances fell his way. So far, they haven't. His Cup and Busch cars weren't good on restarts, but they're handling great on long runs. Fuel mileage, tire wear, strategy, pit stops... we're going to have it all so it's going to be fun to watch. I'm leaving here after the SPEED shows in the morning. I'm trying to get back to Franklin, Tenn. so I can watch it on TV.

And, oh, by the way...

... the most excited guy in Daytona is Kirk Shelmerdine.
Ask DW
We talked on Saturday, and I said, "Kirk, you know that you could sell your ride, put sponsors on your car and make a lot of money because you're in the Daytona 500. Forget the $200,000 that you're going to get to start. You could probably double that if you wanted to." I told him, "Use your head, not your heart." The man looked at me as sincere as he could be, and it almost put tears in my eyes. "DW, I've been waiting 15 years for this opportunity," he said. "And I'm not going to pass it up now. They can put something on the side of the car, but they aren't going to put anything in the seat." So it's going to be a very emotional and fun day. I hope no one gets hurt, and it's an exciting race. We'll be watching.
Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler, Tony Stewart

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